RIP to reliever Joe Beckwith, who was a part of the 1985 World Championship Royals bullpen. He died on May 22 in Auburn, Ala., from colon cancer at the age of 66. Just a month prior to his death, on April 21, the mayor of Auburn declared it Joe Beckwith Day, in honor of the hometown boy who made it big in the majors. His alma mater, Auburn University, honored him as well a short time later. Beckwith played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1979-80, 1982-83, 1986) and Kansas City Royals (1984-85).
“Auburn University, Auburn baseball and the Auburn community lost a legend in Joe Beckwith,” said Auburn Baseball head coach Butch Thompson. “I’m so thankful for his contributions through the years. He has represented us so well. I’m thankful to Auburn and our athletics department for recognizing Joe and his family a few weeks ago at Plainsman Park. I’ll never forget his friendship and how he stayed connected and continued to root for his alma mater and for this baseball team. Our thoughts and prayers are with Joe and his family during this time.”
Thomas Joseph Beckwith was practically destined to star for Auburn University from the moment he was born on January 28, 1955. He was born in Opelika, Ala., which is about 10 miles from the university. He grew up in the town of Auburn, and his father, Bill, worked for the university for more than 40 years in ticket sales and public relations. Joe was even a batboy for the Auburn baseball team as a child. He attended Auburn High School and was a state All-Star pitcher in 1973. Pitcher was actually his second position; Beckwith started high school as a catcher but quickly moved to the mound once his coach saw that he threw the ball back to the pitcher faster than the pitchers could throw it to him. At one point in the 1973 state playoffs, he pitched 18 consecutive shutout innings and retired 31 batters in a row.
Naturally, Beckwith came to Auburn University to play ball, and he ended up as one of the best pitchers in the program’s history. He was a four-year letterman and was a part of the team that reached the 1976 College World Series. Beckwith was in the starting rotation that also included future major-leaguer Terry Leach. He threw a no-hitter against Houston during the regular season and had a 6-3 record and 1.85 ERA — and that was while he battled a sore shoulder.
While Beckwith attended college, he also played summer ball in Anchorage, Alaska, and pitched for Team USA in Taipei, where he defeated the Nationalist China team 2-0. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 12th Round of the 1976 June Amateur Draft, but he elected to return to Auburn for his senior year. He ended his collegiate career with a 31-14 record and a 1.92 ERA. He is still the school’s leader in complete games with 20. His ERA is second-best all-time, his wins are fourth-best, and he is seventh in innings pitched with 338. At the time he graduated in 1977, he was the all-time SEC leader in wins and innings pitched.
The Los Angeles Dodgers picked Beckwith in the Second Round of the 1977 draft. He and the Dodgers had a history already. While he was playing amateur ball in the summer of 1975, he pitched in a game at Dodger Stadium. From that point forward, he had hoped that the team would take him.
Beckwith, 22 at the time, reported to the San Antonio Dodgers, a AA ballclub in the Texas League. He started 12 games and had a 5-5 record and 3.35 ERA. He walked just 20 batters in 78 innings, but his strikeout total wasn’t much higher, with 31 Ks. “I know I can’t overpower every batter,” he said. “Strikeouts are fine, but throw the ball low and make them hit it on the ground. That’s why there are eight other guys on the field.”
Beckwith made it to AAA Albuquerque in 1978, just his second year of pro ball. He ended the year with an 8-9 record and 5.82 ERA, but that’s a misleading statistic. Most of the Albuquerque staff had ERA’s of 5 or 6, with rookies Rick Sutcliffe and Bob Welch being notable exceptions. Beckwith struggled as a starter in 1979, and manager Del Crandall moved him into the bullpen. He quickly picked up 6 saves and found himself back at Dodger Stadium — this time in a Dodger uniform. The team was in need of bullpen help, and Beckwith was given the chance to claim a role. Crandall knew the state of the Dodgers pitching staff and realized that Beckwith stood a better chance of going to the majors as a reliever than as a starter. He was right.
Beckwith made his debut on July 21, 1979, in Los Angeles against the Montreal Expos. He came in relief of fellow Alabaman Don Sutton and worked 2 innings. He allowed a 2-run homer to Gary Carter, the fourth batter he faced in the big leagues. On July 26, he earned his first major-league win after allowing a run in 2-1/3 innings against the Houston Astros. By the end of the month, he’d also earned a spot as a stopper.
“He’s got a good live fastball and when he keeps it down he’s very effective. I’m very, very impressed,” said Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Beckwith finished his first season in the majors with a 1-2 record, 2 saves and 4.34 ERA.
Beckwith came into training camp in 1980 as a man on a mission, stating that the Dodgers would have to make room for him on the pitching staff. “In the bullpen, I can give them something nobody else can — I can go long relief, I can go short, and I can start,” he said. “How many relievers have they had who throw in the 90 mile-per-hour-and-plus range? You need a guy like [Goose] Gossage who can come in and stick it up their tails when it counts. I can do that.”
Big words for a rookie, but they were backed up by one of the Dodgers’ best pitchers ever: Sandy Koufax. “This guy has great stuff,” said the Hall-of-Fame spring pitching instructor. “A great arm. People have to keep an eye out on him.”
The Dodgers sent Beckwith to the minors to start the season, but he soon returned when injuries hit the pitching staff. He was brilliant. In his first 10 appearances of the year, he picked up 3 wins and had a 2.40 ERA. He finished with a 3-3 record and a 1.96 ERA in 38 games — and that’s with an inexplicable return to AAA Albuquerque once the injured Dodgers pitchers were healthy enough to pitch. Beckwith, to his credit, took the demotion in stride.
Beckwith missed the strike-shortened 1981 season, and it wasn’t because of arm problems, as usually is the case for pitchers. He suffered from double vision that developed in spring training. He apparently suffered nerve damage when he quickly moved his head to duck a line drive. He ended up getting surgeries on both eyes, which came with a 50-50 chance he would return to baseball. The eye ailment kept him out of the game for a year, and it also brought him an unexpected payday. Beckwith’s injury torpedoed a proposed trade with the Chicago Cubs that would have sent Beckwith and Mickey Hatcher to Chicago in exchange for Bill Buckner. So Beckwith stayed a Dodger, participating in pregame workouts and watching every home game from the stands. His teammates gave him a full share of the World Series winnings for being such a good teammate. That amounted to $45,000, which he never would have gotten if he was a Cub.
The problem with being sidelined for a year was that all the other rookie pitchers who came up around the same time as Beckwith had secured their roles on the Dodger pitching staff, so Beckwith had to start the season back in Albuquerque. And he was not good there, even considering the bloated ERAs of the Pacific Coast League. He appeared in 26 games, with 12 starts, and he had a 5-6 record with a 6.68 ERA. He gave up 138 hits in just over 100 innings pitched. Even after that less-than-stellar performance, Beckwith returned to the Dodgers when Alejandro Pena was optioned to the minors in July. In his second outing with the team on the 27th, he threw 5-2/3 hitless innings against the San Francisco Giants for a 7-3 win. “I really needed this,” he said afterward. “It’s a great confidence builder.”
That dominant performance led to Beckwith’s first major-league start against Atlanta on August 1. While that outing only lasted 3 innings, Beckwith still found plenty of work out of the bullpen. For the rest of the season, he had a 2.70 ERA in 19 games. He carried that success over to 1983, when he appeared in 42 games for the Dodgers, with 3 starts. He had a 3-4 record and 3.55 ERA, with 50 strikeouts in 71 innings. Toward the end of the year, though, he got in arguments with Lasorda about his usage and, sensing that his manager had lost confidence in him, demanded a trade. Lasorda said that Beckwith’s limited usage was due to his role on the staff. “I think the world of Joe Beckwith. But when you’re the long man on the team, you come in when the starting pitcher has to leave early. Our starting pitchers haven’t been leaving early.”
The Dodgers granted Beckwith’s request in the offseason and traded him to the Kansas City Royals for three minor-leaguers. In his first season with Kansas City in 1984, he set career highs in appearances (49), innings pitched (100-2/3) and wins (8, against 4 losses). He was particularly brilliant as the Royals clinched the West Division title, with a 1.94 ERA over the final 10 weeks of the season. Though he had come into spring training with hopes of becoming a starting pitcher, he had no complaints about his role. “I never knew baseball could be this fun,” he said after the season.
Beckwith had even more fun in 1985, as the Kansas City Royals finished first in the AL West and won their first World Series. After closer Dan Quisenberry, Beckwith was the most used reliever in the Royals’ bullpen. He again made 49 appearances and had a 1-5 record and 4.07 ERA. He lost a little playing time to reliever Steve Farr toward the end of the season and didn’t pitch in the Royals’ Division Championship series against the Blue Jays. He made one appearance in the World Series against St. Louis, and it was a beauty. He entered Game Five after starter Bud Black had allowed 3 runs and threw 2 scoreless innings, with 3 strikeouts. The only Cardinal to reach base was the first batter he faced; Tom Herr doubled but was stranded at second base when Beckwith set down the next three batters. Unfortunately, the Royals didn’t score any runs that game, but they came back to win the Series in seven games.
Beckwith’s time with the Royals came to an end in spring training, 1986. After a rough spring, he was released on March 28. He signed a minor-league contract with Toronto and pitched well for their AAA team in Syracuse as a starter. The Dodgers purchased his contract from the Jays and brought him back to the majors in August. He was mostly used as a mop-up reliever, and a blown save on September 30, in which he allowed 3 runs in 1/3 of an inning, left him with a 6.87 ERA on the season. He was released by the Dodgers in early November and did not pitch professionally again.
In parts of 7 seasons, Beckwith appeared in 229 games, including 5 starts. He had a 18-19 record and 7 saves, with a 3.54 ERA. He struck out 319 batters in 422 innings and allowed 150 walks. He had an ERA+ of over 100 in five of his seven seasons. He also made 3 appearances in the postseason — 2 with the Dodgers in 1983 and 1 with the Royals in ’85 — and was unscored upon in 4-1/3 innings.
Beckwith worked in the concrete industry back in Auburn, Ala., following his retirement from baseball. He also coached youth baseball teams, and one of them won the Dixie Youth state championship in 2004. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Auburn University Tiger Trail Walk of Fame in 2006. He is survived by his wife, Lee, and five children. The family has asked that anyone wishing to honor his memory make donations to the Joe Beckwith Memorial Scholarship Endowment at http://cfeastalabama.org/.