(b. 22 October 1892 [or 1895] in New York City; d. 22 June 1968 in Miami, Florida), professional basketball player who was the most prolific scorer of the 1920s, particularly on the Original Celtics, the dominant team of the era.
Beckman was born and raised just north of the Chelsea district of New York City. His birth year was either 1892 or 1895, with the former being most likely. Beckman had one brother.
Beckman, called "Johnny," began playing basketball at a young age and, never attending high school, by age fourteen or fifteen was a star on the Christ Church Five, his first organized team. In 1910 Beckman was one of the stars of the Saint Gabriel's team of New York that won the lightweight (or middleweight) national title that year. Basketball was played on a weight-class basis with either two or three weights; little import was given to great height, in contrast to later decades. Beckman, who was a solid 156 pounds on a five foot, eight-and-a-half-inch frame, had a strong build and also had competed as an amateur boxer and runner in his youth. His teammates on the Saint Gabriel's team included Chris Leonard and Ernie Reich, future teammates on the Original Celtics, and Jack Murray, another future professional player and later a basketball writer. The team remained together until about 1914.
Beckman joined his first professional team, the Opals of the Hudson County League, around 1911. By 1913 he was playing for a number of professional teams in and around New York City. The next year (1914–1915) he also played for a team in the Connecticut State League. In 1915 to 1916 he made his first appearance with an Eastern League team, De Neri of Philadelphia, for whom he was the leading scorer and finished seventh in the league. Beckman also played for Paterson of the Interstate League and was their leading scorer in the so-called World Championship series against Greystock and Wilkes-Barre.
Professional basketball players of the day were essentially independent contractors, and therefore played on many teams within the same year. Beckman had become highly sought after by 1916 because of his great shooting and all-around play, and in that year he played for Reading of the Eastern League, Bridgeport and Danbury of the Interstate League, and the Newark Turners. He ranked near the top of the Eastern League in scoring and assists while playing for Reading. In 1917 to 1918 he returned to De Neri, played for Norwalk, the Newark Turners, the Blue Ribbons of the Connecticut League, and for Nanticoke of the Penn State League. He set incredible scoring marks with Nanticoke. In twenty-six games for them that year (1917–1918), Beckman averaged just under eleven points per game, an amazing total at a time when teams routinely scored less than twenty points per game.
The start of World War I and the subsequent takeover of the railroads by the U.S. government caused many leagues to shut down in 1918 to 1919, but Beckman still played on at least three different teams in the New York City area. In addition, he played for the Standard Shipyard team of Staten Island, for whom he ostensibly worked during the war. After the war Beckman returned to Nanticoke, where he led the Penn State League in both the 1919–1920 and 1920–1921 seasons in scoring. In the latter year he scored more than 100 points more than the second-leading scorer and led his team to the Penn State League championship. Again Beckman played on at least two other squads during that year.
The next year Beckman made his first appearance for the Original Celtics and, after signing an exclusive contract with them for more than $12,000 per year, played only with the Celtics until January 1927, when he was sold to the Baltimore Orioles of the American Basketball League. During this period the Celtics won the championship of the Eastern League (1921–1922) and went undefeated in the Metropolitan League (1922–1923) before rejoining the Eastern League. Unfortunately their success drove the league toward financial insolvency and it folded in early 1923. The Celtics toured the country, compiling the finest record in basketball and earning acclaim as the game's greatest team.
In February 1922 the Celtic captain Ernie Reich died and Beckman became the team captain, a position he held until he was traded. Teams at that time had managers, but no coach, and Beckman was essentially the Celtic player-coach. In 1925 the American Basketball League (ABL) was formed, but the Celtics chose not to join because they could make more money playing independently. The next year the ABL refused to allow its member squads to play non-league teams, and the Celtics joined the league in December, taking over the Brooklyn franchise. The Celtics proceeded to win consecutive league titles (1926–1927 and 1927–1928) before the team was disbanded because of pressure from the league and the conviction of its owner, who was incarcerated for embezzlement. The success of the Celtics affected attendance at games involving other teams. By disbanding the Celtics and redistributing their players, the owners hoped to draw more fans to all of the league games rather than to just those of the Celtics.
By this time Beckman had joined first the Orioles of the ABL and then Chicago and Detroit (1927–1928). The following two seasons he played for Rochester, Cleveland, and Fort Wayne, all of the ABL, until the league folded after the 1930 season. Beckman then joined many of his old mates on a new version of the Original Celtics and barn-stormed––traveled throughout the region to play non-league games against local teams or other barnstorming squads––from 1930 to 1941.
Beckman finally retired from basketball at the age of forty-six (or forty-nine). He was offered a number of coaching positions, but declined them all. According to his only son, Beckman felt he did not have the patience and personality to coach and could no longer lead by example. In 1957 Beckman moved to Miami and died in Florida in 1968 of Alzheimer's disease. In 1972 he was posthumously inducted in the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
There is little question that Beckman was one of the two greatest players of the 1920s, along with Nat Holman. He was recognized for his shooting, his toughness, and for being an all-around player. Beckman was able to dominate at every level at which he played, partly because of talent, but also because of his great work ethic and basketball acumen.
No biography or autobiography of Beckman exists. An in-depth discussion of Beckman's career can be found in Murry Nelson, The Originals: The New York Celtics Invent Modern Basketball (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (24 June 1968). Both the New York Celtics file and the John Beckman file at the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame have clippings and letters about Beckman, but these are incomplete.
Murry R. Nelson