October 24, 2017
Walter “Boom Boom” Beck was the Senators’ pitching coach from 1957 through 1959. He was hired in the fall of 1956 by Chuck Dressen, the Nats’ manager at the time and, like Beck, a native of Decatur, Ill. When Cookie Lavagetto replaced Dressen early in 1957, Boom Boom stayed on.
Beck helped Camilo Pascual develop into one of the top pitchers in the American League by teaching him to throw a better curveball. After struggling through his first three seasons, Pascual improved greatly in each of his three years working with Beck. The righty won 17 games for a Washington team that finished last with a 63-91 record in 1959.
Pascual’s fellow Cuban and teammate, Pedro Ramos, and the submarining reliever Dick Hyde also credited Beck with improving their performance. But Camilo was Beck’s prize pupil.
“The guys like (Early) Wynn and (Whitey) Ford and (Bob) Shaw get the headlines. But I’d have to take Pascual over all of them,” Beck told a reporter in October 1959, shortly after he had been let go as the Senators’ pitching coach. “Camilo Pascual is the best pitcher in the major leagues.”
Although Boom Boom pitched in the majors off and on for six teams from 1924 to 1945, he didn’t have much success, aside from collecting nicknames. His first was “Elmer the Great,” after the lead character in a play by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan. Invariably, if he was mentioned in any newspaper in the 1930s, he would be referred to as Walter “Elmer the Great” Beck, an indication of how well known the egotistical but naïve fictional Elmer was.
How he picked up the name “Boom Boom” has often – and usually inaccurately – been recounted. Its roots were in the second game of a double-header on July 4, 1934, with the Brooklyn Dodgers playing in Philadelphia against the Phillies in the old Baker Bowl. The high right-field wall there was just 280 feet from home plate and was covered with tin. Beck started the game, but before he could get the third out in the first, he had surrendered three hits, walked three and thrown two wild pitches. When Manager Casey Stengel marched to the mound to make a pitching change, an enraged Beck threw the ball toward right field, where it banged loudly off the tin wall. The rest of the story is in dispute and exists in several versions, more than one of them coming from Beck himself. He and others said repeatedly that an aging Hack Wilson, who was distracted in the outfield during the pitching change, responded to the boom of the ball hitting the wall, thinking the game had resumed and it was yet another hit. He quickly retrieved the ball and made a strong throw to an unoccupied second base.
A version of the story from Dutch Leonard, the long-time Washington knuckleballer who was a Dodger rookie in 1934, has an angry Wilson running in toward the mound after realizing what he had done, and shouting at Beck, “I’ll kill you the next time you try to make me look bad, you boom-boom busher!”
Less in dispute is Stengel’s response to Beck’s defiance. “Well, Elmer,” said Stengel, using Beck’s original nickname. “At least that’s one ball they didn’t hit off you today” – or perhaps words to that effect. The “Boom Boom” name began to be used more frequently, according to Beck himself, after he joined the Phillies in 1939.
Offered a scouting job after 1959 by the Senators, Beck instead was hired as a minor league pitching instructor by the then-Milwaukee Braves. He died in 1987.
Pascual, meanwhile, put an exclamation point on Beck’s high assessment of him once the Griffith franchise moved to Minnesota. He led the American League in strikeouts three seasons in a row and led the league in shutouts in 1961 and ’62, winning 20 games in ’62 and 21 in ’63.
After overcoming arm trouble, Camilo returned to Washington in 1967 and was a solid starter for the expansion Nats in 1967 and ’68, when he won 13 games for a last place team.
Rather than resent his memorable nickname, Boom Boom Beck came to appreciate it. “In later years, I found out the trademark had taken me a long ways,” he told a reporter in 1958, “and I got a couple of pretty good jobs as a result.”