The old man wears tan work clothes coated with a fine dust that comes from raking infield dirt. A gray cloth cap is propped perfectly on his head. He is happiest now, when the warmth of spring returns, when the youngsters from Milwaukee’s north side put on uniforms and play baseball.
“I have to make sure the fields are in A-1 shape,” says James W. Beckum, working the fields in a park that now bears his name. On Saturday morning, kids and dignitaries will gather at 900 W. Brown St. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the official dedication of James. W. Beckum Park.
There will be a parade because that’s how the season always begins for the Beckum-Stapleton Little League.And then Beckum will throw out the ceremonial first ball, just like he did earlier this year during the Milwaukee Brewers’ opener at Miller Park.
He is 83, kept baseball young by the advance of another season.
“You have to make sure the park is looking good,” he says. “I think the kids are as important as the Brewers. I don’t want to give them half a field. They play hard to do the things they do. They try to win.”
The league began in 1964 when a pastor named E.B. Phillips of the Greater Galilee Baptist Church asked Beckum and Charles Stapleton to provide a place for local kids to play baseball.
“We started with four teams and 60 kids,” says Beckum.
The league has grown. This year, there will be more than 300 players, boys and girls, ages 4 to 15.
Stapleton died a few years ago.
Beckum carries on. Others have also spent decades with the league, including Norma Freeman, the treasurer, Naomi Walker, who takes care of the concession stand, and her husband, Leon, who coaches.Beckum has a wife, Ruth, five grown children and six grandchildren. His wife, he says, provides the support that helps him carry on.
“I couldn’t have made it work without her,” he says.
The players, he says, keep him coming back.
“It’s pretty hard to let them down,” he says.
Beckum helps keep baseball alive in the inner city. Over the years, he says, kids have turned to other sports, football and basketball, and now soccer.
“We’re trying to get kids more interested in baseball,” he says.
The sport helps bind the community.
“It brings parents out to watch their kids,” he says. “Once they get involved, they pay more attention to the game. You have to get involved to start loving it.”
There are three baseball diamonds in Beckum Park, and another two across the street at Carver Park. Field 3 is his favorite. He got it built in the 1970s. There are stands, fences and lights. And on the backstop are quotations from the poet Langston Hughes about holding fast to dreams and getting where you want to go. This is where Beckum wants to be, getting the field ready for the players.
His name is on the park. But the truth is, he says, “it’s the people’s park.”