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Tris Speaker

Tris Speaker

Position(s):
OF, 1B, P
Nicknames:
The Grey Eagle
Born:
April 4, 1888
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Left
Height:
5' 11"
Weight:
193 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-14-1907 with BOS
Allstar Selections:
1912 MVP
Hall of Fame:
1937

One of the greatest centerfielders in baseball history, Tris Speaker is considered by many baseball experts to be the finest defensive outfielder ever to play the game.  Over the course of 22 major-league seasons, Speaker established numerous fielding marks not likely to be broken.  In addition to holding the American League record for most career outfield putouts (6,706), he owns the major-league marks for most career outfield assists (449) and double plays (139).  More than just a great fielder, Speaker also excelled both at the plate and on the basepaths, rivaling Ty Cobb as the finest all-around player in the game throughout the second decade of the 20th century.  During that 10-year period, Speaker batted well over .300 all but once, topping the .340-mark on five separate occasions.  His league-leading .386 batting average in 1916 broke Cobb's nine-year stranglehold on the A.L. batting title.  Speaker also finished in double-digits in triples in nine of those years, collected more than 40 doubles four times, scored more than 100 runs four times, and stole more than 30 bases six times.  His 792 career doubles remain the all-time major-league record.

Biography:

Born in Hubbard, Texas on April 4, 1888, Tristram E. Speaker suffered numerous setbacks as a youth that would have derailed the career of a less determined man.  After fracturing his right arm in a fall from a horse, the righthanded Speaker had to learn to throw lefthanded, which he continued to do throughout his baseball career.  A few years later, while playing his only year of college ball for Fort Worth Polytechnic Institute, the 17-year-old Speaker severely injured his left arm in a football accident.  Surgeons advised amputation, but the resolute Speaker refused, subsequently making a full recovery that enabled him to pursue his dream of playing major league baseball.

Speaker got his start in professional ball one year later, in 1906, playing centerfield for the Cleburne Railroaders of the Texas League.  After batting .318 for the Railroaders, Speaker was sold to the Boston Red Sox for $800.  He made his major league debut for Boston late in 1907, appearing in only seven games and hitting safely in just three of his 19 at-bats, for an extremely unimpressive .158 batting average.  Speaker's poor performance prompted the Red Sox to trade him to the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern League in exchange for the use of their facilities for spring training the following year.  However, Boston reacquired the 20-year-old outfielder after he batted .350 for the Travelers in 1908.  Speaker finished the season with the Red Sox, hitting just .224 in the 31 games in which he appeared.

Speaker broke into Boston's starting lineup the following year, batting .309, driving in 77 runs, and accumulating 13 triples – the first of seven consecutive times he finished in double-digits in three-baggers.  Speaker also played a  brilliant centerfield, leading all American League outfielders with 35 assists and 12 double plays.  Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper joined Speaker in Boston's starting outfield in 1910, and the threesome went on to form arguably the finest outfield trio in the major leagues during the Deadball Era.  Lewis did an outstanding job of playing Fenway's short left field wall, while Hooper excelled at covering the ballpark's vast expanse in right.  But Speaker exceeded both his outfield mates, serving as the unit's unquestioned leader and playing his position in a bold and brazen manner unmatched by any other outfielder.

Speaker's exceptional speed and uncanny ability to track fly balls enabled him to play an extraordinarily shallow center field.  He typically positioned himself a mere 40 or 50 feet behind second base, allowing him to frequently convert line drive singles into outs, throw out runners attempting to advance one base, and occasionally even serve as the middle man on double plays.  Speaker later gave much of the credit for his outstanding ability to judge fly balls to Cy Young, a member of Boston's pitching staff his first few years with the team.  Speaker said, "When I was a rookie, Cy Young used to hit me flies to sharpen my abilities to judge in advance the direction and distance of an outfield-hit ball."

And, as for his ability to serve as the captain of Boston's outfield, Duffy Lewis stated, "Speaker was the king of the outfield...It was always 'Take it,' or 'I got it.'  In all the years we never bumped each other."

As Speaker continued to establish himself as baseball's greatest defensive outfielder, he also developed into one of the game's premier hitters.  Holding the bat relatively low in order to protect the plate, Speaker didn't hit a lot of home runs.  But he compiled huge sums of doubles and triples, and he rarely struck out, never fanning more than 25 times in any single season.  The Grey Eagle, as he was known, followed up his solid 1909 performance with batting averages of .340 and .334 the next two years.  Speaker then reached the summit of his sport in 1912 when he earned league MVP honors by topping the junior circuit with 10 home runs, 53 doubles, and a .464 on-base percentage, while also placing among the leaders with a .383 batting average, 90 runs batted in, 136 runs scored, 222 hits, and 52 stolen bases.  The Red Sox captured the American League pennant and subsequently defeated the New York Giants in the World Series, with Speaker batting .300 during the Fall Classic.

Speaker also performed quite well in each of the next two seasons, posting batting averages of .363 and .338, compiling a career high 22 triples in 1913, and leading the league with 46 doubles and 193 hits the following year, while helping Boston to another world championship.  But, when Speaker's batting average fell to .322 in 1915, Red Sox president J.J. Lannin angered his centerfielder by attempting to reduce his annual salary from $15,000 to $9,000.  A war of words ensued, and Speaker was eventually dealt to the Cleveland Indians, who increased his salary to $40,000, making him baseball's highest paid player.

Speaker showed his appreciation to the Indians his first year with the team by scoring 102 runs and leading the league with a .386 batting average, 211 hits, 41 doubles, a .470 on-base percentage, and a .502 slugging percentage.  He continued to play at an extremely high level in his 10 remaining years in Cleveland, compiling batting averages of .352, .388, .362, .378, .380, .344, and .389 in different seasons, surpassing 100 runs batted in and 200 hits twice each, and topping 100 runs scored on three separate occasions.  Speaker became the only player in baseball history to lead his league in doubles four straight years when he topped the circuit in that category from 1920 to 1923, with totals of 50, 52, 48, and 59, respectively.  In the last of those years, he also established career highs by hitting 17 home runs and knocking in 130 runs.  In addition to excelling both at the plate and in the field for Cleveland, Speaker served as the team's manager from 1920 to 1926, piloting the Indians to their first world championship in 1920, when he also batted .388, knocked in 107 runs, and scored 137 others.

Speaker joined the Washington Senators at the conclusion of the 1926 campaign after being implicated in a gambling scandal involving himself and Ty Cobb.  Former pitcher Dutch Leonard claimed that both player-managers fixed at least one Cleveland-Detroit game several years earlier, forcing both men to "resign" as managers under a cloud of suspicion.  After Leonard refused to appear at the January 5, 1927 hearings to discuss his accusations, Commissioner Landis cleared both men of any wrongdoing and reinstated them to their original teams.  Both Cleveland and Detroit subsequently informed their stars that they were free agents who could sign with any team of their choosing.  Speaker signed with Washington, while Cobb joined the Philadelphia Athletics.

Speaker played one year in Washington, before spending his final season as a part-time player with Cobb on the Athletics.  Speaker retired at the end of 1927 with a .345 career batting average, a .428 on-base percentage, 3,514 hits, 1,529 runs batted in, 1,882 runs scored, 222 triples, and an all-time record 792 doubles.  Speaker's .345 batting average is the sixth-best in baseball history.  He is also sixth all-time in triples, fifth in hits, and eleventh in runs scored.  In addition to leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and slugging percentage one time each, he topped the circuit in hits twice, on-base percentage four times, and doubles a record eight times.  He also led all American League outfielders in putouts seven times, double plays six times, and assists three times.  Speaker batted over .360 eight times, scored more than 100 runs seven times, accumulated more than 200 hits four times, compiled more than 10 triples on 13 separate occasions, and amassed more than 50 doubles five times.  

Despite his greatness as a ballplayer, Speaker was hardly a model citizen.  In addition to his alleged involvement in gambling on baseball, he reportedly was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  However, as noted baseball historian Bill James points out, the Klan toned down its racist overtures somewhat during the 1920s, thereby pulling in to its ranks hundreds of thousands of non-racist men.  Furthermore, Speaker worked extensively in the outfield with Larry Doby when the latter became the American League's first black player in 1947.  Doby even mentioned Speaker favorably during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Following his retirement from baseball, Speaker remained close to the game for several more years.  Before serving as an adviser, coach and scout for the Indians from 1947 to his death, he briefly managed the Newark Bears of the International League.  He also became a part owner of the Kansas City Blues and served for a time as chairman of Cleveland's Boxing Commission.  Among his more philanthropic pursuits, Speaker helped found the Cleveland Society for Crippled Children and Camp Cheerful.  Speaker gained induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame during the second year of voting, in 1937, becoming just the seventh player to be so honored.  He died of a heart attack on December 8, 1958, at the age of 70.

More than 50 years after his passing, Tris Speaker is still considered by many people to be the greatest defensive centerfielder in baseball history.

Pitcher Smoky Joe Wood, who roomed with Speaker in Boston, said in The Glory of Their Times, "Speaker played a real shallow center field and had terrific instincts...Nobody else was even in the same league with him."

Joe Sewell played with Speaker in Cleveland.  The Hall of Fame shortstop stated emphatically, "I played with Tris for seven years.  I've seen Joe DiMaggio and I've seen Willie Mays...and all the rest.  Tris Speaker is the best center fielder I've seen."

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Tagged:
1937 Hall of Fame, AL MVP 1912, Boston Red Sox, Center fielder, Cleveland Indians, Hall of Fame, Philadelphia Athletics, The Grey Eagle, Tris Speaker

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