“At the crack of the bat he'd be off with his back to the infield, and then he'd turn and glance over his shoulder at the last minute and catch the ball so easy it looked like there was nothing to it, nothing at all." – Smoky Joe Wood
Here is a guy that only the most die-hard baseball fans will know. Smoky Joe Wood was talking about Tris Speaker.
A man’s man who hunted, fished, could bulldog a steer, and taught Will Rogers how to use a lariat, Speaker was involved in more than his share of umpire baiting and brawls with teammates and opposing players. But when executing a hook slide on the bases, tracking a fly ball at the crack of an opponent’s bat, or slashing one of his patented extra-base hits, Speaker made everything he did look easy. But getting into the Majors was not easy.
In 1906, Speaker wrote several professional teams asking for a tryout and was signed by Cleburne of the Texas League for $65 per month. Tris bombed as a pitcher, losing six straight games and once reportedly gave up 22 straight hits, all for extra bases, but as an outfielder he hit .268 and stole 33 bases in 84 games. When the North Texas League and South Texas League were consolidated in 1907, Speaker moved to Houston and hit a league-leading .314 with 36 steals in 118 games. Impressive.
The Boston Red Sox purchased Speaker’s contract at the end of the 1907 season. He appeared in seven games for the big club but hit only .158. Unimpressed with his play, the Red Sox did not send Speaker a contract for 1908. Speaker twice begged John McGraw for a chance to play for the New York Giants, to no avail, and was also rebuffed by several other major-league clubs. Finally, Speaker paid his own way to Boston’s Little Rock training camp to work out with the Red Sox. At the end of spring training, the Red Sox turned his contract over to Little Rock of the Southern Association as payment for the rent of the training field. There was one stipulation: If Speaker developed, Boston had the right to repurchase him for $500.
Speaker led the Southern Association in hitting in 1908 with a .350 average stole 28 bases and drew raves for his outfield play. In a spring exhibition game against the Giants, sportswriter Sid Mercer recalled, Speaker “scooped up a grounder and threw out one of the fleet Giants on one of those automatic attempts to score from second on a single. It happened again the next day. That time he doubled a runner trying to score on a fly.”
Despite interest from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Superbas, Washington Senators, and, at last, the Giants, the Travelers sold Speaker back to Boston. Speaker hit only .224 in 31 games for the Red Sox in 1909 but was flawless in the outfield. Speaker further honed his outfield skills by working with Red Sox pitcher Cy Young. “When I was a rookie,” Speaker later recalled, Young “used to hit me flies to sharpen my abilities to judge in advance the direction and distance of an outfield ball.”
A Texas native, Speaker began his career with the Red Sox, where he had one of the best seasons of his career in 1912. Speaker earned American League MVP honors that year by finishing first in the voting for the Chalmers Award, leading the AL in on-base percentage with a mark of .464 and carrying Boston to a World Series championship. Speaker had three different hitting streaks of at least 20 games that season. If not for an 0-for-5 day against the White Sox on June 16, Speaker would have hit in 51 straight games.
By the time Tris Speaker had turned 22, he was already one of the best center fielders in the game, a player highly regarded for both his work at the plate and in the field.
Tris was Ty Cobb’s friendly rival as the greatest center fielder of the Deadball Era, could field and throw better than the Georgia Peach even if he could not quite match him as a hitter. Legendary for his short outfield play, Speaker led the American League in putouts seven times and in double plays six times in a 22-year career with Boston, Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia. Speaker’s career totals in both categories are still major-league records at his position. His 450 career assists rank first in big league history among center fielders, while his 6,783 putouts rank second among center fielders to only Willie Mays' 7,022.
Speaker earned praise from his peers for his speed, range and arm. Speaker was known for playing a very shallow center field, which helped him lead AL center fielders in assists eight times – while his ability to cover ground on balls hit over his head helped him lead AL center fielders in putouts seven times.
“I still see more games lost by singles that drop just over the infield than a triple over the outfielder's head,” Speaker said. “I learned early that I could save more games by cutting off some of those singles than I would lose by having an occasional extra base hit go over my head."
But Tris was formidable at the plate, with a lifetime batting average of .345, sixth on the all-time list, and no one has surpassed his career mark of 792 doubles. He was a tremendous contact hitter who could drive the ball into the gaps and down the line. Speaker led the American League in doubles eight times. Speaker led the Red Sox to another World Series title in 1915, but Boston traded him to the Indians at the start of the 1916 season following a contract dispute.
Speaker received a massive outpouring of affection from the fans when he returned to Boston in a Cleveland uniform on May 9, 1916, and even mistakenly headed toward the Red Sox dugout at the end of one inning. Boston pitchers, meanwhile, complained that without Spoke in center, they could no longer groove fastballs when behind in the count, certain that he would catch everything hit his way. The Red Sox won the World Series again, but Speaker became the idol of Indians fans and hit even better with his new club than he had in Boston. In Speaker’s first season with the Indians, he led the AL in hits (211), doubles (51), batting average (.386), on-base percentage (.470) and slugging percentage (.502). It marked the first time since 1910 that Ty Cobb did not win the AL batting title.
He was a remarkably consistent batter. In 1912, Speaker set a major-league record with three separate hitting streaks of 20 or more games, while his 11 consecutive hits in 1920 set a mark that went unsurpassed for 18 years.
Speaker took over as a player/manager during the 1919 season, a position he held through his final season in Cleveland in 1926. In his first full season as player/manager in 1920, Speaker reached his third World Series, helping the Indians capture the championship over Brooklyn.
Speaker was productive well into his later years in Cleveland, posting career-bests in average (.389) and on-base percentage (a league-leading .479) in 1925 at age 37. He rounded out his career with a season in Washington (where he struck out just eight times in 141 games) and another in Philadelphia, where he retired at age 40 after the 1928 season. He retired as the all-time leader in doubles with 792 and remains at the top of that list.
“Baseball in Cleveland and Tris Speaker have been synonymous for so long that a Speakerless team will seem contrary to natural law,” lamented the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “What Christy Mathewson was to New York, what Cobb was to Detroit, what Walter Johnson was to Washington, Tris Speaker has been to Cleveland.”
Speaker was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937. He passed away on Dec. 8, 1958.
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