This article was written by Don Jensen
Tris Speaker, 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. No slouch at the plate, Speaker had 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 also one of the game’s most successful player-managers.
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.
“You can write him down as one of the two models of ball-playing grace,” Grantland Rice wrote of the Grey Eagle. “The other was Napoleon Lajoie. Neither ever wasted a motion or gave you any sign of extra effort. … They had the same elements that made a Bobby Jones or the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame — the smoothness of a summer wind.”
Tristram E. Speaker was born on April 4, 1888, in Hubbard, Texas, a railroad town of 500 people 70 miles south of Dallas, to a family that had relocated from Ohio just prior to the Civil War. His father, Archie, whose two older brothers had fought for the Confederacy, was in the dry-goods business and died when Tris was 10. Tris’s mother, Nancy Jane, whose brother also fought for the South, kept a boarding house. A born right-hander, young Tris taught himself to throw left-handed when he twice broke his right arm after being thrown from a bronco. Soon he began to bat left-handed as well. Tris played football in high school and was captain and pitcher on his high-school baseball team. In 1905 Speaker entered the Fort Worth Polytechnic Institute (now Texas Wesleyan University), where he pitched for the school’s baseball squad, as well as for the Nicholson and Watson semipro club in Corsicana. Tris picked up extra money working as a telegraph lineman and cowpuncher.
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 – he lost 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.
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.”
Speaker led Boston to world championships in two of the next seven seasons, 1912 and 1915, hitting above .300 every year and perennially ranking among American League leaders in most offensive and defensive categories. With teammates Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis, Speaker formed one of the best fielding outfields in history. During this period Speaker led AL center fielders in putouts five times and in double plays four times. Twice he had 35 assists, the American League record.
In 1912 Speaker, playing in every game but one, won the Chalmers Award as the League Most Valuable Player. He batted .383, third in the league behind Cobb and Joe Jackson, and led the league in doubles, home runs (tied), and on-base percentage. (“Spoke,” one of Speaker’s nicknames, came, ironically, from Speaker’s teammate and rival Bill Carrigan, who would yell, “Speaker spoke!” when Tris got a hit.) To cap it off, in the World Series against the New York Giants, Speaker got a key hit in the 10th inning of the decisive eighth game after his harmless foul popup fell untouched between first baseman Fred Merkle and catcher Chief Meyers. Given a second chance, Speaker singled in the tying run.
Boston fans loved him. Speaker received $50 each time he hit the Bull Durham sign, first at the Huntington Avenue Grounds and later at Fenway Park. He endorsed Boston Garters, had a $2 straw hat named in his honor, and received free mackinaws and heavy sweaters. Hassan cigarettes created popular trading cards of Speaker depicting him running the bases.
Despite the team’s success on the field, tensions were often high in the clubhouse. Speaker and catcher Carrigan never got along and had several brawls. Speaker was often not on speaking terms with Duffy Lewis, who, like Carrigan, was an Irish Catholic. (Religious differences had created cliques on the club, with Speaker siding with other Protestants including Joe Wood and Larry Gardner). The atmosphere grew more complicated with the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1915. Ruth crossed Wood and Speaker never fully forgave him. In his book Baseball As I Have Known It, Fred Lieb wrote that Speaker once told Lieb he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the Klan kept its membership rolls secret, Speaker’s alleged membership would not be surprising given that the Klan experienced a nationwide revival beginning in 1915, gaining much popularity with its anti-Catholic rhetoric. In addition, the Klan’s national leader from 1922 to 1939, Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans, lived near Speaker in Hubbard.
Relations between the Grey Eagle and team president Joe Lannin were also far from warm. After the Red Sox World Series victory in 1915, Lannin angered Speaker by proposing that the outfielder’s salary be cut from about $18,000 – higher at the time than that of Ty Cobb – to $9,000, since Speaker’s batting average had declined three years in a row. (Lannin had raised Speaker’s salary in 1914 to keep him from jumping to the Federal League’s Brooklyn Club, which had offered Speaker a three-year contract for $100,000 to be its player-manager). When Speaker held out, Lannin traded him to Cleveland for Sam Jones, Fred Thomas, and $55,000.
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. Overall, 1916 may have been Speaker’s best season. He hit .386, to finally break Cobb’s lock on the batting title, and led the American League in hits, doubles (tied), slugging, and on-base percentage. Speaker’s 35 stolen bases ranked fifth in the league.
In the outfield Speaker played so shallow that he was almost a fifth infielder. “At the crack of the bat he’d be off with his back to the infield,” said teammate Joe Wood, “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.” Twice in one month, April 1918, Speaker executed unassisted double plays at second base, catching low line drives on the run and then beating the baserunner to the bag. At least once in his career Speaker was the pivot man in a routine double play. As late as 1923, after the advent of the lively ball forced Speaker to play deeper, he still had 26 assists.
“I know it’s easier, basically, to come in on a ball than go back,” Speaker said later. “But so many more balls are hit in front of an outfielder, even now, that it it’s a matter of percentage to be able to play in close enough to cut off those low ones or cheap ones in front of him. I still see more games lost by singles that drop just over the infield than a triple over the outfielder’s head. 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.”
Almost 6 feet tall and a sturdy 193 pounds, Speaker batted from a left-handed crouch and stood deep in the batter’s box. He held his bat low, moving it up and down slowly, “like the lazy twitching of a cat’s tail,” according to an admirer, and took a full stride. “I don’t find any particular ball easy to hit,” he said. “I have no rule for batting. I keep my eye on the ball and when it nears me make ready to swing.” Nevertheless, “I cut my drives between the first baseman and the line and that is my favorite alley for my doubles.”
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’s major weakness as a batter was the slow, high, curve.
Speaker spent 11 seasons with the Indians, compiling a batting mark that averaged over .350. He paced the American League in doubles four straight seasons. As late as 1925, the year he married the former Mary Frances Cuddihy of Buffalo, New York, the 37-year-old outfielder hit .389 in 117 games. The following year, his final season with Cleveland, he hit .304 in 150 games.
As player-manager, Speaker piloted Cleveland to a 617-520 record (.543) between 1919 and 1926. The Indians club he took to the World Series in 1920 had been demoralized by the midseason death of shortstop Ray Chapman when he was beaned by Carl Mays. Speaker rallied the team and in the Series, Cleveland defeated Brooklyn five games to two. Speaker was one of the first skippers to platoon extensively. In the Indians’ championship year, he loaded up his batting order with right-handed hitters when a left-hander pitched, and vice versa. Speaker himself was the only left-handed hitter who faced left-handed pitchers. He did not believe his team should warm up in a batting cage, preferring his hitters to practice under real circumstances with a catcher behind the plate.
After the 1926 season, Hubert “Dutch” Leonard, a disgruntled former teammate, accused Speaker and Cobb of fixing a game in 1919. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis cleared both men of the charges, but by that time American League President Ban Johnson, who believed the men guilty, had persuaded Cobb and Speaker to resign in order to protect baseball’s image. “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.”
In February 1927, Speaker signed with the Washington Senators, where he hit .327. (When he returned to Cleveland for a farewell tribute from Indians fans in May of that year, Speaker was touched less by the gifts he received, said someone present, than the yells from the grandstand to “Hit it against the wall, Spoke!”)
Speaker finished his major-league career with Cobb on Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1928. He spent 1929 and 1930 as the player-manager of the Newark Bears in the International League, where he hit .355 and .419 in limited play.
Although retired as a player, Speaker was far from through with baseball. With his wife he had boxes at old League Park and later Municipal Stadium, both in Cleveland. Speaker was a broadcaster for the Cubs and White Sox in 1931 and then manager and part owner of the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. He was less successful as a bench manager, however, than when he was guiding his club from center field. “Speaker was possessed of a driving personality that seemed somehow to bring mediocre players up to his own level. That was the secret of his success,” wrote one observer. “As long he was in uniform playing day in and day out he was a great manager. As soon as he quit playing, he lost his inspirational force. He became just another old timer in the dugout.”
The Kansas City venture was not successful and Speaker eventually returned to Cleveland as a broadcaster and scout. Meanwhile, newcomer Joe DiMaggio’s graceful play in the Yankees outfield inevitably caused comparisons to Speaker. The proud Texan bristled at the suggestion that DiMaggio was a worthy successor. When asked about the Yankee Clipper in 1939, Speaker responded, “HIM? I could name 15 better outfielders!”
In 1947, at the request of general manager Bill Veeck, Tris returned to uniform as a special coach, to help convert Larry Doby, who had played second base in the Negro Leagues, into a center fielder. After that, Speaker frequently visited Indians training camps to work with younger players. The Grey Eagle could “still spot a batter’s weakness quicker than most of us,” according to Al Lopez.
The Grey Eagle also capitalized on simply being Tris Speaker. A regular on the banquet circuit, he served as president of Tris Speaker, Inc., a wholesale wine and liquor firm in Cleveland, and later as a sales representative for a Detroit steel company. In 1936 he was chairman of the Cleveland Boxing and Wrestling Commission. In 1939 Speaker was president of the National Professional Indoor Baseball League, which had a club in every major-league city except Washington, but the circuit lasted only one month. He kept busy hunting, fishing, and flying (Tris had served as a naval aviator in the fall of 1918 and was commissioned a lieutenant.) and kept in touch with old friends such as Ty Cobb, Joe Wood, and Stan Coveleski. In 1953, Speaker had lunch in the White House with President Eisenhower.
Almost immune to injury when he played, Speaker suffered a series of health problems in his later years. In 1937 he fractured his skull and broke his left arm when he fell 16 feet from a second-story porch at his home. He also had a near-fatal perforated intestine and was hospitalized for weeks after a heart ailment in 1954. Speaker suffered a fatal coronary occlusion on December 8, 1958, while he and a friend pulled their boat on a dock after an afternoon fishing in Lake Whitney, Texas. He and Mary were on an extended vacation before hoping to head on to spring training.
Tris Speaker was buried in a cedar-shaded spot in Section 1, Block 2 of Fairview Cemetery in Hubbard, where his mother and father were interred and not far from the diamond where he once played as a boy. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, one of the first eight players so honored. His plaque states that he was the “greatest centrefielder [sic] of his day.”
An earlier version of this biography appeared in SABR’s “Deadball Stars of the American League” (Potomac Books, 2006), edited by David Jones.
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Lawrence Ritter. The Glory of their Times. (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).
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Gordon Cobbledick. “Tris Speaker — The Grey Eagle.” Sport, July 1952.
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Tom Meany. “The Gray Eagle Was a Lion at Bat.” Baseball Digest, February 1959.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
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