April 17, 1908: Memphis Turtles win season opener; Tris Speaker debuts for Little Rock

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice

Tris Speaker and Tom McCullough (COURTESY OF STEPHEN V. RICE)

Thomas F. McCullough, business manager of the Southern Association’s Memphis team, was fed up with postponements due to wet grounds at Red Elm Park, the local ballpark. So he came up with a solution: Elevate the diamond so that rainwater drained from it.

His innovation was unveiled in the spring of 1907.1 From the summit where the pitcher stood, the new “turtleback” diamond sloped down to the basepaths. The design was applauded and soon copied at other ballparks. McCullough was nicknamed “Turtle Tom” and the Memphis team became known as the Turtles.2

Playing manager Charlie Babb led the Turtles to a second-place finish in 1907, and home attendance was the highest in franchise history, dating to 1901.3 The team’s success was attributed to Babb’s managerial skill, fan support, and the turtleback diamond.4

For their second season on their trend-setting playing field in 1908, the Turtles were young, except Babb, who was a 35-year-old third baseman, and George Carey, who at 37 was “regarded as the best first baseman in the league.”5 Carey was nicknamed “Scoops” for the way he picked up throws in the dirt with “graceful nonchalance.”6

The Turtles’ 1908 season opener was played against the Little Rock Travelers on Friday, April 17, at Red Elm Park. Even the famed turtleback did not render Memphis immune from the spring weather; the game had been scheduled for the previous day but was postponed by rain.

Babb chose as his starting pitcher a promising newcomer: 24-year-old right-hander Rudy Schwenck.7 Two weeks earlier, Schwenck pitched five scoreless innings in an exhibition game against the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers and allowed only one hit, a scratch single by Sam Crawford.8 Schwenck’s batterymate was Frank Owens, a 22-year-old Canadian.

The Travelers came to Memphis with a contingent of fans that included Arkansas Governor Xenophon Overton Pindall, “a keen lover of baseball” who “was some player himself in former days.”9 Manager Mike Finn selected an experienced battery: Elwood “Pop” Eyler, a 32-year-old right-hander, and team captain Bob Wood, a 42-year-old backstop. Eyler was the Turtles’ nemesis in 1907,10 and Finn called Wood the best catcher in the league.11

Youth was served in center field by Tris Speaker, a 20-year-old Texan who, according to an article previewing the 1908 Travelers, “may be one of the season’s wonders.”12 In 1907 Speaker hit .314 and stole 36 bases for the Houston Buffaloes of the Class C Texas League,13 earning him a seven-game trial with the Boston Red Sox in September. The Red Sox “sold him to Little Rock for $1,000, with the privilege of buying him back” if he makes good in the Class A Southern Association.14

Despite threatening weather, 3,000 fans attended the 1908 opener. Ribbons labeled “Root for Memphis” were handed out to women, and men received stickpins featuring a miniature turtle. The stickpins were business manager McCullough’s idea and proved quite popular.

The umpires were John O’Brien and Dan Fitzsimmons. The game commenced at 4:00 P.M. after an opening ceremony during which the Memphis players lined up by height and paraded across the field. The team looked smart in cream-colored uniforms with black trim.

The first inning was scoreless. Speaker, batting cleanup, led off the top of the second with a single to right field. Schwenck must have known of Speaker’s basestealing proficiency because he threw over to first base nine times. Undeterred, Speaker stole second base. He advanced to third on a groundout but did not score. In the bottom of the inning, he made a fine catch in center field.

The scoreless tie was broken by the Travelers in the fourth inning. Buck Thiel led off by drawing a walk and went to second on Billy Page’s sacrifice. Speaker beat out a slow roller to shortstop Otto Vogel for an infield hit, with Thiel reaching third on the play. Speaker stole second base, and on Walter East’s fly out, Thiel scored from third and Speaker was thrown out at third.

While the on-field action was closely contested, happenings in the crowd could still distract the fans. “Merry Widow lids [wide-brimmed hats] were conspicuous in several parts of the stand,” a Memphis newspaper observed. “One obliging dame removed hers, and the fans behind applauded.”15

The Travelers failed to capitalize on Buck Connors’ leadoff double in the top of the fifth inning, and the Turtles rallied in the bottom half. With one out, Owens reached when his grounder was fumbled by Page at short. Schwenck smacked a solid single to left field; it was “a simon pure wallop,” declared the Arkansas Gazette.16

After Orth Collins lined out to the third baseman, Arthur “Scrappy” Hess, for the second out, Babb singled, scoring Owens and sending Schwenck to third base, while Babb went to second on the throw-in.

Jack Fox then delivered a base hit that caromed off Thiel’s shoe tops in left field, and Schwenck and Babb came home to give Memphis a 3-1 lead. Fox was “a heavy artillery man” at the plate, noted the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and one of the best basketball players in the country.17

Memphis attempted to rally in the sixth but was denied by Speaker’s defense. Billy Cranston led off with a double down the third-base line and moved to third on Carey’s sacrifice. Vogel stepped to the plate, and the Arkansas Democrat described what followed: “Vogel smashes hard to center field and Speaker smothers the attempt at a home run. Cranston starts for home, and by a great peg, Speaker cuts the runner off at the plate. In spite of the remarkable play, cutting off a run for Memphis, the crowd cheers Speaker liberally.”18

There was no further scoring; the final tally was Memphis 3, Little Rock 1. The Commercial Appeal praised the fielding of Babb and Carey, who “knocked down hot shots” at third and first base respectively. And Cranston “grabbed all sorts of grounders in convincing style” at second base.19

Schwenck allowed only five hits in his complete-game victory. The Travelers “could not fathom his assortment of underhanded and overhanded curves and change of pace, with a spitter thrown in at random times for good measure.”20

And there was buzz over Speaker’s impressive debut. Three weeks later, after seeing Speaker excel once more, Schwenck told his Memphis teammates, “Boys, there’s a fellow that’s got no business in a minor league.”21 Speaker went on to lead the Southern Association with a .350 batting average. Having made good in Class A, he rejoined the Boston Red Sox in September 1908, and was on his way to two decades of Hall of Fame play with the Red Sox, Cleveland, Indians, Washington Senators, and Philadelphia Athletics.



This essay was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin.



Game coverage in the April 18, 1908, issues of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Arkansas Democrat, and Arkansas Gazette.

Left image: Circa 1908 portrait of Tris Speaker by photographer Carl Horner.

Center image: Circa 1908 pin depicting Scoops Carey.

Right image: Portrait of “Turtle Tom” McCullough from page 164 of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, 1909.



1 “Real Training at Red Elm,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 15, 1907: 11.

2 Baseball-reference.com, accessed in March 2022, gave the Memphis team nickname as the Egyptians, but the author found no evidence that this nickname was used in 1907 or 1908.

3 “Old Officers Are Elected,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, January 28, 1908: 16.

4 “Gossip of Those Who Are Chasing the Pennants,” Nashville Banner, August 20, 1907: 9.

5 “Three Clubs in the Race,” Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock), September 14, 1908: 2.

6 “‘Scoops’ Carey Reveals Some of the Secrets of His Craft,” Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), July 25, 1909: 9.

7 Baseball-reference.com, accessed in March 2022, listed Rudy Schwenck as a left-handed pitcher, but period articles and photographs indicate he was a right-hander.

8 “Locals Beaten in the Tenth,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 4, 1908: 11.

9 “Governor Here for First Game,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 16, 1908: 11.

10 “Governor Here for First Game.”

11 “Finn Says Scotchman Is League’s Best Catcher,” Arkansas Gazette, March 21, 1908: 8.

12 “The Southern League,” Sporting Life, April 18, 1908: 12.

13 Henry Chadwick, ed., Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, 1908 (New York: American Sports Publishing Co., 1908), 268.

14 “A Diamond in the Rough May Sparkle This Year,” Arkansas Gazette, March 24, 1908: 8.

15 “Memphii Land First Game,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 18, 1908: 13.

16 “Memphis 3, Little Rock 1,” Arkansas Gazette, April 18, 1908: 8.

17 “Local Outfield Seems Chosen,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, January 27, 1908: 10; “Memphii Slow in Reporting,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, March 13, 1908: 16.

18 “Travelers Lose in Fatal Fifth,” Arkansas Democrat, April 18, 1908: 2.

19 “Memphii Land First Game,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 18, 1908: 13.

20 “Memphii Land First Game,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 18, 1908: 12.

21 “Memphii Beat Little Rock, 6-1,” Arkansas Gazette, May 10, 1908: 10.

Additional Stats

Memphis Turtles 3
Little Rock Travelers 1

Red Elm Park
Memphis, TN

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