Speaker, Tris(tram) E.
SPEAKER, Tris(tram) E.
(b. 4 April 1888 in Hubbard, Texas; d. 8 December 1958 in Lake Whitney, Texas), Hall of Fame baseball player who is considered one of the greatest centerfielders of all time; as a player-manager he led the Cleveland Indians to a World Series championship in 1920.
Speaker was one of eight children born to Archie Speaker, a carpenter, and Nancy Jane ("Jennie") Poer, a homemaker. Speaker's father died when he was ten and he was very close to his mother throughout his life. He broke his right arm as a youngster while breaking horses and so learned to throw and hit left-handed. He then broke his left arm playing football and doctors wanted to amputate. He refused and simply gave up football, instead concentrating on baseball. He pitched for two years for Fort Worth Polytechnic Institute (now Texas Wesleyan University), and in the summer following his sophomore year he played for a semiprofessional team in Corsicana, Texas.
Doak Roberts, owner of the Cleburne team in the North Texas League, discovered Speaker while scouting an outfielder on his team. Speaker was the winning pitcher and hit two home runs, so Roberts gave him a contract of $50 a month and $1 train fare to Waco, where Cleburne was playing. Speaker pocketed the $1 and hopped a freight, reporting to manager Benny Shelton at 6:30 A. M. Shelton started Speaker on the mound that day and he lost 3–2. He subsequently lost several more games, including one by a 22–4 score.
At this juncture, Speaker convinced Shelton to shift him to the outfield where he hit .263 and stole 33 bases in 87 games. The following year the North and South Texas Leagues merged and Roberts moved his franchise, along with Speaker, to Houston. There Speaker batted .318 and was purchased late in the season by the Boston Red Sox for $750 over the objections of his mother, who thought he was being "sold into slavery." He appeared in seven games for the Red Sox but only managed three hits in nineteen at-bats. The Red Sox did not think enough of Speaker to send him a contract over the winter, so in the spring of 1908 he traveled to nearby Marlin, Texas, where the New York Giants trained, and was twice rebuffed by legendary Giants manager John McGraw, who thought he had more outfielders than he could use.
Speaker then paid his own way to the Red Sox camp in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Red Sox did sign him again but left him with the Little Rock franchise of the Southern League at the end of spring training as partial payment for the stadium rent. The Red Sox retained the option to re-purchase Speaker for $500 and did so in September after he hit .350 to lead the league. The Little Rock owner, Mickey Finn, had offers from the Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Washington Senators, but felt honor bound to the Red Sox.
Speaker batted .309 in 1909, his first full major league season and the first of eighteen seasons he would hit above .300. By 1910 he was a full-fledged star, batting .340, and in 1912 he hit .383 for the season and led the Red Sox to a World Series victory against the Giants, who had snubbed him only four years previously. With Boston he anchored what is often thought of as the greatest outfield in history with Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper. That outfield also led the Red Sox to the 1915 American League pennant and another World Series victory in 1915, this time over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Even with the 1915 World Championship, Red Sox owner Joe Lannin tried to cut Speaker's salary because the war with the rival Federal League was over and Speaker had batted "only" .322 the previous year. The predictable salary impasse led to Speaker's trade to the Cleveland Indians on the eve of the 1916 season for $50,000, along with pitcher Sad Sam Jones and infielder Fred Thomas. Speaker responded by hitting .386 for his new team, ending Ty Cobb's extraordinary string of nine straight batting titles. He also led the league in hits, doubles, and slugging average.
The Indians named Speaker player-manager in July 1919, and he led the club to a long-awaited pennant and World Series victory in 1920. That year Speaker batted .388, second to George Sisler's .407, and he again led the league in doubles with fifty. As manager, he endured the August death of his shortstop Ray Chapman by a pitched ball. Chapman was his best friend on the team and the team's most popular player. Speaker was so upset by the tragedy that he left the club for several days.
The 1920 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers was a memorable one, involving Bill Wambsganss's unassisted triple play and the first grand-slam home run in Series history by Elmer Smith. When the Indians clinched the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Speaker raced from his position in centerfield and climbed into the stands behind the third-base line to embrace his mother.
On 15 January 1925 the thirty-seven-year-old Speaker married Frances Cudahy of Buffalo, New York, and celebrated by batting .389 for the season. In 1926 a gambling scandal broke involving Speaker and Ty Cobb, both of whom were accused by former pitcher Dutch Leonard of conspiring to fix a game in 1919. American League president Ban Johnson suspended both players, but commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis investigated and exonerated the two. In a strange twist, however, Landis insisted on placing both players with new teams, meaning both had to resign their managerial positions, Cobb with Detroit and Speaker after eight years as Cleveland's player-manager. Thus, Speaker played the 1927 season with the Washington Senators before joining old rival Cobb with the Philadelphia Athletics for both of their final years.
Speaker managed the Newark Bears of the International League in 1929 and 1930, where he batted .355 and .419 as a spot player. He then broadcast games in Chicago before becoming involved in the wholesale liquor business in Cleveland. He also served as chairman of the Cleveland Boxing Commission and later briefly became co-owner and manager of the Kansas City Blues of the American Association before returning to the broadcast booth, this time in Cleveland. The Indians later employed him as a scout, batting instructor, and advisor.
Speaker was one of the greatest all-round ballplayers of all time, although he was often overshadowed by his contemporary, Ty Cobb. He was a tremendous hitter with extra-base power to all fields and a fleet and skillful base runner with 433 lifetime stolen bases. He batted over .380 four times and over .360 eight times in his illustrious career. He had a lifetime batting average of .344 with 3,514 hits, placing him fourth all time. His 793 doubles are still a major league record. His "Gray Eagle" nickname bespoke both of his prematurely gray hair and his reputation as a heady ballplayer. Teammates commonly called him "Spoke," as in the key spoke in the wheel. He was the seventh player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.
Speaker possessed one of the finest throwing arms of his day and is first in assists all time, throwing out thirty or more men in a season four times. His shallow play in centerfield allowed him to catch many short balls that would have otherwise fallen as hits. He would sometimes sneak in behind a runner on second for a pick-off play from the pitcher and several times completed unassisted double plays at second, once in the 1912 World Series and twice in one game in 1916. Once he even served as the pivot man on a routine ground ball double play: second baseman to center fielder to first baseman.
Speaker was also outstanding at going back for balls, a skill he attributed to legendary pitcher Cy Young, his teammate with Boston. Young was outstanding with a fungo bat and gave Speaker plenty of experience in racing for balls over his head during practice. Speaker once jumped over a fence in Washington to make a spectacular catch and is probably the first outfielder to test the wind by throwing grass in the air. He is second all time for putouts.
In December 1957 Speaker visited his hometown of Hubbard. While on a fishing trip to nearby Lake Whitney, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of seventy. His last words were, "I am Tris Speaker." He is buried in Hubbard.
The National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, houses material on Speaker's career. The Ellery Clark, Jr., Red Sox Analytical Letter Collection in Annapolis, Maryland, contains interviews with Speaker and teammates under the title "A Closeup of Tris Speaker." For short biographical treatments see Ira Smith, Baseball's Famous Outfielders (1954); Bob Broeg, Superstars of Baseball (1971); and Lowell Reidenbaugh, Cooperstown: Where Baseball's Legends Live Forever (1983). Speaker's tenure with the Boston Red Sox is well covered in Frederick Lieb, The Boston Red Sox (1947); his career with the Cleveland Indians is covered in Franklin Lewis, The Cleveland Indians (1949). His role with the 1920 Cleveland Indians is chronicled in Tom Meany, Baseball's Greatest Teams (1949). Speaker's reaction to Ray Chapman's death in 1920 is detailed in Mike Sowell, The Pitch That Killed (1989). The 1926 gambling scandal involving Speaker and Ty Cobb is well developed in David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Dec. 1958).
C. Paul Rogers III