Tris Speaker was one of the greatest baseball players to have ever lived. Unfortunately, in his own time he was largely overshadowed by Ty Cobb, whose equal skill and much greater bravado outshined Speaker. He is widely considered by serious fans and historians to be one of the greatest center fielders to have ever played the game of baseball, in a class alongside perhaps only Willie Mays. Yet, most baseball fans have never heard of Speaker, and that is a true shame.
Tristram E. Speaker was born on April 4, 1888 in Hubbard, Texas. Not much is known about his early childhood, but it is widely known that when he was ten years old, he was thrown from his horse and suffered a broken right arm. Even at this early age, he was an avid baseball player and a predominantly right-handed player, so he taught himself to pitch, throw, and bat lefthanded so he wouldn't miss out on the summer baseball leagues. Interestingly, he would break his left arm five years later and would force himself to bat and play righthanded while his left arm healed. He would go on to remain a lefty (most of the time) for the remainder of his career, and the tale is a testament to his determination and fortitude.
His ambidextrous talent, his willpower, and his ballplaying skill brought him to the attention of Doak Robers, who owned the Houston baseball team in the independent minor Texas League. At the time, the club was a farm team for the Boston Red Sox, so when 1906 rolled around, the team expressed their interest in the seventeen year old boy, who had gone from being a less-than-successful pitcher to being one of the best outfielders that the state had ever seen. Speaker's mother, however, felt that baseball was a game for hooligans who drank, smoked, gambled, and womanized. She refused to support his decision to play baseball, so Tris stayed behind in Hubbard for another year until his mother finally relented.
After traveling to Boston for a short cup of coffee at the end of the 1907 season, but the following year he was sent down to Boston's minor league affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas. Speaker led the league there in 1908 with a .350 batting average, so by the end of the season he was back with the Red Sox for good.
Speaker had solid years in 1909, 1910, and 1911, but his real breakout year came in 1912, when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series against the New York Giants. He, along with Joe Wood, led the team to the world championship that year, the only year to split up the dominance of the Philadelphia Athletics and their dominant $100,000 infield during the early part of the decade.
Speaker's excellence in all aspects of the game was readily apparent, and in 1914 he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox for $15,000, a princely sum in those years. He had another stellar season in 1914, but as the year ended, the penny-pinching that would later bury the Boston club and cause them to lose Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees had begun. The team only offered Speaker a contract for $7,500, and Speaker balked, thinking he was deserving of a number at least somewhat equal to the amount he was paid the previous year. With the negotiations in a deadlock, Speaker was traded to the lowly Cleveland Indians before the 1916 season. Cleveland's legendary player-manager, Nap Lajoie, had retired in 1914 and the team had traded away their best slugger, Shoeless Joe Jackson, so things looked dismal in Cleveland.
Seemingly determined to prove that the management of the Boston Red Sox were a pack of fools, he truly dominated the league in 1916, winning the batting title away from Ty Cobb and keeping the lowly Cleveland Indians in contention for most of the season. The team would turn around over the rest of the decade, slowly building to be a team that would be competitive annually. After the 1919 season, Speaker was installed as the manager of the ballclub in addition to his playing duties, and the team responded by winning the World Series in 1920, even as the grey cloud of the on-the-field death of teammate Ray Chapman hung over the club.
For the first half of the 1920s, Speaker continued to lead the team to a consistently competitive standard, though the team did not win the pennant. Instead, the New York Yankees juggernaut was just getting rolling. In 1926, faced with a gambling charge on the game of baseball, Tris Speaker, along with Ty Cobb and Joe Wood, were forced into a year of retirement near the end of their careers. Speaker returned in 1927 to play for the pitiful Washington Senators, then moved on to spend the final year of his career, 1928, warming the bench alongside Ty Cobb on the Philadelphia Athletics. Both men were too old to really contribute, so they largely warmed the bench and helped to pump ticket sales. Speaker retired after the season. He returned home to Texas, where he finally passed on on December 8, 1958 in Lake Whitney, Texas. He was remembered as a kind and charitable man who used his own money to build the Rainbow Hospital for Crippled Children in Cleveland, Ohio.
Tris Speaker may have been the best centerfielder to have ever played the game of baseball, yet most modern fans of the game have never heard the name. If it were not for the shadow of Ty Cobb, he would perhaps be remembered today in the light of the game's early greats such as Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, and Professor Cobb himself. He was a great hitter and a great defensive player, but more importantly, a good person.
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