Monday, November 17, 2008

Ghosts of the Past - Tris Speaker

In my first post I mentioned the idea of featuring players from the earliest days of baseball’s history. A lot of these players, though stars in their time, have faded from memory and are completely unknown to today’s fans. They have become nothing more than ghosts of the past, ephemeral spectres that lurk in the dark shadows of time. Tris Speaker, though not an unknown name by virtue of being in the Hall of Fame, is the first of these ghosts I want to illuminate.

Even though Speaker is in the Hall of Fame and baseball fans may recognize his name, I would guess that most know little to nothing about how good a player Speaker was in his time. Speaker's Hall of Fame plaque proclaims him to be "the greatest Centerfielder of his day." Indeed, during his 20 year career (1907 - 1928) Speaker led all American League outfielders in putouts 7 times, and is still the all-time leader in assists (448), double plays (139) and the AL leader in total putouts (6,706). To put this in perspective, Willie Mays, who many consider to be the best outfielder of all time only recorded 195 total assists and 51 double plays. And while his total putouts (7,290) exceeds Speaker's, Mays played nearly 10 years longer than Speaker did. Let that sink in for a minute. Speaker has nearly as many DOUBLE PLAYS as an outfielder as Mays had total assists! Speaker was famous for playing so shallow in Centerfield that he was almost a fifth infielder. In fact, recorded 6 unassisted double plays by catching a line drives on the fly and beating runners back to second base.

Speaker was not just a defensive specialist though. He was also one of the era's great offensive threats. Speaker put up such incredible numbers that he still ranks in the top ten all-time in batting average (5th), hits (5th), triples (6th), runs (8th) and is the all-time doubles leader with 792. He led the American League in batting average only once (1916), though he batted over .380 five times, and finished behind Ty Cobb multiple times. Speaker never struck out more than 25 times in a season, and even led the AL in home runs in 1912 (with a whopping total of 10). Remember too, that Speaker achieved these numbers in the "dead ball era" when the league wide batting average was .243, entire teams only hit less than 10 home runs in a season, and pitchers were allowed to scuff, spit on and manipulate the ball in ways that are illegal in today's game. Speaker's best offensive year came in 1912, a year in which he won the Chalmers award, the predecessor of todays MVP award.

Tris Speaker played the first nine years of his career with the Boston Red Sox. In his prime he was part of the "Million Dollar Outfield" with Duffy Lewis and fellow Hall of Famer Harry Hooper - considered by many the best outfield trio ever assembled (look for more on Hooper and Lewis in future posts). Speaker helped guide the Red Sox to World Series victories in 1912, 1915 and 1916. Following the 1916 World Series, in which he led his team with a .300 average, 9 hits and 4 runs scored, Speaker had a falling out with the Red Sox President, Joe Lannin, who wanted to cut Speaker's salary from $15,000 to $9,000 due to his declining batting average. Speaker refused and was traded to the Cleveland Indians for two lower tier players and $50,000. Speaker went on to play eleven years for Cleveland, guided them to a World Series in 1920 (Cleveland's first) and averaged over .350 during that span. Baseball experts rank it among the worst trades ever, including the Babe Ruth debacle (why does it seem like the Red Sox have been on the losing ends of so many of these bad trades?). Tris Speaker's career in Cleveland ended with a gambling scandal involving Ty Cobb (Speaker and Cobb were ultimately granted amnesty by Judge Kenisaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner of baseball). Speaker went on to play one season each with the Washington Senators and Philadelphia A's and his statistics during those years were subpar.

Tris Speaker retired from baseball at the end of the 1928 season and was elected as the seventh member of Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1937. There are a number of annecdotal stories about Tris Speaker. My favorite is that he was the first player to test the wind by throwing grass into the air. He also had one of the best nicknames - Spoke, which supposedly is a play on his last name. In terms of baseball cards, Speaker is featured in many of the iconic sets of the early 20th Century, including the T206 set made famous by Honus Wagner. I've included some images of some of the more interesting and iconic cards featuring ole Spoke.

Image key (I'm still figuring this blogger thing out - its totally different than the desktop publishing programs I'm used to) from top:
1. 1909 T202 Hassan Triple Folder
2. 1909-1911 T206
3. 1911 T201 Mecca Double Folder
4. 1913 WG5 National Game
5. 1911 T3 Turkey Red
6. 1911 T205


AdamE said...

If those are your cards scanned in here I am so JEALOUS!!

Scott C. (starkill1138) said...

Not this post! Or any of the early 20th century posts I have planned. My earliest card is from 1950. That said, one of the purposes of this blog is to give me the impetus to scan more of my collection. I intend for most of the cards featured in my posts to be from my personal collection.