Normally when I try to wax eloquent about a Deadball Era player, I attempt to find some reasonably obscure one to say things about. This time I want to change that up and talk about a really good player, Tris Speaker. He, with suitable apologies to Eddie Collins, was arguably the third finest Deadball Era player behind only Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner.
He wasn’t an instant success, hitting a buck 58 in a seven game stint with Boston in 1907. In 1908 he hit all of .220. He was to hit below .300 exactly two more times: 1919, and his final season in 1928. His breakout year was 1910. He hit .340 and scored 92 runs. By 1912 he was teaming with Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis to win the World Series and establish one of Stone Age baseball’s finest outfields. In the Series he did OK, without being spectacular, and provided a key hit in the final inning of the final game. That same year he won his only home run title (with 10) and led the American League in doubles. His .383 batting average was third behind both Cobb and Joe Jackson.
Speaker (nicknamed “Spoke” by this point) had good years in both 1913 and 1914 then got back to the World Series in 1915. The Sox won in five games and he hit .294 with no RBIs. Before the 1916 season Boston traded him to Cleveland for pitcher Sam Jones, infielder Fred Thomas, and $55,000 cash. Chalk it up to lack of money and terminal stupidity (And you thought Boston’s bad trades began with Babe Ruth, didn’t you?).
Speaker continued to play well in Cleveland. In 1916 he led the league in hits, doubles, slugging and finally won a batting title. In 1919, he became player-manager and, despite a drop in his own stats, guided the Indians to second place. In 1920 they won the AL pennant and the World Series. For Speaker 1920 was a career year and a challenge. He hit .388, at the time a career high (he later hit .389 in 1925), and developed a new platoon system (first base and both outfield corners). He dealt with the accidental beaning and death of shortstop Ray Chapman with class and brought up future Hall of Famer Joe Sewell to replace Chapman.
Speaker stayed as player-manager through 1926, playing well and adapting to the post-Stone Age world. In 1927 he went to Washington where he teamed with Walter Johnson in the latter’s final season. His batting was still good, but his fielding was beginning to suffer. Age was slowing him down. In 1928, he moved on to Philadelphia for one final season where he teamed with Ty Cobb (also in his last season). It wasn’t a good year, and Speaker gave up playing when the Athletics season ended. He has chosen for the Hall of Fame in 1937.
Speaker is still fifth in hits (and was second when he retired) and is the all-time leader in doubles. That stat has a special kicker to it. He’s 48 doubles ahead of the second man on the list, Pete Rose. That’s farther ahead of the second place guy than the other extra base hit leaders. Sam Crawford leads Cobb by 14 in triples and Bonds in less than ten ahead of Aaron in home runs.
Speaker did some coaching and scouting after he retired. There were rumors he joined the Ku Klux Klan at one point. I can’t find a definitive source to verify (or refute) that. He was known for helping newly arriving black players, especially Larry Doby, when integration came to baseball. Maybe he was a Klansman or maybe he wasn’t, but it doesn’t seem to have carried over to his views on baseball talent.
Speaker is one of those talents that transcends his era. There are a lot of players that I look at and feel they were great because of when they played. Move ’em twenty years forward or backward and they might be marginal players or even stars, but not all-time greats. Tris Speaker isn’t one of those. His numbers transcend his era. I rate him a top five center fielder ever (Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays alphabetically, are the other four).