Tris Speaker- Seventh Man into the Hall of Fame

Tris Speaker played his entire career in the shadow of the great Ty Cobb. But Cobb, who threw praise around quite sparingly, always insisted that Tris Speaker was the best player he ever competed against. Indeed, Tris Speaker, the seventh man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, did much to earn such accolades. Tris Speaker still holds the record for most career doubles and outfield assists, and those who saw him say he was the best fielding centerfielder to ever patrol a baseball field.

Tris Speaker almost never had the chance to play baseball. Two accidents that occurred during his youth could have prevented Tris Speaker from fulfilling his dream of being a ballplayer. Born in Hubbard, Texas in 1888, Tris Speaker fell off a horse as a child and broke his right arm, forcing him to learn how to throw with his left. He became so adept at this that Tris Speaker stayed a lefty after his right arm had healed. A severe injury incurred during a football game to that left arm had surgeons wanting to amputate the limb, but Tris Speaker would not allow it and fully recovered.

After playing one year of college ball, Tris Speaker hit .318 in the Texas League in 1906. His contract was sold to Boston of the American League, but after a less than stellar debut, Tris Speaker found himself in the Southern League, traded to the Little Rock team in exchange for Boston being able to use their facilities during spring training. But Tris Speaker hit so well at Little Rock that the Red Sox re-purchased his contract and by 1908 he had become a fixture in centerfield. Tris Speaker batted .309 that year, and he would fail to hit under .300 just twice for the next twenty years.

Playing the majority of his 22 seasons during the dead ball era, when home runs were the exception rather than the rule, Tris Speaker actually led the AL in 1910-with ten round trippers. He won one batting title, in 1916 with a .388 average. Tris Speaker would have eight seasons when he hit well over.350 and did not win the batting title. But when it came to doubles, Tris Speaker had the market cornered there. On ten different occasions Tris Speaker led his league in two-baggers, five times reaching fifty in a season. Tris Speaker banged out 792 doubles, 46 more than the number two man on the all-time list, Pete Rose.

In 1912, Tris Speaker was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player by virtue of his .383 average, 222 base hits, 136 runs scored, and 90 batted in. During the World Series, against John McGraw’s New York Giants, Tris Speaker batted .300 and knocked in the tying run in the deciding game, which Boston went on to win over the legendary Christy Mathewson. But a salary dispute after the 1915 season, which saw Boston defeat the Phillies in five contests for another championship, caused Tris Speaker to be dealt to the Indians before the 1916 campaign. Once there, Tris Speaker continued his assault on AL hurlers, batting over .360 five times. He also became a player/manager in 1919, and in 1920 Tris Speaker led the Tribe to its first title. He batted .388 and knocked in 107 runs, and kept the team’s spirit up after shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch on August 16th and died the next day; this was Major League Baseball’s only on field related fatality. Cleveland won the World Series five games to two over the Brooklyn Robins, with Tris Speaker again batting over .300.

Nobody in the long history of the sport ever played a shallower centerfield than Tris Speaker. His great speed and instincts for the ball allowed him to take away line drives that would normally have been hits and also go back and catch the ball when it was hit over his head. None other than the great pitcher, Cy Young, used to hit balls to Tris Speaker in the outfield for hours until he was able to judge where just about every ball was headed. Playing so close to the infield made it possible for Tris Speaker to accumulate more assists than any other outfielder ever to play the game. His 449 assists went along with a .970 fielding percentage. Tris Speaker played so shallow that he would sometimes slip behind unsuspecting base runners at second and tag them out on pickoff throws from his catcher! Two times in 1918, Tris Speaker caught low line drives and beat the runner back to second to record unassisted double plays.

A scandal involving Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, the supposed fixing of an Indians-Tigers’ contest, made then Commissioner Landis force Speaker out of his managerial position, even though the charges were never proven. Tris Speaker finally left the game after playing a single year each with the Senators and the A’s. After his retirement in 1928 at the age of forty, Tris Speaker helped to found the Cleveland Society for Crippled Children. He became a scout and advisor for the Indians from 1947 until he passed away at the age of seventy in 1958. Tris Speaker was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937. None other than John McGraw once said of the career .345 hitter, who amassed over 3,500 base hits, “Ty Cobb would have to play center field on my all time team. But where would that put Tris Speaker? In left. If I had them both, I would certainly play them that way.”

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