Tris Speaker: The Grey Eagle
Speaker was born in the heart of Texas, Hill County, on April 4th, 1888, and was early recognized as a superb athlete. He had strength, balance, quickness–and, “flat out” speed. He participated in rodeo events (especially calf-roping), football and sandlot baseball. When he was a young teenager, he fell from a horse and broke his right arm. When it didn’t heal quite the way he thought it should, he taught himself how to throw a baseball left-handed and became, essentially, a left-handed thrower and hitter from then on. While playing football in high school, he broke his left arm, and the doctors deemed the injury serious enough to consider amputation. Fortunately, his arm “miraculously” healed.Speaker was a gifted athlete and a bright student. He attended Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth, Texas, but signed to play professional baseball prior to graduating. He became the centerpiece of the Boston Red Sox’s “Million Dollar Outfield” (sometimes called “The Golden Outfield”) with 2 other college boys (from St. Mary’s in California), Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper. With Lewis in LF and Hooper in RF, Speaker patrolled CF. It was here that Speaker acquired the title of “The Grey Eagle”, because some said he resembled “an eagle swooping in on his prey” when he went after balls that were hit to center field. In fact, he was so adept on defense, other players and fans alike said his glove was where “triples went to die”!
Speaker immediately started to revolutionize how center field should be played. He designed defensive “rotation plays” for the infield on bunt plays–with a twist not normally seen today. He started running in to cover second base! This method of defending bunt plays only works if you have a center fielder with enough speed, baseball acumen and the work ethic to practice until the system is mastered. It worked so well, with Speaker manning center field that the Red Sox became almost impossible, with runners on base, to bunt against. As a center fielder, Speaker accomplished 6 career unassisted double plays (getting the 2nd out at 2B). He played a generally shallow center field, because he knew his own pitchers’ tendencies and the capabilities of opposing hitters. And, his quickness and speed allowed him to be seemingly “everywhere at once”.In 1912, Speaker won the American League MVP Award, and led the Red Sox to a World Series victory over the fabled John McGraw’s New York Giants. During his MVP season, Speaker batted .383, had a .557 slugging percentage, and stole 52 bases. It took the Red Sox 61 years (Tommy Harper in 1973) to break that stolen base record. Speaker also hit over 50 doubles. It took until 1998 (86 years) to see another player have over 50 doubles and over 50 stolen bases in a single Major League season (Craig Biggio). They are still the only players to ever achieve this amazing feat.
In 1915, the Red Sox–with star 18-game winning pitcher Babe Ruth–again won the World Series. Speaker was instrumental in getting the Red Sox to platoon some players against certain pitchers, thereby maximizing his team’s offensive output, and it worked. Their 1915 Series opponent was the Philadelphia Phillies, led by their pitching Triple Crown winner, Grover Alexander, one of the greatest hurlers ever.
In 1916, Speaker, in a salary dispute, was traded to the Cleveland Indians. He proceeded to break Ty Cobb’s stranglehold on the AL batting crown (Cobb had won an astounding 9 titles in a row) by winning the top spot with a .386 mark. And, in 1920, he led the longtime “doormat” Indians to the American League pennant. This happened in the face of the terrible tragedy of short stop Ben Chapman’s death earlier in the year. The New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays had thrown a pitch that hit Chapman in the temple, and it resulted in his death. In the final game of the regular season, Speaker amazingly snagged a screaming line drive off the bat of the White Sox’s legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson to preserve the win–and the pennant–for the Indians. It was Jackson’s last game in the Major Leagues. The Grey Eagle went on to lead the Indians to their first Title in the World Series.Speaker’s career is indeed remarkable. He still holds the career record for doubles with 792. Along the way, he won 8 doubles crowns. He batted .344 for his 22 year career, the 6th highest average of all time. He batted over.350 for his nearly 11 years in Cleveland–and batted over .380 in his career 5 times. He has the 5th most number of hits with 3,514, and knocked in 1,529 runs. He also won 6 triples titles, and led in runs scored 8 times. Additionally, he led in On-Base percentage 4 times. He is considered to be one of the smartest base runners ever to lace up spikes. Speaker led in outfield putouts for 7 years, and in outfield double plays for 6 campaigns. He tallied 449 outfield assists–and chalked up 139 double plays. Amazing!
When Larry Doby was selected to break the color barrier in the American League with the Cleveland franchise, it was Speaker who was tapped to mentor him on the finer aspects of playing center field.
In 1937, The Grey Eagle was a consensus pick to join the new Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. What a fitting honor for the consummate player. Many say that Tris Speaker is still the best center fielder to ever play the game!