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Tris Speaker

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Tris Speaker
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Boston Red Sox 1907-15
Cleveland Indians 1916-26
Washington Senators 1927
Philadelphia Athletics 1928

Owner of the sixth best batting average in history, the all time leader in doubles, and fifth all time in hits, Tris Speaker is probably the least known truly great player in the Grand Old Game's history. Playing in the shadow of Ty Cobb, and later, Babe Ruth, Speaker's greatness with the bat was equaled only by his prowess with the glove.

Tristram E. Speaker was born on April 4, 1888 in Hubbard, TX. In 1907, at the age of nineteen, he was playing for Houston of the Texas League when his rights were sold to the Boston Red Sox for $750. Speaker was so unimpressive at the Red Sox training camp in Little Rock, AR, that the team left him behind as payment to the Southern League team in that town as payment for use of their facilities.

Ever the fighter, Speaker played well enough in Little Rock to earn a September call up later that season. In seven games that season, he hit just .158 with no extra base hits. The Texan fared little better in 1908, hitting .224 in 31 games with Boston. Instead of getting discouraged by his struggles, Speaker worked even harder to succeed. As a rookie he would spent hours with legendary pitcher Cy Young, who would hit hundreds of fly balls to the young outfielder.

A year later, the hard work began to pay off when the 21-year-old hit .309 with 77 RBI and established himself as a Boston regular. The following season, Speaker hit .340, which began an era of excellence that would last well into the 1920s.

In 1912 Speaker had his finest season, batting .383 and leading the league with 53 doubles, a .464 on base percentage, and won the AL MVP. The Red Sox, meanwhile, won the pennant and defeated the New York Giants in the World Series.

In 1915 the Red Sox won another World Series, but the good times in Boston were about to come to an end for Speaker. When the star outfielder received his contract offer for the 1916 season from owner Joe Lannin, he was shocked to see that it included a pay cut from $11,000 to $9,000. Lannin, citing Speakers dip in average from .383 to .365 to .338 to .322 over the past four seasons felt that his centerfielder was overpaid. Furious, Speaker demanded $15,000 and held out during Spring Training.

Finally, on April 12, the stalemate ended when Lannin sent Speaker to Cleveland for Sam Jones, Fred Thomas, and $55,000 cash. The veteran quickly reversed his trend of declining production, hitting .386 and finally beating out his good friend, Ty Cobb, for the batting title. Over the next seven seasons, he would hit at a .354 clip.

By 1919, Speaker had established himself as the team leader in Cleveland and was named player/manager. In 1920 the Tribe overcame the tragic death of shortstop Ray Chapman to win the AL pennant, led by Speaker's career high .388 average. The Indians went on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the best-of-nine World Series.

"The Gray Eagle", a nickname he picked up because of his prematurely gray hair, remained with the Indians in the dual role through the 1926 season before a scandal threatened to destroy his legacy. In November former Tigers' pitcher Dutch Leonard turned over letters to AL president Ban Johnson that were written by Ty Cobb and former Cleveland pitcher/outfielder Joe Wood in which the two reportedly discussed fixing a game in 1919.

According to Leonard (who had been released by Cobb in Detroit), there was an agreement made by Cobb and Speaker in 1919 that the Tigers would win a September game in order to secure their share of third place money. At a secret meeting with AL brass, it was decided that both Speaker and Cobb would resign from their positions of player/manager of their respective clubs. Both denied any wrongdoing.

After hearing the swirling rumors, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis decided to take charge and arranged a meeting with the two stars. A hearing was set for January 5, 1927, but when Leonard failed to appear to testify, Landis decided to take no further action and both players were declared free agents. Speaker signed with Washington and Cobb inked a deal with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Speaker hit .327 in 1927 with Washington, but was released following the season. He would later sign with Philadelphia, where both he and Cobb would play one final season. Speaker's career totals include a .345 batting average (6th all time), 3,514 hits (5th all time), 792 doubles (1st all time), and 222 triples (6th all time). He is also the games' career leader in outfield assists (448), double plays (139), and is widely considered the greatest defensive centerfielder ever.

A member of the Hall of Fame's second class in 1937, Speaker returned to his native Texas after his playing days. Tris Speaker died on December 8, 1958, at the age of 70, in Lake Whitney, TX.

-David Zingler, March 2004

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