December 10, 2019

Speaker Spoke Plenty Loud

January 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle. All four men bring to mind ideals you want in an outfielder. How about Tris Speaker? Speaker joined Cobb and Ruth on the membership roll when the Hall of Fame opened in 1939, yet not much is said or written about him.

Speaker didn’t have Ruth’s power or lust for life. He didn’t have Cobb’s ferocity that inspired awe and terror, nor did he have folk songs dedicated to him like DiMaggio or Mantle. The man known as “Spoke” or “The Gray Eagle” simply did his job. Teammates gave him the latter nickname as a result of graying hair in his twenties, proof perhaps of how much he cared about the game he played so well.

Read Charles C. Alexander’s “Spoke“ because:

1. Speaker is one of baseball’s greatest players.

Speaker’s .345 career batting average ranks sixth all-time; 3514 hits is fifth-best; his .428 on-base percentage ranks 11th; 1882 runs is 11th. Eighty-three years after he played his final game, Speaker’s 792 doubles are 46 better than Pete Rose’s total that sits second all-time. Speaker’s doubles top Craig Biggio’s more recent total (668) by more than 120. Four hundred forty-nine outfield assists speak to his all-around skill and are the most in baseball history.

Damon Runyon wrote, “For years and years to come we will be contemplating the possibilities of a human being who could field and throw like Speaker.” Joe Williams wrote, “Inevitably all outfield stars will be compared to Speaker and inevitably all will suffer.” (xvi-xvii, Spoke)

For all his hitting prowess, it may be surprising to learn, Speaker credited much of his fielding acumen to Cy Young. Speaker paired his hitting knowledge with insights from the pitching great. “I didn’t start with the crack of the bat, I started before the ball was hit,” Speaker said. The pair of Boston teammates spent 30 minutes a day hitting fungos (17). Make no mistake, Speaker cut his own path toward greatness. The veteran of 22 seasons stayed ready in the outfield by picking and chewing blades of grass. He directed his throws from center field to halfway in between third base and home plate, convinced that no lefty could deliver a strike down the middle from center field. Whatever he did worked. On April 20, 1912, Speaker christened Fenway Park with a game-saving over-the-shoulder grab and the winning base hit.

2. Alexander portrays Speaker like the classic Marlboro Man.

The native Texan grew up playing baseball and herding steers. “Baseball just seemed to me to be too tame to hold him long,” his sister said (4). Scarcely older than 12, Speaker began carrying a six-shooter. Throughout his life, the cowboy-turned ballplayer couldn’t wait to explore the western frontier following the baseball season.

3. Speaker did something only two sets of players have ever done.

In 1916, with murmurs picking up steam that he had begun to decline at age 28, Speaker left Boston for Cleveland.  That season he led the league in batting average (beating out Cobb) and injected energy into a lifeless Cleveland franchise. Four years later in 1920, Speaker, the public relations face of the franchise, led the team to the Indians’ first of two World Series titles.

Later, Speaker helped make Larry Doby into a Hall of Fame second baseman. Doby worked with Speaker daily on all aspects of the game, and he credited the elder statesman with helping him transform himself from a .156 hitter when the two first met into a big-league ballplayer.

Speaker’s game spoke loudly enough about why he should be in the conversation with all-time greats.

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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