The seventh player elected to the Hall of Fame, Tris Speaker’s plaque there is inscribed “greatest centerfielder of his day.” From the start of his 22-year career, he maintained confidence in his eventual success despite some early setbacks. Bought in 1907 by the Red Sox for $750 from Houston of the Texas League, he did not hit, and the next spring, without a Boston contract, he was left behind at Little Rock as payment for the use of the training camp. His quick Southern League success convinced the Red Sox to recall him, as previously agreed, for $500.
He was anxious to improve his fielding and later recalled, “When I was a rookie, Cy Young used to hit me flies to sharpen my abilities to judge in advance the direction and distance of an outfield-hit ball.” Blessed with great speed and a powerful batting swing, he also worked to make himself a better batter and baserunner. Speaker played a shallow centerfield to catch potential hits.
He did not take kindly to personal criticism. In 1910 he sustained an early-season batting slump and manager Patsy Donovan politely suggested he temporarily yield his third batting spot. “Like hell I will!” replied Speaker, who finished the season at .340 as Boston’s best batter.
From 1910 to 1915, Speaker was the leader of Boston’s legendary outfield which included Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper, and made 161 of their record 455 assists. In Lewis’s words, “Speaker was the king of the outfield…It was always `Take it,’ or `I got it.’ In all the years we never bumped each other.”
In his first several years he enjoyed fringe benefits. His 1912 Chalmers AL award (predecessor of the MVP) brought him a $1,950 automobile, and a Boston jeweler donated a sterling-silver bat valued at $500 for his accomplishments. Speaker received $50 each time he hit the Bull Durham sign, first at Huntington Avenue, later at Fenway Park. He advertised Boston Garters, had a two-dollar straw hat named in his honor, and received free manufacturers’ mackinaws and heavy sweaters. Hassan cigarettes created the most popular tobacco trading cards of Speaker, with four depicting his progress around the bases.
Relations within the Boston team were so cordial that Larry Gardner described the club as a “big happy family,” enjoying group outings at Revere Beach when the team was at home. The same was not true between the players and the owner. President Joe Lannin infuriated Speaker after the 1915 Series victory by proposing a salary cut to under $10,000 because of his falling batting average; from 1912’s .383 to .365, then to .338, and in 1915 to a mere .322. Angry, the resolute Speaker would not sign and the obdurate Lannin traded him to Cleveland. For the next eleven years he averaged .354 and in 1920 he piloted the Indians to their first World Series title while batting .388 and cracking 50 doubles.
He was player-manager for the Indians for part of 1919 and the following seven full seasons. In 1926 a gambling scandal broke concerning a questionable game between Detroit and Cleveland in 1919. Speaker and Ty Cobb were alleged to have participated, and AL president Ban Johnson secured their “resignations” as managers to protect baseball’s image. Speaker ended his career with single seasons with the Senators and Athletics.
Although Speaker played only seven full seasons with Boston, he is second on the club all-time in both triples (106) and stolen bases (266), and is third behind Wade Boggs and Ted Williams in batting (.337). He is the all-time ML leader in doubles (793), leading the AL eight times. Speaker is also the all-time ML leader in outfield assists (448) and double plays (139), as well as the AL leader in outfield putouts (6,706). He is fifth in hits, seventh in triples and fewest strikeouts, eighth in runs, ninth in extra-base hits, and tenth in total bases.