Monday, February 11, 2008

TW Hit List - Tris Speaker

Tris Speaker, the “Gray Eagle.” One of my all-time favorites, probably because I have a soft spot for the overlooked aspects of life, and Speaker played in the shadow of Ty Cobb most of his career. But those with an appreciation for the history of the game know Mr. Speaker. He was one of the early true greats, a player who could “do it all,” and was apparently universally admired by his contemporaries. He hit for average, smoked extra-base hits, stole bases, and played one of the best centerfields in history. He was famous for playing extraordinarily shallow. His great speed and greater ability to read the ball off the bat allowed him to be as Ruth called him, a “fifth infielder.” Ruth swore he saw Speaker throw out at man at first base from centerfield on several occasions. He holds the record for unassisted double-plays by an outfielder. This ability to cover his position is more remarkable in a day when centerfield fences were often 450’ or greater from home plate.

But he would have made his name on hitting alone. About the only thing he did not do well was hit home runs, but he played his first several years in the so-called “dead-ball” era and was a natural line-drive hitter. But had he cared, I think he would have hit ‘em out as well. But as Williams points out, he held his bat low to protect the plate. And did he! The Gray Eagle had an eagle-eye. He struck out only 220 times in his career. His 46.4 at-bats per strikeout blow away anyone else for his number of games and at-bats. His concern was average and reaching base and as the song might say, when it came to hitting straight and fast, he was mighty good. Speaker only won one batting title, in 1916, when he hit .386. Most years, he was chasing Ty Cobb. But he hit .350 or better nine times and finished with a career .345 average. He walked often, and put up a .428 on-base percentage. His career OPS of .928 was fantastic for a guy who only hit 117 home runs. But he ripped 222 triples and his 792 doubles still stands as the AL record.

The man did all this as a left-handed hitter. But he was born right-handed. He broke his right arm severely as a teenager getting thrown from a horse. He played left-handed from then on. Yes, played, not just batted. In fact, he was a left-handed pitcher in school after his accident! How do you do that? But then, he hurt his left arm playing football. Doc tells him he’d likely have to amputate, but Speaker says that won’t do. His arm heals and he goes on to a Hall of Fame career batting and throwing with his left arm. So, he pitched and hit with his off-arm, he ran the bases and played maybe the best centerfield ever. But he knew the game too. He was made player-manager of the Indians in 1919, and in 1920 he led them to the World Series championship while hitting .324 in the Series.

Williams mentions that he was the epitome of endurance and of the “aristocracy of baseball.” The first is right, but the second? Is baseball aristocratic? Would “Spoke” himself say so? He told Baseball Magazine that “The American boy starts swinging a bat as soon as he can lift one.” Baseball is the uniquely American pastime and is not limited to some class or other. God gives severally as He will, which is why Spoke also said, “It would be useless for any player to attempt to explain successful batting.” So he didn’t. He just hit the cover off the ball and let his play do the explaining.

After ball, he broadcasted games for awhile and when he was announced into the Hall of Fame in 1937, he was running a wholesale liquor business and was chairman of Cleveland’s Boxing Commission. This guy was an outstanding talent, he had an indomitable will, he knew and respected the game, and he was a man of varied interests who served society productively after his playing days. Again, one of my favorites from the past. No aristocrat, he earns his reputation as one of the elite in the history of the sport.


At 12:38 PM, Blogger dil8d halo said...

Baseball, booze, and boxing! This guy is awesome! He switched from being right handed to left and didn't miss a beat? Amazing. True talent.


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