Born in a small town in Texas, Tris Speaker became one of the most famous players of the Deadball Era. His career was so long ago – and there are so many other stars from baseball’s history – that many may have forgotten “The Grey Eagle.”
But in an era known for pitching, Speaker was an amazing contact hitter. His 792 doubles are still the most hit by any player in Major League Baseball history – and record that has held since 1928.
He also played a great center field, so good that people debated who was better, him or the legendary Ty Cobb. Some felt he could field and throw better than Cobb, even if he never quite matched Cobb as a hitter.
An Overview of Tris Speaker’s Career
Speaker spent 22 seasons in baseball, starting in 1907 with the Boston Americans. He played in Boston until 1915. He was traded by Boston to the Cleveland Indians, where he played from 1916 to 1926. Starting in the 1919 season, he became the Indians manager while also still playing.
He finished his career with one season each in Washington and Philadelphia before retiring at the age of 40.
Here are just some of the milestones Speaker reached in his career.
- His 792 doubles are still the career record
- He led the league in hits twice (1914 and 1916)
- He led the league in doubles eight times (1912, 1914, 1916, 1918, 1920-23)
- He was named American League Most Valuable Player in 1912, while playing for Boston (the team also won the World Series)
- He hit .386 in 1916
- He retired with a .345 batting average
- He was part of three World Series championships, including the 1920 Indians team in which he was both a player and manager
Speaker became famous for playing a shallow centerfield, one reason why he led the American League in outfield assists three times. He played shallow because, according to a quote from the Baseball Hall of Fame, “I still see more games lost by singles that drop just over the infield than a triple over the outfielder’s head. I learned early that I could save more games by cutting off some of those singles than I would lose by having an occasional extra-base hit go over my head.”
Speaker was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937.
Tris Speaker’s Early Life
Speaker was born April 4, 1888, in Hubbard, Texas. Few towns were big in those days in Texas. Hubbard, about 70 miles south of Dallas, was no exception. Speaker’s father was in the dry goods business in the town of about 500 people. He died when Speaker was 10.
Speaker, born right-handed, taught himself to throw left-handed after getting bucked off a horse and breaking his arm. When he started playing baseball, he also taught himself to bat left-handed. By high school, he was playing both baseball and football.
He attended Fort Worth Polytechnic Institute, where he pitched for the school’s team. He also earned extra money cow punching and as a telegraph lineman.
In 1906, he was signed by the Texas League team Cleburne Railroaders as a pitcher, but he failed miserably on the mound, losing six straight games. On the other hand, he hit .268 and stole 33 bases.
In 1907, he played for a Texas League team in Houston, hitting over .300 and stealing 36 bases. At the end of the season, he Boston Americans purchased his contract and brought him up the big leagues, where he played in 17 games and got three hits in 19 at-bats.
Unimpressed by his performance, the Red Sox sent him to the Arkansas Travelers for the 1908 season.
Success in Little Rock
Speaker wanted to play for the New York Giants, but they turned him down. In Little Rock, playing in the Southern Association, Speaker hit .350 and stole 28 bases. Boston had sold his contract to the Travelers with the stipulation they would have first shot at signing Speaker if he developed. The Travelers stuck with the deal, even though Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and even the Giants were now interested.
In 1908, back up with Boston, Speaker still was not hitting well, but his outfield play was near perfect. Teamed with Huffy Hooper and Duffy Lewis, it was one of the most storied outfields in baseball history.
Speaker then began to hit, and from his rocky start with the organization led Boston to World Series victories in 1912 and 1915. He became a beloved star in Boston. But he also got into brawls with other teammates, including Irish Catholics on the team (Speaker was a Protestant).
Babe Ruth arrived in Boston in 1915. Also, the Red Sox owner publicly declared that he wanted to lower Speaker’s salary because his batting average had dipped in each of the last three seasons. Speaker held out and Boston traded him to Cleveland.
Tris Speaker as a Player/Manager
Speaker continued to play at a high level in Cleveland and eventually took over as manager in the 1919 season. In his first full year as a player-manager in 1920, the Indians defeated the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series.
He finished his career with one season each in Washington and Philadelphia before retiring at the age of 40. Speaker was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937, one of the first eight players to get picked for the hall.
Tris Speaker died Dec. 8, 1958, in Texas from a heart attack as he returned from a fishing a trip.