“Tris was everywhere in the outfield: he could grab a ball against the fence and net a ball off his shoes directly behind second base. The instant a batter hit a ball, Tris could gauge the spot where it was headed. He could sprint with his back to the stand, and the ball would generally land in his hands, so accurate was his judgment of speed and distance.”- Connie Mack
“There is no manlier man than Tris Speaker”- Joe Williams, New York sportswriter
Tristram E. (no full middle name) Speaker was born of Irish-Scottish decent in Hubbard, TX on April 4, 1888. Tris was left fatherless at the age of ten amid several siblings. His mother, Jennie assumed the formidable task of rearing the large family. A topple from a horse severely broke his arm and the natural right hander had to retrain himself to throw and bat lefty. On the other hand (literally), his left arm was injured playing football and surgeons recommended amputation. The young Speaker refused such drastic treatment and allowed his indomitable determination to overcome his misfortunes. Recovering, Tris played two sports while attending Fort Worth Polytechnic Institute but decided to concentrate on his pitching skills rather than toil on the gridiron. As a sophomore, the black-haired, blue-eyed semi-pro was scouted by the Cleburne club of the North Texas League and then signed a $50-per-month contract in 1906. His mother refused to offer her blessing towards her talented son’s career path, likening the movement of players by the owners as being “sold into slavery”. After seven lackluster mound appearances, the last being a 22-run shellacking, his bat improved his efforts with an outfield rope that broke the right fielder’s cheekbone. Speaker volunteered to replace the incapacitated player and then never again returned to infield defensive play. The new position proved beneficial to his play by topping the now relocated to Houston team with a batting .314 average. His unorthodox manner of playing a shallow outfield (just forty feet behind second base), racing back and catching balls hit overhead, virtually empowered his team with a fifth infielder. Through hard work, keen observation and God-given speed, Speaker developed a knack of predetermining the destination of a hit ball with dazzling results. Speaker remembered, “When I was a rookie, Cy Young used to hit me flies to sharpen my abilities to judge in advance the direction and the distance of an outfield-hit ball.” His brazen “back up” of second base allowed him to pick-off surprised base runners, execute unassisted double plays and accumulate many, otherwise seldom seen assists. Tris’ 35 assists enabled by a strong, accurate arm in 1909 set an American League record for outfielders which stands to this day. Blessed with sure hands and lightening quick legs, he virtually challenged A.L. batters to take their best shot at beating him. The patrolman of the pivot is recognized as the pioneering master of reinventing the outfield position and may have been the first player to toss grass into the air to test the wind direction.
The St. Louis Browns had first dibs at Speaker but passed at the opportunity allowing the Boston Red Sox his purchase for $800 in 1907. An unimpressive seven-game debut in late season prevented the Sox from renewing his services for the 1908 campaign. Early in 1908, the 6’, 190 pound Speaker reported to the Giants training camp in Marlin, TX, just 40 miles from his hometown of Hubbard. Manager John McGraw dismissed the free agent outright without a tryout claiming that he was over laden with outfield prospects. Undaunted, Speaker reported to Red Sox pre-season camp in Little Rock, AR which resulted in a minor league seasoning with their Southern League affiliate. His league-leading.350 average earned him another shot as the everyday center fielder for the parent team of the 1909 season. Not squandering a second opportunity, Tris stood deep in the box with bat hip-high and hit.309 for the year and finished above the .300 mark for 10 consecutive seasons, 18 throughout his career. Combined with the able-bodied flankers of Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper, many consider the trio the finest outfield ever assembled. Lewis recalled, “Speaker was the king of the outfield… It was always ‘Take it’, or ‘I got it.’ In all the years we never bumped into each other.” Speaker was not one to accept constructive criticism gracefully. When manager Patsy Donovan suggested a move to the three spot in the lineup during an early season slump in 1910, Speaker snarled in return, “like hell I will”. Boston’s perennial cleanup hitter finished atop the roster at .340. Despite his all-business approach to the game, off-field Tris was a sociable fellow. He enjoyed golf, horse riding and fancied himself as an expert marksman and billiards enthusiast.
Under the managerial reigns of Jake Stahl, the 1912 club claimed victory over McGraw’s Giants in the World Series in their new ballpark, Fenway Park. Speaker earned the Chalmers (automobile) Award (predecessor of the MVP) behind a .383 average, 222 hits, 53 doubles, 13 triples, 98 runs batted in and won the home run title with a paltry “Dead Ball Era” 10. Surprisingly, Speaker’s high average finished only third behind Ty Cobb (.409) and Joe Jackson (.395). Speaker would get accustomed to finishing behind Cobb for the batting title for the rest of his career. Several advertising opportunities came his way in the form of Boston Garters, a $2 straw hat endorsement, Hassan cigarette trading cards and winter apparel. Harmonious camaraderie between the Boston players was described by shortstop Larry Gardner as a “big happy family”, often relaxing at Revere Beach on home stands. Their next pennant came in 1915 with the addition of another southpaw pitcher, Babe Ruth. During this period he forged a close lifelong relationship with fireballing teammate Joe Wood. “Uncle Spoke” became godfather of Joe Wood’s son, Bob, a longtime vintage dealer and friend to many East Coast hobbyists. For years the octogenarian gentleman neighbored my dealer table at Ft. Washington (PA) Expo Center shows.
Speaker was earning a respectable $18,000 that season, especially because Boston feared losing him to the upstart Federal League. When the league collapsed just before the 1916 opening, Speaker’s salary was slashed in half, a perceived insult for a man who just batted .386 with 211 hits. Tris held out and only appeared in exhibition and pre-season games on a per diem basis. Stubbornness from both sides forced his trade to Cleveland in which a disappointed Speaker demanded $10,000 of the $55,000 purchase price (plus Sam Jones and Fred Thomas). Eventually Boston succumbed to his insistence and Speaker paid interest on the Tribe’s investment with a .386 performance finally breaking Cobb’s streak of nine successive crowns. Speaker did, however, stand alone racking up doubles. He remains the all-time leader with 793 two-baggers leading the league in that category eight times. The Indians entrusted Tris within a couple of months with the dual role of player/manager on July 19, 1919 as they finished runner-up to the Black Sox. As often the case, the added stress had an ill effect on his batting average which dipped to .296, the only time between 1909 and 1927 it fell below .300. Nevertheless, the (now premature hair color) “Gray Eagle” guided the club to their first World Series championship in 1920 although the otherwise glorious season was tainted by the beaning and death of Indian shortstop Ray Chapman. Speaker’s .388 average proved that the aggressive, fiery leader could effectively excel in both capacities and continue to guide the club until his unexplained resignation on December 2, 1926. Cobb was also released unceremoniously as player/manager by the Tigers about the same time.
In what should be considered as one of the most celebrated and impeccable careers ever, Speaker was named as a participant in concert with Ty Cobb of fixing a late season game dating back to the 1919 season. Rival pitcher Hub “Dutch” Leonard implicated the two in which the newspapers devoured. Commissioner Landis dismissed the two popular icons of any wrongdoing and allowed the free agents to sign with Washington (Speaker) and Philadelphia (Cobb). The 39-year-old “Spoke” (an alliteration of his surname) compiled a .327 average in 1927 but the cellar dwelling club had to unleash his costly wages at the season’s end. Teaming with the Georgia Peach, Speaker signed with the Philadelphia Athletics on February 5, 1928. His .267 batting average in 64 games marked the end of a spectacular 22-year career. Tris Speaker’s all-time numbers include a .345 batting average, 1529 RBIs, 1882 runs, 3514 hits, 432 stolen bases and a .970 fielding average. The productive offensive and defensive stalwart also found time to marry Mary “Frances” Cuddihy (born December 9, 1889) on January 15, 1925.
Apparently, not all was forgiven in the eyes of Landis. Speaker managed and played occasionally for the Newark Bears of the International League in 1929 and 1930, but was blackballed from ever managing again in the major leagues. A Chicago radio announcing job in 1931 removed him from the field and a stint as business manager of a road show followed the upcoming year. In 1932, movie comedian Joe E. Brown and Lee Keyser became co-owners with Speaker of the minor league Kansas City Blues of the American Association. Now living in Kansas City, the ball club proved to be a poor investment and Speaker unloaded his interest in the team. His return to the radio broadcasting booth, this time in Cleveland came shortly thereafter. Other business opportunities included a sales position for a wholesale liquor company and representative for a steel company in Cleveland as well. At the time he resided at 17303 Invermere Avenue and had a business address of 815 Superior Avenue, N.E. Room 503, both in the city by the lake. The same city made him their Boxing Committee chairman.
Eventually Frances and Tris retired to Florida, but maintained the Ohio address into the 1950’s. He was often called upon as a banquet speaker and enjoyed the role of goodwill ambassador of baseball. The Baseball Writers Association of America selected Tris (#11) on January 19, 1937 to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in their second year of voting. “The Grey Eagle” was among the eleven living members of Cooperstown’s inaugural ceremonies on June 12, 1939. The Cleveland organization would welcome him back to Municipal Stadium as a uniformed honorary coach and old-timer during the 1950’s. Speaker would often sign Indian issued postcards ($800) and be included on team baseballs.
A fractured skull from a fall while living in Florida preceded a heart attack in 1954. As his health deteriorated over the next few years a second coronary struck while returning from a fishing trip. At the time he was with his friend Charles Vaughan at his lodge in Lake Whitney, Texas. Speaker died there on December 8, 1958 at the age of 70. His body was laid to rest in Fairview Cemetery in nearby Hubbard, TX. Frances (died November 1, 1960) survived him along with two of his sisters, Mrs. Pearl Scott of Hubbard and Mrs. Alma Lindsey of Abilene.
My vote places the right handed, ornate and large, legible signature of “Tris Speaker” in the top ten Hall of Fame aesthetics category. The elaborate “T” in double curl, two stroke formation barely intersects within its rounded flourish. Without interruption it methodically leads into an enlarged (post-career) “r” that initially points high then bends to a plateau. The combined manner between the two letters creates a crescent moon image leaning right. Still maintaining an unbroken line is the half-sized, retraced “i” with a well formed circular (started from the top) punctuation above, favoring slightly to the right. Equivalent in size to its former, the small “s” peaks sharply north, falls vertically to its baseline, closes its loop and finishes the line with a terminal stroke curling upward.
As if he had to take a deep breath before starting up again, the capital “S” is reminiscent of a reversed musical G-cleft, with the initial, long, sharp acute stroke darting to the apex of the signature. An eyelet (may or may not be closed) introduces an almost printed “S” that interlocks into the staff ending with a baseline curl. Earlier career versions resort to a simple, conventional, upper case character. During his playing days the “p” proved to be predictable although the ascender looped unusually high. Basically, the “S” and the “p” were the only two letters to noticeably evolve. His diminutive and connected “e” and “a” are narrowly configured yet keep even spacing between letters. The prominent two stroke “k” is unusually constructed lacking the top portion of its staff. Two bellied horizontal strokes widen the character that eventually will overwhelm the subsequent and barely present closed loop “e” and gull-winged “r”. Often a common-for-the-times period or dash would ensue completing the manuscript. Elderly versions remain consistent and do not exhibit typical signs of aging such as slowness, hesitation, tremor or labored strokes.
Tris Speaker was an avid signer accommodating thousands of requests throughout his lifetime. He seemed honored and delighted to sign for his fans in person and dutifully answered all of his flat and baseball autograph requests by mail. Seldom, if ever, did he resort to secretarial responses or allow clubhouse personnel to ghost sign items. Autographed 3×5 index cards ($400) are often found in dealer inventories as well as the desirable U.S. Government postcards ($550). Typewritten letters ($950) and handwritten ($1200) versions are occasionally on hand bearing Cleveland Indian letterhead, usually from his playing/managing days. Although extremely subjective, single-signed baseballs (frequently on the sweet spot) range from a low $2500 (grade 6) and rise in price accordingly. Signed trading cards ($1500) are rare and, of course, the price virtually depends on the condition and issue. Autographed black and white and sepia-toned 8” x 10” ($1500 and up) photographs are very uncommon and often are graced with an inscription. Only one canceled personal check ($5000 plus) has surfaced and comfortably rests in an established collection. Forgeries abound in all forms ranging from lower-end album pages to singles-signed baseballs. Theme and team signed balls have suffered the most recent wave of counterfeiting over the past ten years.
By: James J. Spence, Jr.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004