By Father Gabe Costa
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As we await the beginning of another baseball season, one of the things we do is to review the past year. We ponder such questions as:
“What if my favorite players didn’t get hurt?”
“How could my team not win it all?”
“Why did my team ever agree to commit that much money for that lengthy contract?”
At the same time, though, hope springs eternal as we look ahead thinking:
“If we can just squeeze out one more “great” year from our aging stars…”
“If everything clicks, we just may win the World Series in 2013…”
“Maybe – just maybe – we can get out from under that long-term contract…”
To be sure, every one of the thirty Major League teams are already preparing and planning for next season… and, believe it or not, Spring Training will begin again in three short months. Well…okay…maybe not so short…
And sometime in January, we will learn the identities of the newest members who will be enshrined into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Perhaps the three most controversial players which will have been considered by the voters are Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa. This will certainly add to the fiery conversations which are part and parcel of the Hot Stove League.
For this installment of By The Numbers, I would like to give a brief glimpse into the record of a Hall of Famer who, for the most part, has been forgotten. In the past, we have highlighted the careers of likewise “forgotten” personages from Cooperstown: Jimmie Foxx and Harmon Killebrew.
In light of this, may I present Tris Speaker?
Tristram E. Speaker was born in Texas in 1888. He lived for seven decades, and was one of the greatest players ever to don a baseball uniform. A lefthanded batter and thrower, Speaker played for twenty two seasons, beginning in 1907, and starring in the American League for his entire career. For eighteen of those seasons, Speaker had a batting average of .300+. In 1916, Speaker won the American League batting title with a mark of .386. This crown was significant, as it denied Ty Cobb of winning nine consecutive batting titles (1911-1919While Speaker hit more than 100 home runs (a fair amount when compared to his contemporaries), stole more than 400 bases and had over 3500 hits, it was his fielding that set him apart.
Speaker was the consummate centerfielder. As his hair started turning gray, it was natural to dub him “The Grey Eagle” as he roamed the middle gardens from ball park to ball park. His playing a “short center field” was legendary (see quote below).
Below are some of his accomplishments:
Speaker was the Most Valuable Player in 1912
Speaker was the centerpiece of one of the greatest “defensive outfields” ever, flanked by Duffy Lewis in left field and Harry Hooper in right field
Speaker had 792 career two-base hits…more than anyone who ever played the game
The Grey Eagle set the following career Major League records:
139 Double Plays as an outfielder
Six Unassisted Double Plays as an outfielder
449 Assists as an outfielder
Speaker appeared in three World Series (1912, 1915 and 1920) winning all three times, while compiling an On-Base-Plus-Slugging figure (OPS) of .856
Speaker was the Playing Manager of the 1920 Cleveland Indians
Tris Speaker was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937
To say that Speaker knew fielding was like saying Van Gogh knew painting. He had an interesting observation about the fielding ability of one George Herman Ruth:
“I will say without hesitation that Babe Ruth is one of the half dozen greatest outfielders I ever saw. This is aside from his slugging ability, which is unrivaled, and his base running ability which is much greater than commonly supposed. Purely as an outfielder, Babe will rank among the game’s greatest…He covers a lot of ground, primarily because he plays the batter correctly. He has a sure pair of hands, a wonderful throwing arm and he always knows exactly what to do with the ball when he gets it.”- Baseball Magazine (October 1928)
Genius recognizes genius.
Before I close, suffice it say that Speaker was not the greatest player ever, but he was certainly close. And, as to Speaker’s defensive prowess, I suspect the only Hall of Fame centerfielders who would rival him were Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio.
Lastly…speaking of DiMaggio, legend has it that, early in his career, the Yankee Clipper would play a shallow centerfield; something which caught the attention of Yankee teammate, pitcher Lefty Gomez.
When Gomez, in a concerned way, mentioned this to DiMaggio, Joltin’ Joe boasted, “I’m going to make the writers forget Speaker.”
The Goofy Castilian shot back, “If you keep playing that way, you’ll make them forget Gomez!”
Is Tris Speaker one of the best ‘forgotten players’ in baseball history?