Speaker Dethrones the Georgia Peach and Earns His Place on the Indians All-Time Team
By Ronnie Tellalian
Tris Speaker was one of the great players of the early 20th century. He won an MVP in 1912 and was among those enshrined to the Baseball Hall of Fame in its first year of induction in 1939. Despite his dominant fame and popularity, Speaker played his career in the shadow of the great Ty Cobb; but in one memorable season in 1916 Speaker dethroned the king and stood alone atop the American League.
Center Field: Tris Speaker
Tris Speaker began his career in 1907 with the Boston Red Sox. After nine years in Boston and one MVP award, Speaker was dealt to the Indians in 1916 in exchange for Sad Sam Jones, Fred Thomas, and $55,000, the most money ever paid for a player at the time. He instantly became the star of the team taking his place in center field.
Speaker was a marvelous defender in center field. He was famous for playing very close to the infield. He felt he had the ability to go back to get deep balls and playing in allowed him to cut down runners on the bases. As far as throwing out base runners, few were better than Speaker. He holds the American League record for single season assists with 35 in both 1909 and 1912. He also holds the all-time Major League record with 449 assists.
Speaker was an incredible coach as well. When Larry Doby first broke into the league, Speaker worked with him personally. He practiced daily with him on his outfield play and provided great support for the young outfielder. In his book Baseball When the Grass Was Real, Donald Honig shared a quote by five time All-Star Doc Cramer:
“Speaker was a great guy both on and off the field.” Cramer said, “I learned a lot just from watching him. He was a good teacher. He’d take you out there and show you how to do it.”
In this time in baseball, unequivocally the most prestigious achievement for a hitter was winning a batting title, leading the league in batting average. For Speaker’s entire nine year career, every American League batting crown had been won by one man, Ty Cobb. Cobb was the undisputed king of the American League. *
Speaker came close to the batting title several times, finishing third in 1912 with a .383 average and third again in 1913 with a .363 average. With a new team in 1916, Speaker, Cleveland, and nearly all of the American League were hoping this would finally be the year someone would unseat the great Ty Cobb.
The race was on from the get go. Speaker started strong in 1916, batting .386 in the month of April. Cobb trailed behind but still performed well with a .356 average at the end of the first month. Speaker turned it on in May, reaching as high as .398 after getting two hits in a win against the Yankees on May 15th, but he stumbled for the rest of the month, finishing May with a .370 average. This opened the door for Cobb to make a move for the lead. That opportunity would be squandered by Cobb as he too slipped in May to finish the month with a .327 average.
Cobb hit better in June, reaching .346 by the end of the month, but Speaker began to pull away when he racked up 14 hits in the last eight games of June to spike his average to .387. Fans and players around the league were astonished by Speaker’s dominance of Cobb thus far and many began to believe that the tyrant Cobb would finally be dethroned.
Cobb coveted his batting titles and grew furious with the prospect of losing to Speaker. He came on in a rush in July and August, increasing his average to .362 with just one month left to play. Speaker, however, would not be denied as his torrid pace reached .401 on August 13th. He stood at .383 by the month’s end.
In September, Cobb continued to hit well. He smacked out 17 hits in the last six games of the season, but it wasn’t enough. Cobb never really got close to Speaker as Cleveland’s center fielder did not slip down the stretch. Speaker won the 1916 batting title with a .386 average to Cobb’s .371.
Speaker played 11 years in Cleveland, never again winning a batting crown. He hit .354 in an Indians uniform and stands as the team’s all-time leader in doubles with 486. He amassed 1965 hits with the Indians, second only to Nap Lajoie.
In addition to his seemingly impossible 1916 victory over Ty Cobb, Speaker frequently found himself in memorable situations throughout his career. On May 17, 1925, he became the second player to reach 3,000 hits in an Indians uniform.
In a game against the Tigers in 1917, Speaker was hit by a pitch while trying to steal home against the Tigers. He needed stitches and would not be able to come out to play in the top half of the second inning thus removing him from the line-up and making him ineligible to play the remainder of the game. In a show a respect, Detroit Manager Hughie Jennings agreed to waive the rules and allowed Speaker to receive his stitches and return to play in the third inning.
Speaker was player/manager for the Indians in their 1920 World Series Championship season, the first in Cleveland history. That same year, shortstop Ray Chapman was killed after being struck on the head by a pitch late in the season. Chapman was going to retire before the year began but said he wanted to hang on for one more year to help Speaker win his championship.
In 1926, pitcher Dutch Leonard produced evidence that Cobb and Speaker conspired to fix several Detroit/Cleveland games. American League Commissioner Ban Johnson forced Cobb and Speaker to resign their positions as managers. One year later, when Leonard refused to appear at hearings to discuss his accusations, Cobb and Speaker were both reinstated as managers of their respective teams.
Speaker was part of the Inaugural induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The BBWAA elected ten players from 1936-1939, and all were enshrined together in 1939.
*Statistical records have since awarded the 1910 batting crown to Nap Lajoie, although debate over this issue still exists.