Fix Allegations Proved Speaker’s Undoing as Tribe Skipper
Vince Guerrieri | On 23, Sep 2014
On Sept. 25, 1919 – the last day of the season – the Tigers beat the Indians 9-5 in a game that took a little more than an hour.
Seven years later, that loss would cost Tris Speaker his job as Indians manager.
When Speaker came to the Indians in 1916, he was heralded as one of the best players in the major leagues, having led the Red Sox to World Series victories in 1912 and 1915. Speaker, nicknamed the Grey Eagle for his prematurely graying hair, served as a de facto assistant manager to Lee Fohl.
The Indians had been building a contender since Speaker’s arrival, and the Tribe finished in second in 1918 in a season shortened due to World War I. The following year, the Indians contended to the end but again were doomed to finish second when the last day of the season rolled around. By then, Speaker was the manager of the Indians, after Fohl had resigned in July.
Speaker held the Indians together through the 1920 season where, in spite of the death of shortstop Ray Chapman – still the only major league player to die of injuries suffered on the field – the Tribe won the pennant and the World Series. But that season would be the high-water mark for the Indians for a generation, as the Yankees, with the acquisition of Babe Ruth, ascended to the top of the American League.
After the 1926 season, Speaker announced his resignation as manager and retirement as a player. Although the Indians were on the verge of being sold, and Speaker might have been out as manager or forced to take a pay cut, the move was a shock, as Spoke had hit .304 that year and showed no real signs of aging – and doubly shocking when coupled with the announcement that Tigers player-manager Ty Cobb would also be retiring. Ironically, the Oct. 21, 1926, edition of the Plain Dealer featured a banner headline that said “Love of Game As Well As Pilot’s Salary Keep Cobb and Speaker On Job.”
Rumors abounded, including one that came out of that year’s winter meetings that Cobb – baseball’s first millionaire, who had grown rich through investments in Coca-Cola’s initial public offering and General Motors – was going to buy the Red Sox and serve as team president, with Speaker as his manager.
But the truth was a little more sinister. Earlier that season, former pitcher Dutch Leonard went to American League President Ban Johnson alleging a fix. Johnson had seen his power erode since the owners hired Kennesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner in 1920, so he listened.
Leonard alleged that Speaker and Cobb, along with Indians player Smoky Joe Wood, conspired to let Detroit win the game, offering incriminating letters as proof. Baseball policy had changed the year before, and the top four teams in the American League would get a share of World Series money. A Tigers win would put them in third place, and the Indians would finish second regardless of whether they won or lost. Wood was also supposed to place bets with bookmakers to make more money.
Johnson went to Cobb and Speaker and offered them a chance to get out before the hammer came down. They did, and Johnson took the letters to Landis – who released them to the press. As 1927 dawned, Cobb and Speaker demanded the right to confront their accuser. When Leonard refused to show up, Landis declared Cobb and Speaker absolved of any wrongdoing – a salvo in his own ongoing power struggle with Johnson, who after a bizarre news conference condemning Speaker in particular, would be finished as American League President by the spring of 1927.
The Indians and Speaker parted ways – as did the Tigers and Cobb, who went to Philadelphia to play for the Athletics. Speaker spent a year in Washington, and joined Cobb in the City of Brotherly Love for the 1928 season, which was the last for both of them.
The allegations didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on either of them. Cobb was a charter inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, and Speaker was elected the following year – along with Ban Johnson.