In 1916, Tris Speaker was regarded as one of the greatest center fielders in baseball, and was a defending champion with the Red Sox. He was also an Indian-killer, with a .380 batting average at League Park.
He was also a holdout in spring training after seeing his salary cut in half, from $18,000 to $9,000. With the Federal League vanquished, there was no place for players to jump ship to, and owners could go back to their normal penury. In fact, the only reason Speaker got $18,000 from Boston president Joe Lannin was because he had been offered $100,000 to be player-manager of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, the Federal League team named by its owner Robert Ward, who also owned the Tip-Top Bakery.
But Jim Dunn, new to owning a major league team, had no qualms spending money to bring a winner to Cleveland, and on April 8, it was announced that Dunn had paid $55,000 to Boston for the player called the Grey Eagle, the largest cash payment for a player in the brief history of Major League Baseball. Team vice president Robert McRoy was given a blank check by Dunn.
The Indians also dealt pitcher Sam Jones and an infielder to be named later to the Red Sox. McRoy made it a point to say that shortstop Ray Chapman was off the table. It ultimately turned out to be Fred Thomas.
Speaker played so shallow that it was like the Indians got an infielder and an outfielder in the deal. Twice in one month, in April 1918, Spoke (another nickname) turned two unassisted double plays at second base.
The move was greeted in Cleveland with instant joy. Sporting Life magazine said it was the biggest move in Cleveland baseball since the team acquired Nap Lajoie, and the Indians advanced up the betting odds to become 6-to-1 favorites to win the pennant. Prior to Speaker’s acquisition, the Indians were a 100-to-1 shot. And as if Speaker’s acquisition wasn’t enough to get people to Dunn Field for opening day, the Indians would be giving out 10,000 feathered headdresses.
Speaker signed for $15,000 with Cleveland, but he wanted a cut of his purchase price from Lannin, $5,000. Dunn, unwilling to let that sum stand between him and a pennant, wrote Spoke a check for the amount (equivalent to almost $110,000 today).
The Red Sox carried on without Speaker, winning the 1916 pennant and beating the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series. The Crimson Hose added another world title in 1918, over the Chicago Cubs. The Indians continued to improve, but a pennant eluded them. In 1918, they finished second to Boston, two and a half games back in a season that ended on Labor Day due to World War I.
In 1919, for the first time in more than a decade, Speaker’s batting average dipped below .300. He finished the season with a .296 average, but he had more responsibilities to contend with.
When Dunn bought the Indians in 1916, he assured Lee Fohl, who signed on as manager in 1915, that he would remain. But after a game on July 18, 1919 at League Park, his fate was sealed. In that game, Babe Ruth – who had already hit one home run, in the fourth inning – came up in the ninth with the Red Sox trailing 7-3. Fohl replaced reliever Elmer Myers, who had loaded the bases, with Fritz Coumbe. Fohl warned Coumbe to pitch Ruth low and away. Coumbe grooved one, which Ruth deposited onto Lexington Avenue for a grand slam to make it 8-7, which turned out to be the final score.
Fohl went to Dunn’s office and offered his resignation, which was accepted, making Fohl the fifth of the nine Indians managers in the team’s 19-year history to resign in midseason. The drumbeat had started earlier that season to make Speaker player/manager, and Fohl had heard it.
“I have failed to win the confidence of the fans although I have done my best to make the club a winner,” Fohl told Dunn, as reported in the Plain Dealer. “I want you and Cleveland to have a winner, but if the fans think you ought to have someone else running the team, I think I should step aside.”
Although he accepted the resignation, Dunn appreciated the offer Fohl made, and would keep him on for the year at his salary.
Speaker was already regarded as the team’s leader on the field, and as unofficial team captain, he held the most authority of any player, and possibly more than Fohl. Dunn had no problem making that decision.
“I contemplate no changes,” Speaker told the Plain Dealer. “We will go along with the same line-up and keep it until something happens that may make it necessary to shift. We will make the hardest kind of an effort to win the pennant.”
The Indians went 40-21 down the stretch under the Grey Eagle, the best record in the American League. But it wasn’t enough to catch up with the White Sox, who won the pennant by 3 ½ games but surprisingly, lost the World Series to the Reds.
With Speaker having a full season as manager, great things were expected from the Indians in 1920.
Photo: Associated Press photo file