Seasons in Boston: 1907-1915
Honors: Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, 3x World Series Champ, 1912 AL MVP, 1916 AL Batting Champ
Red Sox Numbers: .337/.414/.482, 39 HR, 704 R, 542 RBI, 267 SB, 163 wRC+, 54.4 fWAR
Signature Season (1912): .383/.464/.567, 10 HR, 136 R, 90 RBI, 52 SB, 190 wRC+, 10.6 fWAR
Putting Tris Speaker on my bench was among the most difficult decisions I had to make when constructing my all-time roster. By fWAR alone, Speaker’s mark of 130.6 ranks seventh best in baseball history, even edging out Ted Williams by a small margin. Had these numbers been from just twenty years later it may have changed things, but Speaker played his entire career for the Red Sox during the Deadball Era. Ultimately, the time period in which he played left me too many doubts to make him my starter in center field.
By most statistical measures Speaker was a wonderful player. We will focus on his time with the Red Sox in a moment, but first let’s contextualize his place in league history in a few categories:
- Fifth in hits with 3514, behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, and Stan Musial
- First in doubles with 792
- Sixth in triples with 222
- 13th in runs at 1882
- Ninth in BA with a mark of .345
- 11th in OBP with a mark of .428
- 14th in wRC+ with a mark of 157
- First in outfield assists with 449
During his remarkable career with the Red Sox and Indians, he led the American League in doubles eight times, in outfield assists three times, and in on-base percentage four times. He was the first player to have a season with at least 50 doubles and 50 stolen bases and the only player to do that since is Craig Biggio in 1998. Speaker is the only Red Sox player to post multiple multiple seasons of at least 10 bWAR aside from Carl Yastrzemski and Williams. He ranks third in team history in batting average, fourth in OBP, second in steals, second in triples, and second in outfield assists. So what’s my problem with him? While these numbers are fantastic I find some of them less impressive with context. Let’s look first at his defense.
If you go to his Hall of Fame page, you’ll find the following quote from teammate Smoky Joe Wood, “At the crack of the bat he’d be off with his back to the infield, and then he’d turn and glance over his shoulder at the last minute and catch the ball so easy it looked like there was nothing to it, nothing at all.” We know from many sources that Speaker was one of the greatest defensive outfielders of his time. He was famous for playing incredibly shallow and going back on the ball rather than playing deep and coming in on it. This led to his prolific outfield assist totals. The problem is that outside of the Deadball Era, this was not possible to the same degree.
A trademark of this period of baseball history was the fact that they rarely ever switched out baseballs during a game. This meant that the ball was covered in dirt, tobacco spit, and countless other substances pitchers would rub on the ball to doctor it. The ball was also covered in scratches and scuffs and often dented and misshapen. This led to a lack of home runs and an era of pitcher dominance. During this time Speaker posted two seasons of 35 outfield assists, the best in Red Sox team history. From 1871 to 1920 there were 95 instances of players having 30 or more outfield assists. From 1921 to the present, after the Deadball Era, there have been only five such instances.In fairness to Speaker, he was able to exceed 20 or more outfield assists three times in the post-Deadball Era, but his effectiveness was diminished. I don’t believe playing as shallow as he did would work in a modern baseball context with so many fly balls.
I also don’t believe that Speaker’s power would have been substantially higher outside of the Deadball Era because the highest total of his career was just 17 home runs in the 1923 season when the ball was being switched out regularly. He does have the high OBP and speed attributes you would look for in a prototypical leadoff hitter.
As a human being, Speaker was a really confounding individual. He was born and raised in Hubbard, Texas to a family that had fought for the Confederates during the Civil War. Speaker had a lot more in common with notorious baseball villain Ty Cobb I knew. Speaker regularly got into fights with other players, is said to have once punched an umpire, was likely a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and was accused by former Red Sox pitcher Dutch Leonard of fixing a game along with Ty Cobb. He and Ty Cobb were both kicked out of baseball by Ban Johnson and later reinstated by Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He also had a fist fight with player manager Billy Carrigan over his dislike for Catholics, of which Carrigan and teammate Duffy Lewis were practitioners.
His legacy with the Red Sox is that of a well-loved player by the fans and a key part of the 1912 and 1915 World Series teams. His 1912 AL MVP season was one of the greatest single seasons in team history and included three separate 20+ game hit streaks. He was traded from the Red Sox over a contract dispute and played more of his career with the Indians. Speaker was a member of the second Hall of Fame class and was present in 1939 when the first four classes were admitted together.