posted on Mar, 1 2006 @ 02:32 AM
THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION WILL BE POSTED TOMORROW NIGHT.
Tris Speaker is almost unanimously regarded by experts as the greatest defensive MLB centerfielder in the first half of the last century. DiMaggio
claimed to be as good, but most experts felt he was the 3rd best defensive CF in his own family!
The greatest player in Negro League History, Oscar Charleston, may have even been better in CF than Speaker, but until AT LEAST Richie Ashburn and
Willie Mays came along in mid-century, Speaker was clearly MLB's best--as well as the all-time doubles leader (which he still is, at 793), plus a .344
or .345 hitter (depending on your source), plus a guy who drew walks lots of walks (he was 22 or 23 points behind Cobb on BA, but only 5 points behind
on the more important stat of on-base %). Also, Speaker and Cobb are the only two MLB guys with over 1,000 doubles and triples.
Bill James rates him as one of the 10 greatest players in MLB history. So do I. James notes many people, AT THE TIME, felt Speaker was better than
Cobb. I don't think I agree with that rating, except to the extent Cobb hurt his team by skipping games to make sure he won various titles, but it's
a really close, and since this is the great Cobb I'm talking about, that says A LOT.
OK. That's your background. The dude was AWESOME. And since I lived 25 miles from S.F. in the early 60's, when I was 7 to 10, on a block with
several OLD men in their 70's or 80's who remembered Tris Speaker (and also the 1906 quake), I talked with them about Mays and Speaker. Now, we ALL
glorify great players from our childhood and adolescence, but it's fact those dudes told me that yes, Mays was awesome to behold, but Speaker was a
more consistent, and therefore better, defensive CF--one who played with terrible playing fields and with those appalling old gloves, but made FAR
fewer errors than the average CF (true), ran down everything (nearly true), and played unbelievably shallow (true, but that was a luxury of the dead
ball). One of them said Speaker was maybe a better overall player, despite all the HR's, citing Speaker's vast superiority in batting average,
doubles and triples.
How did Speaker--a guy who came to pro baseball as an 18-year-old Texas kid desperate for a shot, initially trying his luck as a (bad) PITCHER, turn
out to be SO DAMN GREAT in CF?
Well, obviously he had an enormous amount of godgiven talent, just like Ashburn, Mays, Charleston, Flood and Andruw Jones. But Speaker also got a LOT
of help in his second part-time season, after everyone had realized the potential depth of his greatness. In that season (1908), A VETERAN PLAYER
NEARING THE END OF A LONG AND STORIED CAREER took the fierce, rough-and-tumble young Texan under his wing, and told the kid, "Forget about the tough
guy stuff and let me help you, because you could be the greatest CF ever."
Then he started spending literally hours, before game times, hitting all sorts of different angles of fungoes for "Spoke"--the nickname Speaker was to
acquire once he became a superstar ("Speaker spoke"). The veteran would hit balls that required all sorts of different timing and different
angle-judgments, etc., by the 19-year-old Speaker (he was born in late 1888).
The veteran was an amazing expert on how and where to best hit the fungoes, not only to give Speaker a real good aerobic workout, but also to teach
him how to get all the different kinds of necessary jumps on fly balls, to react real quickly, and how to do the many different things he needed to
know how to do, in order to take full advantage of the enormous talent god and nature had vested in him.
In the process, this veteran capped off what was already an incredible career by transforming Speaker into the spectacular CF he was meant to be.
By the way, Speaker was not even perceived, in his tiny weeks-long first part-season (1907), as the potentially awesome CF he was. So he worked his
tail off in the winter, persisted in going to everyone's spring training, got rejected by just about everyone, including the NY Giants' legendary
manager John McGraw.
Then Speaker made a fabulous impression on a scout, who promptly convinced the Red Sox they'd better give this kid another try. They did, and the
rest was history. McGraw, still considered by most experts to be the greatest manager in MLB history, often said later on that his rejection of
Speaker was the worst mistake of his career. Since he never rejected Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, Cobb, Wagner or Lou Gehrig (I rate Speaker ahead of
Gehrig, Wagner and Grove), he was right.
It was not known yet--but soon would be--that Speaker was also going to work his tail off with the bat, and transform himself into arguably the second
best HITTER in Dead Ball history, behind Cobb. (Yes, "Shoeless Joe's" average was higher, but only because his career ended when he was young,
avoiding the natural "decline phase" at the end of a player's career, by getting thrown out of the game in a notorious manner.)
It is my opinion that Speaker had a lot in common with Cobb, in that both men played with the pedal to the floor at all times, determined to get every
last ounce they could out of themselves, and in that both men were hardcore racists, but Cobb's energy was far more negative, violent and hateful than
Speaker's. The title of the Speaker bio pretty much says it all for him: He was a "rough-and-tumble" young guy from Texas, proud of his Confederate
heritage (though he greatly helped Larry Doby in 1948), took no guff from anyone, but was a good man and was not deranged or rabid, like Cobb.
I hope you've most of this stuff interesting and informative about one of the 10--or, at least, one of the 20--greatest baseball players in MLB
history. Now, the question:
Who was the expert fungo hitter--and great veteran in his own right--who tremendously aided Speaker's career in 1908 by hitting these practice fly
balls to all the right places, with all the right velocities, to transform "Spoke" from a POTENTIALLY great CF into, at least, the greatest defensive
MLB CF in the first half of 20th Century?
Answer to be posted no later than Midnight Eastern Time tomorrow.
Baseball History Nut