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Baseball: The recent Tris Speaker biography

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posted on Apr, 19 2006 @ 07:49 PM
Dear All (and not merely baseball fanatics),

Because I've been working so hard on this nearly-finished death penalty brief of mine, I have only recently, at long last, finished the excellent Tris Speaker biography I bought. I am making this post to encourage not only baseball and baseball-history fans, but also Texans, Southerners in general, and socio-cultural history buffs to read the book.

The book is titled "Tris Speaker," with this subtitle: "The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend." The author's name is Timothy Gay, and after y'all have had a good laugh with that one, here's what it briefly says of him on the back insert: "Timothy M. Gay is a writer based in northern Virginia. His essays and articles on the Civil War, politics, baseball, college basketball, and golf have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, and other publications."

The picture of Mr. Gay is one from which I would suspect that if some drunk laughed at his name and hit him, Mr. Gay would not be likely to call the police for a redress of his grievances. I suspect Mr. Gay would take care of his own grievances right then and there, with his broad shoulders and thick arms.

I went through the South for one month, as a 14-year-old kid, in 1967. I'm also a former History major at a pretty good university. I have a much better understanding of the South than most non-Southern Americans do, though I know enough to admit I know diddly compared to real Southerners. And, having read this book, I can tell y'all this guy obviously has a GREAT understanding of it, including parts of the South far more Southern than Virginia.

My family and I went through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia--the Heart of the Old South, or the belly of the beast, depending on your point of view. I've known hundreds of people from down there since--all with a seek-no-quarter-and-give-none, you-live-your-life-and-I'll-live-mine attitude that makes the South the kind of "if you don't like it, just stay out!" place it is.

Timothy Gay understands all of this (a lot better than I do) and he understands how the South was in the late 1880's, when Speaker was born, and from 1908 on, when Speaker's star rose like a comet and shone as brightly as almost any in baseball history. He really conveys a sense of Speaker the MAN, Speaker the SOUTHERN man, Speaker the BIGOT, Speaker the LOYAL FRIEND of many, and other aspects of Speaker.

The book is, in many ways, about a time, place and culture in American history that is long forgotten to all but a few outside the South, as well as a biography of a man who was certainly one of the 20--and probably one of the 10--greatest MLB players ever. It may be the 2nd best baseball bio I've ever read, behind only Robert Creamer's "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life," and like Creamer's book, you don't need to be a baseball fan to enjoy the hell out of it.

For the first 2/3 of the book, I found myself no less awed by Speaker the Ballplayer than ever, but really repulsed by Speaker the Human, since he was just as belligerent and just as racist as Ty Cobb. But he was not a homicidal lunatic (like Cobb) at any point, and like the good people from his time, he changed as he aged. Larry Doby was the A.L.'s Jackie Robinson, breaking the A.L.'s color barrier 11 weeks after Robinson broke the MLB color barrier. And in time, Doby had it rougher because there were so many black greats in the N.L., and WHO in the A.L.?

But Tris Speaker agreed to work for Cleveland, the team he single-handedly guided to the 1920 World Series win as player-manager, and he spent literally HUNDREDS of hours teaching Doby to play CF. Just picture it: Doby, who had played SECOND BASE in the Negro Leagues and was almost 30, getting hundreds of hours of free lessons in CF play, one-on-one, from the man who was the undisputed king of the subject, at least until Ashburn and Mays.

Do you imagine for one nanosecond that any team could ever have paid Ty Cobb enough money to do that, even if Cobb had been a good (let alone great) defensive CF? (And he sure wasn't!)

The book also contains a GREAT photo of Speaker and the young Willie Mays, taken at the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series, in which the 111-43 Indians and their historically great pitching staff were enormous favorites, but in which the Giants swept them in 4 straight, stoked by Mays' famous "The Catch," just as the huge underdog Dodgers were stoked in Game One in 1988 by Gibson's home run. I am confident in saying that even if Mays would have agreed to pose with Cobb for something, Cobb would never have gone for it.

Anyway, although much of this book will convince you just how great a hitter and baserunner--and just how phenomenal a CF--Tris Speaker was, when you are done reading the book, you feel like you've read far more than that.

1. You'll know all about the small town of Hubbard, Texas, from whence Speaker came and of which Speaker remains today the all-time pride and joy.

2. You'll know a lot more than you did before about Southern culture and people through the decades, starting with the 1880's. And I don't just mean their vile and despicable racism and religious bigotry. I also mean their passions, their rock-solid loyalties, their moral convictions, their manners (which put California to shame ANY day of the week), etc.

3. You'll know a LOT more about how pervasive cheating was in baseball prior to 1921. And no, thank god, Babe Ruth is not implicated, but Cobb and Speaker sure are--just not in W.S. games or games directly impacting who went to the W.S. So is Frankie Frisch, the man who, as head of the Veterans' Committee, made a joke of the Hall of Fame with dozens of bogus entrants, and so are a good many other H.O.F.'ers.

4. You'll learn that Speaker tried to model his play on that of Ty Cobb, but that although 20% of their contemporaries may have said Speaker was better (according to Bill James), and although Speaker was enormously better was in the field, Cobb was in fact the better player--a better hitter and a much better runner.

5. You'll learn about Speaker's redemption--something Cobb never had--as he became one of baseball's most broadly respected figures in retirement, much like Honus Wagner.

It's a great book. It has the huge bonus of providing a lot of facts and insights which have nothing to do with baseball; it tells a lot of great--and true--stories; and if you're a baseball fan, it's an indispenable account of many great players from the Dead Ball Era, but especially that of the player whom MANY old men told me, when I was first studying baseball history as an 8-year-old in 1961, was a better CF than Willie Mays.

I'm not persuaded that was true, but I am persuaded that it was not a ridiculous thing to say, and that the two of them are damn close on the uppermost rungs of the ladder for all-time greatest player.



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