Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Top 100 Red Sox: No. 8

With a night game scheduled, why not check back with the Top 100 list this morning?

10. Smoky Joe Wood, P
9. Babe Ruth, P

8. Tris Speaker, CF
More than a few things had to come together for Tris Speaker to become the greatest center fielder in Red Sox history. For one thing, he had to end up in center field -- and to do that, he first had to run into a dead end as a pitcher. His manager in Celburne, Texas, took care of that when he decided to teach his young lefty a lesson and leave him in a game in which he gave up 22 runs.

But the Red Sox still had to find him and keep him. Red Sox scout George Huff wasn't first in line; the St. Louis Browns and Pittsburgh Pirates both had a crack at him and passed. But even when Huff offered $750 for Speaker's contract, the player's mother intervened: "I've never been so insulted in my life. I will not have my boy sold around like a slave for so many dollars."

Even then, after a brief appearance in Boston in 1907, Speaker was completely forgotten by Red Sox ownership and not mailed a contract. Only because he couldn't get a tryout anywhere else -- "I'm sorry, kid, I've already got more players in camp than I know what to do with," wrote Giants manager John McGraw -- did he return to the Red Sox.

If not for his unique determination and his confidence in his abilities, he might have hung it up right then and there. (Here's one example of his determination: He broke his right arm and his collarbone when he was thrown from a horse as a child. To keep playing, he taught himself to throw and hit lefthanded.)

Still the Red Sox didn't have use for him; they loaned him to Little Rock's minor league team in lieu of rent for the use of their ballpark. Only when Speaker emerged as the best player in the Southern Association that year did the Red Sox pay back the rent on the ballpark and reacquire Speaker.

Good thing. They wouldn't have won the 1912 World Series (against McGraw's Giants) without him.

The "Gray Eagle" -- so named in part because of his hair lost its color early -- had a sensational regular season in 1912, hitting .383 with a a league-leading 53 doubles and 12 home runs to go along with 90 RBI and 136 runs scored. His .383 batting average set a franchise record that wouldn't be broken until Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941; no Red Sox player other than Williams has even come within 10 points of .383.

He also played the best defensive center field anyone had ever seen. Said one writer, "Speaker has been credited with revolutioning outfield play, but that is less than true. The word 'revolution' suggests followers, and few outfielders were capable of following Speaker's pattern."

But never did his confidence show itself the way it did in Game 8 of the World Series. He came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning with runners on first and second and the Giants ahead by a 2-1 score. Christy Mathewson jammed him with a pitch and induced a foul pop-up -- Mathewson (and Speaker, too, some witnesses have suggested) called for catcher Chief Meyers to make the catch even though first baseman Fred Merkle had a better chance at the ball. It dropped to the ground.

"You just called for the wrong man, Matty," Speaker yelled at the pitcher. "It's going to cost you the ballgame."

Speaker delivered, driving a single to right field to score the tying run. After Mathewson walked Duffy Lewis, Larry Gardner hit a sacrifice fly to score the winning run from third.

Coming up: A pitcher who had 195 career wins before he put on a Red Sox uniform and won No. 300 in Boston.


Anonymous said...

"But never did his confidence show itself the way it did in Game 8 of the World Series."

When did they shorten the series to seven games?

Brian MacPherson said...

The 1903 World Series was the only best-of-nine series. When the two leagues laid out official rules for the World Series in 1905 after not playing one in 1904, they decided it would be seven games.