February 12, 2006

Review:  Tris Speaker - The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend
by Steve Lombardi, for NetShrine.com

While reading Timothy M. Gay's book, Tris Speaker - The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, in public recently, on two separate occasions I experienced something that confirmed what I had always believed to be true.

In the first event, I was approached by a mature woman.  She saw the picture of Speaker on the cover of the book and asked "Is that Lou Gehrig?  My son-in-law is a Yankees fan and would love to know about a good book on him."  Clearly, this woman saw a photograph of an old ballplayer on the book cover, took a name of a famous player that she knew, and ran with it.  The fact that the image had "Tris Speaker" written in large capital letters above it meant nothing to her - perhaps she thought "Tris" was some sort of adjective and "Speaker" was a reference to the famous Gehrig speech?  Nonetheless, the bottom line here is that this woman had enough baseball acumen to know that there once was someone named "Lou Gehrig" who played baseball (and was famous) - but, she had no clue whatsoever with respect to the existence and legacy of "Tris Speaker."

The second happening (occurring soon after the first) involved a man in his late forties.  He noticed the book and shared "I've been a baseball fan my whole life.  I've seen that name (Tris Speaker) before - but, I have to confess, I don't know a thing about him."  

Both of these encounters support my belief that, sadly, there are many people presently in the world who consider themselves to be fans of the game of baseball - that fall right in line with these two strangers that I met - who do not know enough about the greatness of Tris Speaker (even if they did recognize the name as someone who once played baseball).

Personally, being someone who is passionate about baseball history, I have always been fascinated with the career of Tris Speaker.  

In fact, back in the fall of 2001, this draw led to one of the most pleasant and memorable telephone conversations of my lifetime.  Wanting to learn more about Speaker, and knowing that he was born in Hubbard, Texas, I obtained the number for the chamber of commerce there and contacted them - inquiring if there was anything like a "Tris Speaker Museum" in town.  The person that I spoke to asked "Would you like to talk to his niece?  I can connect you."  (Can small towns avail or what?)  And, of course, I jumped on the offer.  That day I spent close to an hour conversing with Miss Tris Speaker Scott - the daughter of Tris Speaker's sister - named after her uncle.  Miss Scott told me about the exhibit honoring her late uncle at the local High School - and how, most unfortunately, many of his baseball artifacts were lost in a family house fire years ago.  But, most of all, it was the pride in her uncle's achievements that was conveyed in her voice that I remember most - along with her extreme kindness for engaging me on the phone for so long (in what was an unscheduled call).

The reason for my interest with Speaker is simple (at least to me).  First, examine the relative sabermetric career rankings that he earned as a batter:

At the time that he retired (1928), Tris Speaker was one of the "Top Five" batters of all-time in terms of effectiveness - along with Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb.  And, today, over three-quarters of a century after he retired, while batters such as Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds have come into the picture of hitting greatness, Tris Speaker still must be considered as one of the "Top Ten" batters of all-time in terms of effectiveness.

Next, take into account the defensive aspect of baseball play.  By most historical accounts and statistical evidence, Tris Speaker must be considered as one of the greatest fielding centerfielders of all-time.  As a result of his speed, and ability to go back and track down flies, Speaker played extremely shallow in center.  How shallow?  Six times in his career Speaker turned in unassisted double plays - snaring drives in the outfield and then beating a runner back to second base.  Tris also had an exceptional throwing arm.   He is the only outfielder in major league history with over 400 career assists.

In summary, in Tris Speaker, we have someone who ranks as one of the best ever (if not the best) with the glove at his playing position and who is one of the ten best batters to ever wield a stick at the plate - in the entire history of baseball.  A case could easily be made that Tris Speaker is the best all-around player in baseball history.  However, in the general public, his name does not carry the same hardball-fame-cache of players such as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and others.  

Timothy Gay states in the jacket of his book, "Tris Speaker enjoys the peculiar distinction of being the least-known legend of baseball history."  While I would substitute the word "bears" for "enjoys" - the essence of the statement is 100% true.  When people talk about the greatest men to ever play baseball, the name Speaker should be one of the first things that comes to their mind.  Yet, so many are unaware of his absolute greatness.

In terms of full disclosure, I would be remiss to not mention that Speaker was (like many of the baseball players in his time) a White and Protestant Supremacist, a habitual gambler - and someone who was once involved in a game fixing scandal.  (Although it seems as if his Supremacist-ways softened as he grew older.)  In terms of "the man," there's some nasty baggage that comes along with the "great ballplayer."  Yet, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb (as men) were not saints - as were many other well-remembered baseball legends.  Speaker's personal shortcomings should not be the reason why his baseball skill is not properly remembered among the masses.

Tris Speaker - The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend is keenly researched and saturated with facts (both on Speaker and baseball-related items during his time).  However, the narrative style employed at times in this book does not always flow with ease.  There is so much information presented in the book that (again, at times) it seems as if the central theme strays more towards life in general and baseball as a whole during the first two decades of the twentieth century as opposed to a focused biography of Speaker.  Therefore, I cannot consider Tris Speaker - The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend to be an all-time great baseball book - due to its overall delivery (that does not always remain fluid).  But, because of the lack of present-day media and subsequent general awareness around the true status of Tris Speaker, this book should be considered as one of the most important baseball books of all-time - and, for that reason, I do strongly recommend it to anyone baseball fan who is interested in being complete in their knowledge of baseball history.

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The statistics in this review are via the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.