The Boston Red Sox have a long and storied history filled stars that have come and gone. While the franchise has enjoyed success recently – including three World Series titles – there have been some serious mistakes made. Scott Maxwell looks back at the frequently forgotten Tris Speaker trade.
The city of Boston was recovering from a late winter storm on March 25, 1916. The forecast in The Boston Globe was for unsettled weather ahead, which is hardly unusual for New England in the first days of spring. It also perfectly reflected the contract situation surrounding Red Sox superstar Tris Speaker. He remained the only player unsigned by the defending World Series champions going into the 1916 season. The Grey Eagle, as he was known, landed in Hot Springs, Arkansas at noon for spring training. Speaker left himself six full days to prepare for the upcoming season before heading north with the club. He got off the train, checked in at the hotel, headed for the ballpark, and proceeded to get four hits in a 19-1 rout. For the moment, everything was back to normal for the club. However, dark clouds were on the horizon.
It was no secret that there were divisions in the clubhouse. Manager Bill “Rough” Carrigan earned his nickname with his surly demeanor and physical play behind the plate as a catcher. Carrigan was a devout Catholic and a local product of Holy Cross College, who favored his religious compatriot Duffy Lewis and had taken a young Catholic reform school boy named Babe Ruth under his wing. Ruth later described Carrigan as the best manager he played under during his career. Despite the team’s success, Carrigan was not beloved by all. Speaker, a Protestant, and Carrigan were divided along religious lines. Speaker mockingly referred to the trio of Carrigan, Lewis, and Ruth as the ‘Knights of Columbus’. The star and his manager even came to blows over the matter. Speaker’s intolerance in his younger years of those that did not belong to his white, Protestant demographic is undoubtedly the biggest strike against him historically, epitomizing an issue that would permeate baseball for years to come. There was no question as to where team president Joseph Lannin’s allegiance lay in the Speaker vs. Carrigan conflict. Lannin was an unabashed Carrigan fan and had delivered a speech at Holy Cross on the eve of Speaker’s arrival at spring training. It is not much of a stretch to think that the clubhouse turmoil played at least some role in the events that followed.
The first hint that something was amiss came days later. Lannin asked Speaker to cut his $18,000 salary in half. Speaker earned more than Ty Cobb at the time, though Cobb was the superior batter. Speaker’s batting average had declined three consecutive seasons, all the way down to a mere .322 in 1915. It was not unusual for contracts to be renegotiated based on merit, but Speaker saw the pay cut as excessive. He suggested a salary of $15,000. Lannin came back with $10,000. Speaker wanted to be able to send $5,000 home to his mother and keep $10,000 for himself, so he stood firm at his asking price. Lannin was hesitant, but told Speaker that he would agree to his terms after watching him tear the cover off the ball in Arkansas. Still, rumors swirled, and the Washington Post published speculation that Speaker might be headed to New York. Lannin refuted this speculation, saying the rumors of Speaker to the Yankees were absurd.
“If I sold Speaker to the Yankees it would be just the same as selling them the American League Pennant,” he said. Lannin saw New York as direct competition and a threat to the team’s success. How history would have been different had Lannin not sold the team to Harry Frazee later that year.
While in his hotel room in New York, Speaker received an unexpected phone call. It was Cleveland president Bob McRoy who was in the hotel lobby. The conversation opened with an equally unexpected question.
“Tris, how would you like to come to Cleveland?” he asked.
Speaker turned him down flat. He said that Cleveland was “a fine city, but it has a poor ball club.” Speaker considered Boston a second home and was content to stay with the championship team there. It seems McRoy made the trip after hearing of the contentious salary negotiations and hoped to swoop in and make Lannin a godfather offer. It worked.
Despite Speaker’s reluctance, Lannin traded Speaker to Cleveland on April 9th, three days before the season began. The deal sent Boston $55,000 (roughly $1.25M today) in cash, along with players Sad Sam Jones, a relief pitcher, and Fred Thomas, a utility infielder. It was all about the money, and it set an unfortunate precedent. The deal rocked the baseball world. Red Sox players were stunned at the news, and opponents were delighted. Fans were shocked and mourned the loss of the team’s best player and two-time champion.
Of the event, W.L. Dougherty wrote in The Baseball Fan’s Lament:
We don’t care whether it rains or shines or hails today–
We don’t care whether this weather lasts way up to the end of May–
We don’t care whether this makes a hit–wave knocks or credit due us–
Since Lannin broke up his star outfield of
Hooper and Speaker and Lewis.
The trade was unthinkable. In more modern terms, it was akin to breaking up the original Celtics Big Three by trading Larry Bird to the Cavaliers for cash in the summer of 1984. Speaker led the top outfield in baseball, and the unit was celebrated by fans and foes alike. Now, the era of the “Million Dollar Outfield” was over. Baseball in Boston would never be the same.
Though the passion for the Red Sox has largely gone unchanged since that time, the game of baseball was quite different then. Pitchers were allowed to scuff, spit on, and muddy the ball to make life more difficult for hitters. Because of this, it’s often referred to as the Deadball Era. Runs were at a premium and home runs were few. Teams relied on rallies, bunts, and stolen bases to generate offense. Few had the skills to accomplish these tasks as successfully as Speaker.
He finished in the American League’s top five in batting average from 1912-1915 and stole as many as 52 bases in a season. He was also a world-class defender, playing such an unorthodox, shallow centerfield that Eddie Collins referred to Speaker as the team’s fifth infielder. Speaker had six unassisted double plays at second base in his career, able to race runners back to the bag after snaring a line drive.
The fans were not the only ones who appreciated his fielding abilities. “I’d be pitching and hear the crack of the bat and say to myself, ‘There goes the ball game!’ But Tris would race back to the fences, and at the last moment make a diving catch. Not once … but a thousand times,” said teammate Babe Ruth.
Just days before the trade, Lannin had purchased Tillie Walker from the St. Louis Browns for $3,500. Walker was his Speaker insurance and he took over duties in centerfield for the 1916 Boston Red Sox. Walker had some pop in his bat and a strong throwing arm. However, his batting average had dropped nearly 30 points in 1915 and he fell out of favor in St. Louis due to his sulking disposition and alleged focus on personal statistics over the success of the team. He was quick to set expectations.
“I am tickled to death to come to Boston, but please make it plain to Boston fans that I do not expect to fill Tris Speaker’s shoes,” Walker said.
Walker fulfilled those expectations. The offense scuffled at times, and Boston’s strong pitching staff of Ruth, Carl Mays, Dutch Leonard, Ernie Shore, and Rube Foster was more inconsistent than anticipated. When the calendar turned to May, the team spiraled. Speaker returned to Boston on May 9, and by that time he had led his ‘poor baseball club’ to first place while the Red Sox dropped to fifth by the end of the series. Walker was hitting an abysmal .182/.217/.182 in the cleanup spot for Boston, while Speaker was off to a tremendous start batting .354/.473/.463. His return was hailed as ‘Speaker Day’ and he was once again the toast of Boston. Well, most of Boston. The Indians split the series with Red Sox, and Speaker went a combined 6-for-12 with three walks, two doubles, and a triple.
Speaker continued his Hall of Fame career, finally pushing his way past Ty Cobb to win the 1916 batting title with a career-high .386 average. Despite having a remarkable .345 average over his 22-year career, it was the only batting title he ever won. He also led the league with 211 H, 41 2B, .470 OBP, .502 SLG, and a .972 OPS. To put it in context, Speaker’s 186 OPS+ that year is tied on the all-time list with Manny Ramirez’s 2000 campaign during which he batted .351 and hit 38 HR, good enough for a career-high 1.154 OPS. Had there been an MVP award in 1916, Speaker likely would have taken it. It was, in many ways, much like a disgruntled and highly motivated Roger Clemens pitching for the 1997 Toronto Blue Jays. Both Speaker and Clemens intended to show Red Sox management they were wrong to let them go and had career seasons for their new teams.
If not for Frazee’s sale of Ruth a few seasons later, the Speaker trade would be remembered as the most infamous deal in franchise history. The difference in salary demands ended up being a gap of $5,000, and the Red Sox paid a much steeper price long-term. There is no denying the type of talent that Lannin dispatched. The Sporting News ranked Speaker as the 27th best player of the 20th century. Cleveland improved each season until Speaker eventually took the lowly Indians to a championship in 1920; an astonishing accomplishment considering the team he joined in 1916 had finished 44.5 games out of first place the previous season. It is not difficult to imagine a Red Sox team led by Ruth and Speaker competing for championships well into the 1920s. Unfortunately, the Speaker trade began the exodus of premium talent that caused the franchise to fall out of contention after the 1918 season. Red Sox fans had to wait nearly three decades to win another pennant, and, of course, 86 years before winning the World Series again.
All was not lost for the 1916 Red Sox, however. In Part II, the team turns it around, and a surprising announcement is made. Stay tuned.
Follow Scott on Twitter @marbleheader75.
Special thanks to Gordon Edes for his assistance in the research for this article.
“The Weather.” The Boston Globe 25 Mar. 1916: n. pag. Print.
Collins, Tracy Brown. Babe Ruth. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. Print.
Alexander, Charles C. Spoke: A Biography of Tris Speaker. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 2007. Print.
“Tris Speaker Goes to Yankees If Magnates Agree as to Terms.” Washington Post 7 Apr. 1916: n. pag. Print.
“SPEAKER TRADE TALK ALL BOSH.” The Boston Globe 8 Apr. 1916: n. pag. Print.
Dougherty, W.L. “THE BASEBALL FAN’S LAMENT.” The Boston Globe 10 Apr. 1916: n. pag. Print.
Crichton, Kyle. “Center-Field Lightning.” Colliers (1938): 17. Print.
“Walker Will Do His Best.” The Boston Globe 10 Apr. 1916: n. pag. Print.
Smith, Ron. The Sporting News Selects Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players: A Celebration of the 20th Century’s Best. St. Louis, MO: Sporting News Pub., 1998. Print.