August 15, 2014

Reliving Yesteryear: Tris Speaker Overcomes Denial; Embraces Trade to Indians

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I hope it doesn’t sound mean, when I laugh. In no way do I blame him; the stakes are high, and a new father wants to protect his infant daughter. I have been in his shoes. But when I hear something that sounds like, “Someday, when the boys begin to show up for dates, I’ll be ready!” I know what’s coming next. Visions of elaborate gun cleaning, for the benefit of the ‘gentleman caller.’ Or knife sharpening, or some other form of fantasized intimidation. Boys are going to know who the boss is. If that is not actually denial, it’s at least an innocent display of abject cluelessness.

By 1915, the run of Cleveland baseball icon Napoleon Lajoie was over. His twelve seasons—most of them as player-manager of the team that was named after him—had seen both success and failure. And now it was time for everyone to move on. The team, renamed the “Indians” through a newspaper poll, was acquired by a railroad contractor by the name of James “Sunny Jim” Dunn. Dunn knew American League president “Ban” Johnson due to the close proximity of their offices in Chicago. Johnson, an old Ohio boy from Norwalk, brokered Dunn’s acquisition of the team. Amid some controversy, he orchestrated league ownership interests in the early 1900s, at times dabbling in some franchise ownership himself (including the Indians).

At the time, 1916 may have felt like the start of the Sunny Jim Dunn era in Cleveland. After all, one of his first moves was to rename League Park, “Dunn Field.” In retrospect, however, it clearly was the dawn of the Tris Speaker era.

A seven year veteran of the Boston Red Sox, Speaker (or “Spoke”, or “The Gray Eagle”) was one of the prominent players in the years prior to the 1914 arrival of Babe Ruth. He would have been mentioned in the same breath as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and Lajoie.

“My girl will be allowed to date… when she’s 30.” Since this comment actually intends to draw a laugh, it holds some promise that Dad is beginning to ‘get it.’ The preposterous nature of the statement at least acknowledges that his daughter has some level of control over her life. Dad’s authority only extends so far.

Speaker was fresh off a 1915 campaign in which he’d hit .322 in leading Boston to a World Championship. He was expecting a raise in pay, and was incensed that the offer from the Red Sox for the 1916 season was flat, at the same $9000 he’d earned the prior season. (Team owners dominated the team/player dynamic back then. Players’ league rights were the property of their current team. Contracts were signed one year at a time, and ‘negotiations’ consisted of what 2014 observers might view as similar to contentious arbitration proceedings. Players touted their accomplishments, and owners identified flaws. But unmistakably, owners controlled the relationship.) When spring training opened in 1916, Boston’s star center fielder was a holdout.

Ed Bang was sports editor for the Cleveland News (a daily paper that was acquired and absorbed by The Cleveland Press by 1960). He’d read about the impasse between Tris Speaker and the Red Sox. He also knew of the Boston owner, Joe Lannin. Bang knew Lannin would sell any player, for the right amount of cash. He informed Bob McRoy, the general manager of the Indians. McRoy offered Lannin $55,000 for Tris Speaker, which got the deal done.

Speaker was in denial. He wasn’t going to Cleveland. They weren’t any good, and they weren’t drawing fans. Eventually, he did accept the fact that he belonged to the Indians. He agreed to report- but he wanted $10,000 of that $55,000, and he wanted it to be paid by the Red Sox (the raise he’d originally demanded was to $15,000; the $10,000 he’d now receive would raise him to $19,000). When Lannin balked, Ban Johnson stepped in and ordered him to comply.

Speaker’s impact on the Indians was immediate. He won the American League batting title in 1916, with a .386 average- the first of his ten seasons hitting over .300 in Cleveland (out of eleven). His defensive ability was legendary, as well. He was famous for playing a very shallow center field- sometimes even taking throws from the catcher at second with men on base. Speaker had a great jump on balls over his head, and he had the speed to run balls down at the fence.

Husbands—you and I know we both “married up.” Quick: who picked whom? If you are being honest, you are nodding as you are reading this: your wife let you pick her. She picked you.

That’s my point. When you were that young buck you now fear as a father, you were just an opportunist.

The girls called the shots. As a dad, you can dream about the level of control you will have in keeping boys at bay, but your attention might be better focused at home.

When a child is born, parents have twelve years. After age 12, your daughter’s personality is no longer being shaped by you and your wife. Any future changes will be a result of her experiences and decisions. No, your work isn’t nearly done, but the die will have been cast. You must now trust that you didn’t spoil her too much, lest she toy with and take for granted the good things in her life- like nice boys. You must also trust you didn’t neglect her too much, lest she spend life searching miserably for a father figure. This is not meant as pessimism. Fatherhood is a huge responsibility, and you’ve given her what she needs the most: your love, your time, your attention, and your support.

By midseason in 1919, Speaker became player-manager of the Indians. He’d been team captain, and when manager Lee Fohl vacated the position, The Gray Eagle assumed the new role.

Fohl regarded Speaker highly. He often consulted his star on managerial decisions. On July 18, 1919, the Indians were in third place, at 44-34. They were hosting Boston at Dunn Field, trying to defeat the Red Sox for the tenth straight time. They had a 7-3 lead with two out in the top of the ninth inning. They had a left-handed pitcher in the game, and the bases were loaded with Babe Ruth coming to the plate (he was still pitching while also playing every day in 1919). Fohl looked out to Speaker, who motioned to bring in a right hander to face the left-handed-hitting Ruth. Perhaps to follow conventional wisdom, Fohl decided to forego the advice, instead bringing in another lefty. It was a mistake. Ruth clubbed a grand slam off the soft-tossing lefty, over the tall, shallow wall in right. The Red Sox went on to win the game.

It was a crushing defeat for the Indians. Dunn wasn’t so ‘sunny’; he requested that Speaker report to his office. Fohl was said to have resigned. Speaker accepted the responsibility after receiving encouragement from Fohl. Unfortunately, the Indians finished second, to the Chicago White Sox.

Speaker took an interest in developing a couple of the team’s newer pitchers during the later stages of the 1919 season. One was George Uhle, a young Cleveland boy who’d starred in the local sandlot circuit. Uhle actually won 10 games after August 19 that year.

Another pitcher was Ray Caldwell, or “Slim,” who actually was a major league veteran of about ten seasons. Slim Caldwell was widely known as having talent on a par with the finest pitchers ever to play baseball. His problem was that he was a drunk. He’d pitch a great game, then disappear or get into trouble. He blew through countless ‘second chances,’ which was how he became available to the Indians.

Tris Speaker arranged for a special contract to be drawn up for Slim. Clearly specified was that Caldwell was to pitch, then get drunk afterward. He was not to show up the next day. On day two, he was to report to the ball park and run per the manager’s instructions. On day three, he was to throw batting practice. On day four, he was to pitch again. This was to repeat indefinitely. While it was not known how sustainable the plan would be, it began to pay dividends right away. Slim Caldwell was the talk of baseball.

In Slim Caldwell’s first game in Cleveland, he was pitching a gem. Up 2-1 with two out in the ninth inning, a sudden lightning storm hit Dunn Field. It is said that sparks traveled around the ball park’s metal railings. A lightning bolt struck Caldwell, and knocked him out. It had entered at the metal button on top of his cap, and exited through his spikes. He awoke a few minutes later, and struck out the final batter.

A few starts later, Caldwell threw a no-hitter at his former team, the New York Yankees. Things were falling into place for Tris Speaker and the Cleveland Indians. They had a strong core in place, and the pitching was coming together. Speaker was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. It was a relationship that had begun in denial by the star player. He’d quickly moved to acceptance, and by the end of 1919, all were poised to benefit.

*****

Sources used for this article included Wikipedia, The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia by Russell Schneider, Sabr.org, and The Chatauqua Sports Hall of Fame. I also got sidetracked while researching this piece, and the evening turned to night as I read a whole bunch of other stuff completely unrelated to Tris Speaker. That’s OK, though. I’ve got all the time in the world. One of my girls is out with a boy this evening. He knows—as does she—that I’ll be up when they return. No denying that.

Greg’s first piece for WFNY can be found here. Follow him on Twitter.

  • Jason Hurley

    I’m enjoying these articles a lot. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Loved this piece. It also made me realize I need to figure out how to get a Slim Caldwell-esque contract for my job.

  • Ann Steiner

    If you want to read more about this era in Indians baseball, Scott Longert’s ‘The Best They Could Be’ is great.

  • mgbode

    an article on WFNY mentions “guys getting lucky by marrying up” and Ann appears on the comment threads. Jon, there are very few coincidences in life :)

  • mgbode

    You must now trust that you didn’t spoil her too much, lest she toy
    with and take for granted the good things in her life- like nice boys.
    You must also trust you didn’t neglect her too much, lest she spend life
    searching miserably for a father figure.

    hmmm, ok, by your count I have 9 years left to get that balance right. great sidebars in this story as they are many of the things that keep a father of a young daughter thinking through.

  • WFNYJon

    I’ve now given this comment an upvote after thinking about it for 45 minutes.

  • Greg Popelka

    Really appreciate the support. Ann, I’ll look for that book. Anyone read the children’s book “Jack and Larry”? It’s about Jack Graney and Larry his dog. Really a neat story, but I have not read that book yet.

  • Ann Steiner

    I’ve read ‘Jack and Larry’ — its free verse format is a little strange, and it’s definitely geared toward a younger audience. Longert’s book had better anecdotes and detail about Larry, I thought.