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1 february 2008

Charles Alexander has written some of the most distinguished baseball biographies. His studies of Ty Cobb, John McGraw, and Rogers Hornsby are definitive: solid academic research with a flair for meshing psychology and circumstance. In Spoke: A Biography of Tris Speaker, Alexander tries to extend his streak to four masterpieces, but his material just isn't as interesting. The impeccable research is there, but the subject of the biography is one of the less colorful greats of early-20th-century baseball.

Speaker was called "The Grey Eagle," a nickname that blends raw athletic power with a certain dullness. He was certainly one of the greatest athletes in the white leagues of the 1910s and 20s. As an all-around player, only Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth could match him. Speaker was the premier center fielder of his color and era, and perhaps of all time. He hit .345 lifetime, stole over 400 bases, and still holds the career record for doubles (792, a record that is under no pressure from any active player). Speaker was also a rodeo performer of some distinction, coming home to Texas to compete in the Fort Worth Stock Show rodeo in several different winters of his playing career.

Speaker managed in the major leagues and in the minors. He led the Cleveland Indians to their first World Championship, and also played on the 1912 and 1915 World Champion Boston Red Sox. He was one of the most famous and best-paid ballplayers of his day.

But compared to the hyper-aggressive Cobb, the scheming McGraw, the antisocial Hornsby – or for that matter, compared to the ebullient Ruth, the hapless Joe Jackson, or the doomed Lou Gehrig – Speaker just doesn't have a very memorable personality. He was essentially a good ol' boy. He spent his summers playing ball and his winters roping cattle, hunting, and fishing. He married late, childlessly, and evidently happily. He had a decent education for a ballplayer of his time, having completed high school and briefly attended a white-collar trade school in Ft. Worth; he mixed easily with the college men among his teammates, like Larry Gardner and Harry Hooper, and was a successful businessman in Cleveland after retirement from baseball.

You get the sense, in fact, that Speaker would have been a steady friend and a prized business associate. He was active and successful in charity work, and a remarkably consistent ballplayer with a strong work ethic. But that life just doesn't make for riveting reading.

The one scandal in Speaker's entire life burst in the winter of 1926-27, when former teammate Dutch Leonard accused Speaker of conspiring with Cobb and Joe Wood to fix a game late in the 1919 season. The accusations put Leonard in a very bad light, embarrassed Wood, tarnished Cobb's none-too-glowing reputation slightly – and flowed right past Tris Speaker, because little evidence materialized that the game was in fact thrown, and still less that Speaker was involved in the slightest.

The Grey Eagle was too unexciting even to be brought low by scandal. In the biographical sense alone, I hasten to say. As a baseball player, he must have been a thrill to watch. He specialized in the unassisted double play: a remarkable enough play for a first baseman or a middle infielder, but spectacular for a center fielder. The 1920 Cleveland championship season alone, more elaborately told in Mike Sowell's The Pitch that Killed, was among the most memorable in baseball history; Speaker had to rebuild his club in midseason after New York pitcher Carl Mays killed Cleveland's star shortstop Ray Chapman with an errant pitch.

Speaker is sometimes rumored to have been a Klansman, but Alexander asserts that there is only one source for that story, and it is indirect (213). Spoke may well have been a racist at some point in his life, but he eagerly went to work for owner Bill Veeck after the integration of the Indians, coaching Larry Doby in outfield play.

The Speaker/Doby connection points to a long tradition in Cleveland: athletic center fielders who hit left-handed, run well, and can flat-out hit. Speaker's successors include Earl Averill, Doby, Kenny Lofton, and Grady Sizemore: with some differences here and there, players cast in much the same mold as Speaker. It's not the most storied of franchises, but the Indians have had some of the better center fielders, and the Grey Eagle is the model. Alexander talks of "getting a blank stare" from people when he said he was writing on Speaker (310). Spoke does not do much to revive Speaker's celebrity, but it does convey a sense of how exceptionally good Speaker was as an athlete, and that's a welcome contribution.

Alexander, Charles C. Spoke: A biography of Tris Speaker. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2007.