Year Inducted: 1937 (BBWAA, ballot #2, 165/201)
Centerfield is the glory position on the diamond. It’s where Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle played. It’s where Willie Mays was playing when he made his famous catch in the 1954 World Series. It’s the position that Ken Griffey, Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones spent a lifetime redefining. It’s got two popular songs written about it (Talkin’ Baseball [Willie, Mickey and the Duke] and Centerfield). It’s a position that has seen so many great players that it can be difficult to determine who the best is. Many will say that Willie Mays is the best centerfielder of all-time, while some will point to Ty Cobb. Yet, one of Cobb’s contemporaries was also a fantastic center fielder. While he wasn’t as good as Cobb with the stick, Tris Speaker was a superior defender.
To say that Speaker wasn’t as good as Cobb was with the bat, while accurate, takes away from how great he was offensively. In 22 seasons as a Major League player, Speaker slashed an incredible .345/.428/.500 with a wRC+ of 157. Speaker opted to be deep in the batter’s box and bat from a crouch, rather than the more upright style that a lot of players were using at that time. His long stride allowed him to pull the ball well, and with his speed infields had to be wary of a bunt so they couldn’t play back on him. As such, Speaker would become the fifth player to record 3000 hits in a career behind Cobb, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie and Cap Anson. Speaker also would set the record for career doubles with 792. Along with the doubles record, Speaker also collected 222 triples and 117 home runs to make him one of the least likeliest member of the 1000 extra base hit club. Speaker was an excellent leadoff hitter, with a very high OBP, 432 steals and 1882 runs scored to go along with over 1500 RBI to make him a fairly complete hitter.
Speaker may not have been quite as good with the bat as Cobb, but he definitely was Cobb’s superior in the outfield. Speaker primarily played very shallow in center field, believing that more games were lost by a single falling in front of a center fielder than a triple falling in behind him. As such, Speaker was basically a fifth infielder, and made a living out of turning unassisted double plays at second base. This helped Speaker to become the best defensive center fielder until Willie Mays with 91 fielding runs in his career and nearly 450 assists.
Speaker was one of the finest players of his time. Unfortunately, while the two shared a friendly rivalry, Cobb would always overshadow the Grey Eagle. Speaker would have to wait for the second ballot ever to gain induction due to how crowded and murky the initial ballots were. It’s equally unfortunate that there were 36 people that didn’t think Speaker was a Hall of Famer, especially since Speaker was easily the best overall player on that ballot. But, it matters not. While he had to wait an extra year, Speaker will forever be ranked high along with Cobb and the rest of the center fielders as one of the greatest players in the game’s history.
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On deck 12/16/16:
#9- Second base