November 19, 2007
You Could Look It Up
The Speaker Saga
Last week's unexpected reversal in the Yankees-Alex Rodriguez relationship is reminiscent of a contractual dispute that took place during the early years of the Boston Red Sox, an argument which brought a surprise denouement that had wide-reaching consequences for the game.
The arrival of the upstart Federal League in 1914 had the effect of giving star players the leverage of free agency more than six decades before they were found to have that right. With the Federals trying to lure away established stars so as to grant their league an instant sheen of respectability, there was for the first time in baseball history two sides to a salary negotiation. Whereas previously the clubs could say to a player, "Here's your offer-you'll take it and like it," now the player could brandish a Federal League offer as a rejoinder: "Oh yeah? Well, top this!" Wanting to maintain their monopoly, many clubs felt that they had no choice but to do just that.
One of the players who benefited was Tris Speaker, the veteran center fielder for the Red Sox. Ty Cobb was about a year and a half younger than Speaker, but had beaten him to the majors by more than two years, and to regular playing time by three; Speaker finally became a regular when he was 21 years old in 1909. Almost immediately, Speaker's combination of offense and defense would establish him as one of Cobb's chief rivals for the title of best player in the American League. From 1909 to 1915, Cobb hit .389/.461/.547, while Speaker hit .342/.419/.490. Using a park-adjusted stat like equivalent average, we can see that at times Speaker was closer than that in offensive ability. From 1912 to 1914, Cobb's EqAs were .362, .362, and .361, while Speaker's were .354, .350, and .343. Reflecting Speaker's unchallenged superiority with the glove (he was the gold standard in center field until Willie Mays), WARP1 finds that Speaker was actually slightly more valuable than Cobb in these years, 93.0 to 91.6.
As the day of the Federal League drew near, Speaker was hitting an early peak; later, the introduction of the lively ball in 1920 would help motivate a second rising. In 1912 he batted .383/.464/.567 with 53 doubles. The Red Sox won their first World Series since 1903, and Speaker was given the Chalmers Award as the league's MVP. The next season he was almost as good, hitting .363/.441/.533, dropping to 35 doubles but hitting 22 triples.
It was at this point that Speaker set out to negotiate a new contract. Accounts of what the Feds' Brooklyn Tip-Tops whispered in Speaker's ear differ; they may have offered Speaker $15,000 cash as a signing bonus, plus $15,000 a year for three years. One source says they offered $100,000 for three years, though this seems unlikely. Red Sox owner Joe Lannin offered Speaker a two-year deal at $18,000 a year. Speaker accepted, which shows either that his math was not good, that he felt a sense of loyalty to his employer or teammates, or that he was unconvinced that the Feds would be around long enough to honor the deal.
In any case, Speaker returned to the Red Sox for one of the highest salaries in the game, drawing even more than Cobb was getting. Lannin was unsatisfied with the results, though the Sox won another World Series in 1915. In 1914, Speaker had hit .338/.423/.503, which was a decline from the year before, and in 1915, he cooled still more, to .322/.416/.411. Simultaneously, the Federal League went toes up, ceasing play after the 1915 season. With no rival bidders driving up salaries, Lannin and his fellow owners figured they could cut salaries with impunity. Speaker's offer for 1916 was for $9,000, half of what the outfielder had made the year before.
Speaker said he would compromise at $15,000, but when Lannin balked he held out. Sox manager Bill Carrigan, no great friend of Speaker's but a man who clearly knew on which side his bread was buttered, brokered a compromise, allowing the unsigned Speaker to train and play with the team in the spring of 1916 while negotiations continued. Playing for his contract, Speaker had a terrific exhibition season, one which he capped by hitting a game-winning home run off of Rube Marquard in the final exhibition game. After the game, Lannin offered Speaker his hand. "You win," he said. "We'll sign when we get to Boston tomorrow." An apparently unbridgeable gap between the parties had been solved by ownership crumbling in the face of a hot spring.
It was all a lie. "Tomorrow" proved to be Speaker's last day in a Red Sox uniform. In a deal orchestrated by American League president Ban Johnson, Speaker was swapped to Cleveland for two prospects, pitcher Sad Sam Jones and Fred Thomas, plus $55,000. Suddenly, the significance of Lannin's acquisition of St. Louis Browns outfielder Tilly Walker (purchased for $3,500) four days earlier became apparent: Speaker's replacement was already on hand. Speaker initially resisted going to Cleveland, telling the Indians before he was aware of the deal that he had no interest in playing there. Knowing he had few alternatives under the reserve system, Speaker threatened to go home to Texas unless he was cut in for $10,000 of the sale. Lannin relented, and the Speaker saga was finally concluded.
It is delicious to contemplate a repeat of Lannin's trade as a finale to the A-Rod situation, with Hank Steinbrenner signing the contract with a flourish and then immediately whisking A-Rod off to the Marlins, there to lose 90 games a year before 15,000 fans a night; one of the reasons that Speaker was unenthused about going to Cleveland was that the Indians had never won a pennant and had lost 102 and 95 games in 1914 and 1915 respectively, drawing around 2,000 fans a game. Of course, such things are impossible with modern contracts-even if Rodriguez's new deal lacks a no-trade clause, his contract will be as unmovable as Mount Rushmore.
More importantly, the laws of unintended consequences always reign in these situations. Dealing Speaker didn't exactly help the Red Sox, just as dealing Rodriguez out of spite wouldn't help the Yankees. The Sox were so deep in pitching (with Babe Ruth, Dutch Leonard, Ernie Shore, and Carl Mays) that they won another pennant and World Series, but they declined by ten wins and dropped from third in the league in runs scored per game to sixth. They edged a rising White Sox team by just two games; that same White Sox team would beat them to the pennant twice in the next three seasons. Speaker revived in Cleveland in 1916, leading the league in batting (.386), on-base percentage (.470), and slugging (.502). Twenty-eight years old at the time of the trade, Speaker would play until he was 40, never dropping below the level of impact player until his final two seasons. Adding manager to his portfolio in 1919, he directed the Indians to a pennant and championship in 1920. Harry Frazee hadn't come into the picture at the time of the Speaker trade (that would be six months later), but the deal can be seen as an early landmark on the road to the dissolution of a great franchise for reasons that had nothing to do with its on-the-field abilities.
The deal also signaled the beginning of the estrangement between the Yankees and the Red Sox on one side and AL strong man Ban Johnson on the other. Johnson had a financial interest in the Indians, and his manipulating the transfer of Speaker without allowing other clubs to bid looked a lot like self-dealing. The hostility in the league's boardrooms would blossom in the ensuing years, nearly breaking up the AL at one point, and also creating an atmosphere so poisonous that it helped the Black Sox scandal to take root despite more than adequate warning that something of its kind might happen.
Though a literal sequel is impossible, the Speaker "signing" and trade serves as a warning to both the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez that their uneasy relationship may not be solved by an exchange of papers. Insoluble problems resist solutions that lack bruising consequences. Fantasies of revenge may be satisfying, but when they are actualized, they unleash forces whose consequences are difficult to predict.