It may be difficult to believe today, but in 1954, many “experts” considered Tris Speaker the greatest center fielder of all time.
Tris played from 1907-1928. He batted .345 with a .428 on base average and, despite playing much of his career in the dead ball area, slugged .500.
On April 4, 1954 Speaker spent his 66th birthday watching the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians play an exhibition game in Arizona. It was Speaker’s first look at the player many thought would eclipse the Gray Eagle, but with the exception of one great defensive play, it wasn’t Willie’s day. He went hitless.
Willie played the first six innings in an 8-4 loss as Speaker observed from the press box. In the third inning, the Tribe’s third baseman, Al Rosen, who had just missed winning the Triple Crown by less than one batting point in 1953, hit a deep drive to center field.
Willie, as baseball announcers used to say, “got on his horse” and made a fine catch to rob Rosen of extra bases. Willie then fired a bullet, on the fly to third basement Henry Thompson for a double play. Speaker was impressed, but pointed out that Willie should have bounced to throw.
“No one can find fault with an outfielder whose throw makes a double play, but Willie’s throw to third was on the fly. He should have bounced it, so that if a cut-off was needed, it could have been made.”
When Willie heard that Speaker would be in the ball park, Willie was excited and conceded to reporters that he certainly had a lot to learn about playing center field. Willie was not upset when he was told about Speaker’s comment.
He went on to say that he would like to get some advice from Speaker, who was happy to oblige.
Young Willie Mays had a wonderful attitude. He knew he was good. He knew he had great skills. But he also knew that he had a lot to learn and was eager to improve.
When some reporters expressed the opinion to Speaker that Willie was a sure Hall of Famer, Tris issued a word of caution.
“Let’s wait a while on Mays – at least until August.”
By the end of August, Willie was making Speaker seem like a seer. Mays, along with teammate Don Mueller and enemy Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers were embroiled in a three-way race for the batting title.
When it was over, Willie finished at .345, Mueller batted .342, and the Duke of Flatbush finished at .341.
Mays is a Hall of Famer whom many consider to be the greatest of all center fielders. He finished his career with a .302 batting average and hit 660 home runs.
Willie played almost his entire career in the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park. The latter was paradise for pull hitters with its short distances down the foul lines, but a nightmare for gap hitters like Willie. The winds in Candlestick favored left-handed hitters, but robbed right-handed hitters of many potential home runs.
Imagine if Willie Mays had played his entire career in Ebbets Field.
By LOUIS EFFRATSpecial to The New York Times.. (1954, April 5). TRIBE’S 4 IN NINTH TRIP NEW YORK, 8-4 :Indian Drive Against Spencer Topples Giants as Speaker Watches Mays in Action. New York Times (1923-Current file),28. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 83871049).