By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
AN OUTFIELD STORY
One of the great joys of watching the 2018 edition of the Boston Red Sox is their outfield
play. You know that any ball hit in the direction of any of the three B-boys, Betts,
Bradley or Benintendi, that is at all catchable will be caught and that any runner who
thinks about taking an extra base is best advised to think again because all three have
strong, accurate arms. It is reminiscent of forty years ago when the great outfield
comprised of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans patrolled the outer reaches of
Yet perhaps the greatest outfield in the team’s history played together so long ago that no
one alive today has any personal memory of it as a unit. When Fenway Park first opened
its doors in April of 1912, the starting outfield consisted of Duffy Lewis in left, Harry
Hooper in right, and the Grey Eagle, Tris Speaker, in centerfield. Dubbed the Golden
Outfield by some and the Million Dollar Outfield by others, it was considered by
contemporaries to be the greatest outfield of all time. Speaker was the trio’s best player.
In fact, he was one of the best players in the history of the game. He was the most
outstanding defender of his time, and he wasn’t bad on offense, either; he had a lifetime
batting average of .345, higher even than that of Ted Williams. He had star power back
then which was second only to that of Ty Cobb.
And yet the unit known as the Million Dollar Outfield was not really a unit at all. When
Speaker was suddenly traded to the Cleveland Indians just before the 1916 season, his
outfield mates, Lewis and Hooper, were happy and relieved to see him go. The truth is
that the Red Sox back then were a team riddled with dissension. And the issue was not a
baseball one. It was religion.
Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper were, as were many of their teammates, Catholics. Tris
Speaker was not only Protestant, but also he was reputed to be a member of the Ku Klux
Klan back in his home town of Hubbard, Texas, which was then also the home of the
Klan’s grand wizard. As such, he was virally anti-Catholic. Speaker did not even speak
with his outfield mates, much less hang out with them. Fisticuffs were known to break
out in the clubhouse between the Catholic and Protestant factions, and as often as not The
Grey Eagle was in the middle of it. The atmosphere was poisonous.
Despite it all, the Red Sox won the World Series in 1912 and again in 1915. They won
yet again, without Speaker, in 1916. In 1918 they were champions once more, but by that
time Babe Ruth, the Shohei Ohtani of the twentieth century, was emerging as a bigger
star than both Speaker and Cobb combined.
There was also the matter of money. When the upstart Federal League threatened to lure
star players away from the already established American and National leagues, the Red
Sox doubled Speaker’s salary rather than risk having him jump leagues. After the Federal
League folded the Sox wanted to reduce his pay what to what it had been. Speaker
wouldn’t hear of it - all the more reason to trade him.
Besides, Boston was by then an Irish-Cathoic town. The Irish population had reached
critical mass and they had taken control of the city government. For ninety years the
mayor of Boston would be an Irishman. The Irish made up the largest segment of the Red
Sox fan base.
So off Speaker went to Cleveland, along with his hefty contract and his anti-catholicism
(in addition, of course, to his immense talent).
Here is where the story takes an unexpected turn. While playing for the Indians he met
and fell in love with – are you ready? – an Irish-Catholic girl, Mary Frances Cuddihy.
The reputed Klan member was married in a church rectory by, of all things, a Catholic
priest. It changed him. Not only did his attitude toward Cathlics change, but also so did
his attitude toward people of color.
Fast forward to 1947. The Indians had just signed the American League’s first black
player, a middle infielder from the Negro Leagues named Larry Doby. There was no way
Doby was going to get playing time in the Indians’ middle infield; they had
player/manager Lou Boudreau at shortstop and perennial all-star Joe Gordon at second
base. The decision ws made to convert Doby to an outfielder; and who better to teach him
than the old Ku Klux Klan member, Tris Speaker? The Grey Eagle took on the job
willingly, and he must have been as good a teacher as Doby was a student because there
are now two center fielders representing the Cleveland Indians with plaques in the
National Baseball Hall of Fame: Tris Speaker and Larry Doby.
The two in fact became close. When, at the end of his career, Doby was honored with a
parade in Cleveland, the person he chose to ride beside him in an open converible was his
old teacher, the Grey Eagle, formerly of the Ku Klux Klan.
I don’t know what all that has to do with watching Betts, Bradley and Benintendi play the
outfield for the Red Sox, but it’s pretty good story, isn’t it?