There is no new thing under the sun. We're in the throes of a collective baseball fever, and to many the current interest in the game feels unprecedented, while others will draw fond comparisons to a time just a shade over two decades ago when the Blue Jays were twice World Series champions, and people coast-to-coast donned blue caps in support and adoration. Dig a little into the historical record, though, and you'll find that the mania for the summer game has deeper roots.
As far back as the 1920s, baseball was a hot topic, even in a town like Peterborough, Ontario. The Peterborough Examiner, published continuously since 1847, ran several pages of baseball news about subjects such as the World Series. In October 1923, the Yankees and Giants faced off in the Fall Classic for the third straight year (the Giants had taken the '21 and '22 crowns), and the Examiner's readers were treated to extensive coverage, bringing the exploits of Casey Stengel and Babe Ruth into their homes.
That was also the week Tris Speaker came to town.
Tristram E. Speaker was born in Hubbard, Texas, on April 4, 1888, the first year of operation for the Texas League, where he would begin his professional career 18 years later. In 1907, he was sold to Boston of the American League—a team that wouldn't be known as the Red Sox until the following season, and for which a young Speaker hit a lowly .224. By 1909, he was the team's everyday centre fielder, and his hitting had improved significantly. He would eventually become one of the best hitters in the game, achieving a lifetime mark of .345, still the sixth-best career average of all time. His defence was extraordinary; as a centre fielder he was considered without peer. He would win two World Series titles with the Red Sox, in 1912 and 1915. Speaker was instrumental to that second championship, though his average slipped 16 points under his 1914 mark of .338. Boston team president Joseph Lannin demanded Speaker take a pay cut as a result. Speaker refused, so on April 8, 1916, he was traded to Cleveland.
The best hitter of the day was Ty Cobb, a buddy of Speaker's who had won nine batting titles in a row coming into the 1916 season. Speaker hit .386 that year with Cleveland, and wrestled the crown from Cobb, a nice bit of thanks-for-the-memories directed Boston's way.
Speaker became Cleveland's manager in 1920, but continued to patrol the outfield at spacious Dunn Field. He led the team to a World Series victory while batting .388 (George Sisler took the AL crown that year, hitting .407), with a league-best 50 doubles. Cobb wound up with a .334 average, a down year for him, on a seventh-place Tigers squad.
All of these events took place in the era of the reserve clause, a prevailing rule which allowed baseball's owners to prevent the movement of players, and which effectively resulted in a form of indentured servitude. Though Speaker was among the best paid players in the game, his experience with Lannin and the Red Sox reinforced the precariousness of even his situation. He, like all other ballplayers at the time, knew they had to scratch and claw for money just as they did for hits, outs and wins.
And all of this might explain why Speaker, like a good number of players of the day, used his celebrity to earn a buck whenever possible. That, in turn, may tell us why, while the Yankees and Giants slugged it out in the World Series, Speaker enlisted several other players—including Cobb—dubbed them his "All Stars," and lit out for Canada, where they meant to mix business and pleasure.
They came to hunt, booking lodging at Rice Lake, Ontario—still a pretty slice of Ontario cottage country, a half hour south of Peterborough—and in Temagami. Along their way they scheduled a pair of exhibition games, the first in Toronto, the second in Peterborough, a smallish city of around 20,000 at the time, but a regional hub, and site of a decent ballyard.
Of the Toronto game, which took place at the "Scarboro Beach Grounds" on Oct. 10, the following day's Examiner reported that before the first pitch Speaker, Cobb, and fellow All Stars Les Nunamaker, Roger Peckinpaugh, and Jim Edwards were presented hunting and fishing licenses. Thereafter, reported the paper, the All Stars piled on runs early, "then took matters easily" against their opponents, the Toronto Wellingtons, a semi-pro team managed by Conny Burns. The final score was 10-6 for the All Stars, who banged out 17 hits, including a homer by Babe Dye, a Hamilton-born minor leaguer for whom baseball was ultimately a sideline; he played wing for Toronto, Hamilton, Chicago, and New York of the NHL, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973 (he also played for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL). Both Speaker and Cobb pitched in the Toronto match. Thousands of people reportedly attended, though a specific number is lost to history.
After the game, a few of the players, including Cobb, left the team to head up to Temagami, while the rest continued to Rice Lake for a few days of rest before the game in Peterborough, scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
An ad in Friday's Examiner touted the following day's contest "the Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played in Peterborough," pitting "American Stars vs. Wellington Semi-Pro. Team of Toronto," to be played at Riverside Park, "Peterboro." Also in that day's edition: several pages of World Series coverage, including a photo of the Giants' Frankie Frisch getting caught stealing second, and another of Ruth, mid-swing, looking classically Ruthian.
The front page featured a joint headline: "YANKEES WIN SECOND 4-2 – SPEAKER'S "ALL STARS" HERE TO-MORROW." Read the righthand column, "This is an unique chance to see some of the Nabobs of baseball in action, including Speaker, Roger Peckinpaugh, Babe Dye, Jim Edward[s], Andy Anderson, and others." To read the local paper is to get the impression that the citizens of the Electric City were fairly excited to play host to Speaker and his men.
About those men: the team which arrived in town that Saturday was made up of an uneven assortment of talent, from Speaker, who'd later be voted into the Hall of Fame two years before there was such a building in Cooperstown, to Nunamaker, a big Nebraskan catcher who'd retired the year before and was a teammate of Speaker's in Cleveland when they won the 1920 World Series. There was also Dye, the hockey player, and Jim Edwards, a young pitcher who'd just wrapped up his second season in the bigs, as well as a handful of washouts and minor leaguers. There was also Roger Peckinpaugh, a shortstop for the Washington Senators, who'd go on to win their only World Series the following season, beating the Giants in seven games.
Peckinpaugh's an intriguing piece of this story because, as reported in the Examiner, he owned a cottage on Crowe Lake, near the town of Marmora, Ontario, which is about 60 kilometres east of Peterborough along Highway 7 (Peckinpaugh "Arrives at Crowe Lake for Holiday After Ball Season," read one headline). The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 237 still stands in Marmora, and it was to that august organization—or rather, its predecessor, the Great War Veterans Association—that the proceeds of the benefit game at Peterborough were to be donated. Without a historical smoking gun, it seems like a fair leap to assume that Peckinpaugh played some role in orchestrating all that.
Game day was cool but dry, a decent afternoon for baseball at Riverside Park, nestled by the foot of the Hunter Street bridge, on the shore of the Otonabee River, and in the shadow of the Quaker Oats factory. The Wellingtons—a "classy squad of clever performers"—once again took the field for what must have felt like a doomed undertaking. Precise attendance figures are elusive, but the Examiner puts the crowd once again in the thousands.
Saturday evening's paper contained an account that was exact in its portrayal of the facts of the game, but scant on expository detail, likely owing to a hard deadline; the Examiner didn't publish on Sundays, so anything written about the game would have to be printed the same day. The inning-by-inning breakdown gives us only the barest facts, but little colour.
Speaker, the record tells us, batted fifth. He tripled, knocked in a run, and later scored in the first inning. In the third, he flew out to centre, advancing Peckinpaugh from second to third. In the fifth, the most famous ballplayer ever to play in Peterborough singled past the shortstop, and scored. Finally, in the seventh, he hit his second triple of the game, and then came home on an error by the shortstop. His afternoon: 3-for-4 with a sacrifice, 2 RBI, and 3 runs scored. The All Stars beat the Wellingtons 10-3.
It isn't clear where Speaker and his All Stars scattered to afterward. The Examiner failed to mention Speaker or the game thereafter. If the players staged another benefit game in another Canadian town that fall, it appears to be lost to history. They may have gone home. They may have done some more hunting. What we do know is that Speaker's Cleveland team would endure a rough season the following year, finishing 24.5 games back of the Senators, though Speaker himself would continue his hitting mastery (.344). Detroit fared better—only 10 games behind Washington—but Ty Cobb did not (.338).
The past stays buried until it doesn't. Already that October afternoon in Peterborough, there loomed in the faint distance the untidy end of the careers of both Speaker and Cobb. In 1926 there emerged testimony that the two had conspired to fix a game in 1919, and that they'd placed bets with Cleveland's Smoky Joe Wood. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis—the game's first overseer, brought in to help baseball recover from the damage done by what is perhaps history's most famous gambling debacle, the Black Sox scandal—took a dim view of their activities, but with their stature in mind ruled quietly that Cobb and Speaker must resign their positions as player-managers of Detroit and Cleveland, respectively. When their accuser, Dutch Leonard, declined to testify at a hearing, Judge Landis permitted the pair back into the game. Cobb wound up with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. Speaker, meanwhile, signed with Washington, played a single season there and then joined the Peach in Philly, where they both finished their big league playing days in 1928.
They're all gone now, those players. Speaker died in 1958, Cobb in '61. Much has changed, though the game we watch today bears more than a passing resemblance to the one they played in Central Ontario on that afternoon in 1923. We've dressed it up in synthetic material and we agonize over video replays, and there's no way Cobb would abide by the Chase Utley rule, but the guts of the thing are intact.
Speaker's career doubles record of 792 still stands (the active leader is David Ortiz, who's 173 behind), and his plaque still hangs in Cooperstown. Among the other durable artifacts which connect us to that time and place are Royal Canadian Legion Branch 237 in Marmora, and Riverside Park in Peterborough, where people still take their hacks and swing for the fence just a modest throw from the Otonabee. These things likely won't last forever—nothing does, really—but they're there now, and as you happen upon them there's a small, sweet, and humbling thrill to be located in imagining the presence of a Hall of Famer, nearly a century ago.