Still widely remembered as the finest center fielder to ever play baseball, Tris Speaker was as dangerous a hitter as he was a fielder. Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame on their second-ever ballot in 1937, he nearly missed seeing that tremendous honor because of a near-fatal flower box accident he suffered that year.
Playing for four major league teams over 22 years (1907-1928), Speaker hit a combined .345 (sixth all time) with 792 doubles (first all time), 106 home runs, 1,531 RBIs and 436 stolen bases. He also developed a reputation as a lockdown defender who helped revolutionize how center fielders could control the field. Fortunately, he narrowly avoided meeting an early end that would have rewritten the final chapter of his iconic life.
By 1937, Speaker was nearly a decade removed from playing his final major league game. He held other jobs both within and outside of baseball but had largely settled into a life of capitalizing on the fame he had gained as a player (coaching, announcing, public speaking, etc…). In April of that year, just days after his 49th birthday, he was doing home repairs when he suffered an accident that nearly killed him.
It was reported that Speaker was at his Cleveland home and working on some flower boxes for his wife outside of the second story of the structure when a porch railing he was leaning on broke away and he fell some 16 feet to a walkway below that was lined with jagged cobblestones. He suffered a fractured skull, a broken arm and facial lacerations in the fall. He required 100 stitches to close a wound that extended from his eye down his neck. Many initially wondered if he would make it. His doctor, E.B. Castle, was cautiously optimistic, announcing “His condition is critical but I think he’ll make it. He has taken care of himself and is strong.”
Supporting Speaker’s reputation as a tough athlete, it was also reported that after falling he got to his feet and walked to a nearby lawn chair, initially refusing any assistance. However, once it became apparent how hurt he was, he was carried to an ambulance despite his continued vigorous objections.
The shock over Speaker’s accident made many recall his former teammate, Ray Chapman, who had been killed in 1920 when struck by a pitched ball during a game. Also suffering a fractured skull, his tragic death was all many could think about as the former outfielder recuperated in the hospital, with much of the public knowing nothing other than what serious condition he was in.
Baseball luminaries across the country reached out to Speaker and his wife during his hospital stay. Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey offered to fly into Cleveland even if it was just to “stay five minutes if it would cheer [him].” Messages and telegrams flooded in, including one from the Philadelphia Athletics’ venerable old manager (and Speakers final major league skipper) Connie Mack.
After about a month of bed rest, Speaker was able to get out of the hospital and back to his life. He lived for over another 20 years, passing away in 1958 at the age of 70. He remains one of baseball’s most toughest players of all time; a trait that served him well in his nasty dustup with a flower box and a walkway.
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