As the 2013 baseball season dawns, there is a new biography of pitcher Smoky Joe Wood on the market. While Wood pitched so long ago that there may not be a single living witness to his prowess, he also had such a long life that there are still numerous people around who knew him.
At his absolute best, for one year, Wood may have been the best. Hurling for the Boston Red Sox in 1912, one of the early Sox teams that won a World Series, Wood compiled a 34-5 season. That’s a boggling performance. And those who saw Joe throw swear he had the fastest of fastballs of anyone, faster than the fellow named Young who was nicknamed Cy for Cyclone, faster than Walter “Big Train” Johnson, or Rapid Robert Feller, or maybe even the Nolan Ryan Express or the present-day Aroldis Chapman.
During Wood’s prime Johnson said no man alive could throw faster than the Sox twirler. Later in life Wood said no one was faster than Johnson.We’ll never know, of course, who was the fastest of them all unless we can borrow a time machine and transport them all to one place for a radar gun showdown on the mound at Yankee Stadium. Instead, we’ll round ‘em all off to 100 mph and just concede that they all threw smoke.
The new book is called “Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend,” by Gerald C. Wood, a retired English professor not related to the pitcher, and is likely to clue in fans whose knowledge of the one-time great pitcher on many more aspects of his life that they know–if they know anything. Besides sterile statistics, there was a lot more to Wood’s life, including his impersonation of a girl player at one point and family tragedies.
Wood has been the object of Hall of Fame lobbying campaigns for about 75 years and he can’t get in the front door. His was one of those careers that at its high points was brilliant, but when it comes to longevity was lacking, so opinion on his worthiness has swung back and forth like a pendulum on a clock.
Wood was born in 1889 in Kansas City, went to high school in Colorado, and spent 14 years in the majors with the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. His career pitching mark was an excellent 117-57 and his earned run average of 2.03 was one of the best of all time. The problem for the 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-hander was that he only posted one truly overpowering season on the mound. Wood was astonishingly good during that 34-5 campaign. His ERA was 1.91 with 35 complete games and he recorded 10 shutouts. The same year Wood won three games in the World Series.
But he couldn’t repeat, or really come close to that season again. Wood went from firing smoke to going up in flames, primarily because of a broken thumb that hampered his effectiveness and led to shoulder problems. The year before the big one Wood finished 23-17 with a no-hitter and a high of 15 strikeouts in a game. No complaints there. In the three seasons following Wood’s super season he went 11-5, 10-3, 15-5. Great winning percentages and he had exceptional earned averages, including a 1.49 to accompany that 15-5 year.
Sadly, though, that was the end of Wood’s pitching career at 25. He sat out 1916 and then, showing great fortitude, Wood returned to the majors as an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians. In 1918, he batted .296. Good for him. Impressive adaptability. In 1920 he hit .270 and in 1921 he batted .366 in 66 games.
After retiring, Wood became almost as well known as the baseball coach at Yale University for 20 years. A different book complied by experts listed Wood as one of the 100 best players of all time.
Wood was 95 when he died in 1985 and in the ensuing decades family members have campaigned for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Compared to the pitchers who do get voted in Wood had a shorter and quirkier career and while it is possible he threw a baseball faster than anyone in history there is no indication that Wood will be invited into the Hall any time soon.