- Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend by Gerald C. Wood
In 1985, A. Bartlett Giamatti, then president of Yale University, bestowed an honorary doctorate on ninety-five-year-old Smoky Joe Wood, former Boston Red Sox pitcher (1908–1915) and Cleveland Indians utility player (1917–1922). That such a prestigious university would confer such an honor to a high school dropout from Kansas City might seem strange enough (even if he was Yale’s baseball coach for twenty years). This same Giamatti would become Major League Baseball commissioner a few years later, and although he served as commissioner for only a few months due to his untimely death, his most (in)famous act would be banning Pete Rose forever for gambling on baseball. This is ironic since Wood was involved in a betting scandal himself, along with Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, for games during the 1919 and 1920 seasons. All three were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the evidence against them still seems strong.
In this, the first biography on Smoky Joe Wood, Gerald C. Wood (no relation) introduces his biography on Wood in this fashion to encapsulate such an enigmatic pitcher. Although not enshrined in the Hall of Fame, mostly because of an abbreviated career, Wood was one of the best all-around players in history. From 1908 to 1915, he established himself with as one of the era’s most respected pitchers and had a career 2.03 ERA, which would be good enough for third all-time, although he just missed logging enough innings to meet the SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) requirement. He had one of the most remarkable years ever on the mound in 1912, going 34–5, with an additional three wins in the World Series. A torn rotator cuff ended his pitching career, but he reinvented himself as an outfielder (career .283 batting average, with a .298 average as a position player), and according to www.baseball-reference.com, was in the Top 10 in several hitting and defensive categories in 1918. Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig even created the designation “Smoky Joe Wood Syndrome” for those players whose careers were cut short due to injury or illness but who should still be recognized as one of the all-time greats.
Some chapters rely on inning-by-inning accounts of almost every game Wood pitched, whether in the chapter solely devoted to the 1912 regular season (or the following one on that season’s World Series) or an earlier chapter on his rise through the minor league ranks with the Hutchinson (Kansas) Salt Packers and Kansas City Blues. This impeccably-researched work makes for a nice reference for baseball scholars, but more casual readers may feel bogged down in the minutiae. Despite this attention to detail, some of the most captivating information can be found in the book’s endnotes, such as a description of Wood’s windup and delivery, or that his ninety-two runs batted in during 1922 remains of the highest totals for the last season of any player who voluntarily retired.
But absent is a deeper exploration into the qualities that make Wood so fascinating a figure, such as his ability on both the mound and at the plate, and any readers interested in [End Page 188] the details as to how Wood transitioned from pitcher to position player may be disappointed. The final chapter may be of most interest to those invested in baseball history, as it includes Wood’s thoughts of his contemporaries, distinctive in that we finally get some understanding of Wood’s personality. The author also surveys references to Wood in popular culture, such as mentions of him in several novels, or that Smoky Joe was apparently the inspiration for the Joe E. Brown-starring baseball film, Fireman, Save My Child (1932). Overall, this book may be the best case for a reexamination of Wood’s Hall of Fame credentials, as those more Hall-worthy than Wood who...