Smoky Joe Wood

By Walt Baranger

Joe Wood defies a pigeonhole, and therein lies his difficulty getting into the Hall of Fame. Respected pitcher, beloved coach, penny-ante gambler — bumbling game fixer.

Joe Wood

From 1909 to 1915, he was an overwhelming presence for the Boston Red Sox, winning 116 games in seven seasons and going 34-5 and 1912. Three times he had season earned run averages under well under 2.00.

The Red Sox had few pitching worries in those days: They had another excellent young pitcher, Babe Ruth, and the reliable Eddie Cicotte, a future conspirator in the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. Rube Foster and Ernie Shore also had a some outstanding seasons. Wood thrived in such talented company.

He went 3-1 in the 1912 World Series, his only post-season appearances as a pitcher. That season he threw only 7 wild pitches in 344 innings, and in 1915 his earned run average was an astounding 1.49. He struck out 2.34 batters for each walk.

But he had a frustratingly short pitching career, effectively just those seven magic seasons. An arm injury caused by a broken thumb proved to be too much.

Moving to Cleveland in 1917, he tried to switch to the outfield, but it was too late. He just couldn’t bat as well as he had pitched, although he did have a .282 career batting average. By 1923 he was finished.

Wood found a second career as head baseball coach at Yale University, where he amassed a record of 283-228-1 in 20 seasons. (He also coached George Bush.)

But his past caught up with him in 1926, when accusations surfaced that he had bet on a game in 1919 — a game that he knew to be fixed by his Cleveland teammate, Tris Speaker, and the Detroit Tigers star Ty Cobb.

Dutch Leonard, an old Boston teammate, accused Cobb and Speaker of fixing the game, and Wood was accused of betting on it. There was ample evidence, and the president of the American League, Ban Johnson, was convinced of the trio’s guilt.

Speaker and Cobb quietly resigned, but the public supported them. Dutch Leonard was perceived by the public to be an unreliable witness who held grudges, and the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, didn’t have the stomach for another gut-wrenching scandal involving the game’s top stars. The affair was covered up and Speaker and Cobb were publicly exonerated.

The scandal tainted Wood’s record and eliminated his already slim chances of getting into the Hall of Fame.

In light of more recent Hall of Fame pitchers with injury-shortened careers — Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean come to mind — today it’s harder to justify the exclusion of Joe Wood.

His lifetime earned run average of 2.03 is the fourth best in baseball history. He threw a no-hitter in 1911 and once struck out 15 men in one game. His ratio of hits per game, 7.13, is in the all-time top 15. So is his career won-lost percentage, .672. There is no denying that those are Hall of Fame numbers, and that they were all earned in the so-called modern era of baseball. No statistical excuses for Joe Wood.

Both Walter Johnson and Satchel Paige rated Wood the hardest-throwing pitcher they had ever seen.

His contributions as the coach at Yale should not be underestimated, either. Yale was a collegiate baseball power under Wood, and toward the end of his life Yale awarded him an honorary degree. The president of Yale who handed Joe Wood the diploma was none other than A. Bartlett Giamatti, who would soon become commissioner of baseball and ban Pete Rose for betting on baseball games.

Surely the veterans committee can bestow their ultimate honor on Smokey Joe Wood.

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