Baseball Books Reviewed: Smoky Joe Wood

It may be an overstatement to say that Smoky Joe Wood was the Forrest Gump of Major League Baseball, but not much of one. He played with Babe Ruth. He was on the Indians when Ray Chapman was killed by the pitch thrown by Carl Mays. His teammate Bill Wambsganss turned an unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series. Gerald Wood’s biography – “Smoky Joe Wood The Biography of a Baseball Legend” – traces the history of Wood’s major league career, along with his pre-major league days as well as his life after the show as the coach of the Yale Bulldogs. It’s a comprehensive history of the man and his time.

Wood, whose blazing fastball earned him the nickname “Smoky,” joined the Boston Red Sox in 1908 following an amateur career that included a stint with “The Bloomer Girls,” a team of men that dressed like women. It was a different time. In 1912 he enjoyed a Hall of Fame worthy season, winning 34 games in the regular season and three World Series games. He completed 35 of those games. Did I mention it was a different time? And then it was over. Or so it seemed.

Wood apparently tore his rotator cuff during the 1912 season, at a time when sports medicine was, in a word, primitive. Wood gritted through three more seasons -- he won 15 games in 1915 – but the parting with the Red Sox was not pretty.

Wood had the good fortune of being a friend and a Red Sox teammate of Hall of Fame outfielder Tris Speaker. When Speaker joined the Indians in 1916, he reached out to Wood. Although Wood originally joined the Tribe expecting to rehabilitate his pitching arm, his natural athleticism and skills allowed him to become a steady utility player for the Indians from 1917 through 1922. He hit .366 in a part-time role in 1921.

During his time in Cleveland, the Indians won the 1920 World Series, and Wood was a solid contributor. He is only the second player in history to start a World Series game as a pitcher and as a position player. The other? Ruth, Wood’s former teammate in Boston.

Wood had great affection for Speaker, who he considered one of the three greatest outfielders of all time. He certainly owed him a debt of gratitude for bringing him to Cleveland after the Red Sox unceremoniously cut him loose.

But Wood's reputation may have suffered from his association with "Spoke." In what is perhaps baseball's third most infamous gambling scandal (behind the Black Sox and Pete Rose) Wood, Ty Cobb and Speaker conspired to fix a 1919 game between the Tigers and the Indians. Dutch Leonard, a former Red Sox teammate, made the charge in 1926. And the evidence is clear that the three bet on the game, with Wood acting as the bagman for the cash. The evidence was murkier as to whether the game was actually fixed.

In any event, while American League President Ban Johnson wanted to ban Cobb and Speaker from the league, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, showing an uncharacteristic measure of mercy, ruled that Cobb and Speaker could remain in the American League, but would need to play for different teams. Cobb went to Philadelphia and Speaker to Washington.

By the time of the gambling scandal, Wood was the coach of the Yale University baseball team. He'd taken the job in 1923. Fortunately for Wood Yale stuck with him. But as Wood learned, all coaching jobs eventually come to an end. Yale decided to move in another direction in 1942. Wood lived a quiet life after that, although Yale wasn't through with him just yet.

The book actually opens in 1985, with a ceremony presided over by Bart Giamatti, who was then president of Yale. Giamatti decided it was time for the university to honor its old coach. It didn't hurt that Wood starred on Giamatti's hometown Red Sox. And Giamatti was his typical pompous self. Wood, according to Giamatti, was "the greatest pitcher Boston ever had, and one of the greatest pitchers to grace the grandest game of all." Of course, the irony is lost on the author. Apparently, the man who banned Pete Rose from the game for life -- since gambling threatens the very integrity of the game -- applied a less stringent standard to a Yale man.

Author Gerald Wood is no relation to Smoky Joe, but the Wood biography reads like it was written by a relative -- for good and bad. The book is filled with detail. It describes virtually every game that Wood pitched. At times, the book reads like a collection of box scores. And the story focuses much more on the fairly mundane details of Wood's game performances rather than on what may have been much more interesting events in Wood's life.

For example, there is very little discussion of the gambling scandal. There is little insight on Wood's Yale career or his termination. The book ultimately reads like a work written for the family. It is an affectionate portrait of an interesting character. But it may not appeal to an audience much larger than Smoky Joe’s family.