september 2011

WTF Dept.: Letter of the Month

smokey joe

Justice For Smoky Joe Wood!

(Our irascible contributor Chip Stern, fulminating in uptown Manhattan against the undeserved obscurity of early 20th Century baseball immortal Smokey Joe Wood, fired off a letter to veteran sports writer Bill Madden at the New York Daily News, demanding the Veterans Committee redress a great wrong and install the lamented Mr. Wood into the Baseball Hall of Fame. We don’t know if Stern received an answer, but we do support him in his outrage and publish his findings here in hopes of inspiring a hue and cry throughout the land for Smoky Joe Wood to get his just due. Until he does, we fear the great wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan will continue unabated. We really don’t need that.)

Dear Bill,

As a baseball scholar, could you kindly explain why Smoky Joe Wood is not in the Hall of Fame? 

I can imagine most of the excuses, but even with his arm in tatters he managed to pitch effectively for three years, going 15-5 for the World Champion 1915 Red Sox as a spot starter with a 1.49 ERA, 10 complete games and 3 shut-outs in his final year as a rotation pitcher (his previous two were 2.29 and 2.62).  With a dead arm he still managed to finish 12-of-18, 11-of-14 and 10-of-16 starts in those final three years.  That is remarkable.  And speaks with authority as to what he was capable of without the career-ending injury. 

Only “one” great year” right? 

Right, only one…in which he was 34-5, for God’s sake, with 35 complete games and 10 shut outs, out-dueling the likes of Walter Johnson and Christ Mathewson in head to head competition, and winning three world series games for the championship Red Sox. 

Then his love for the game was such that he recast himself as an effective outfielder for Tris Speaker’s Indians, a utility player on the 1920 World Series Champs, and a shade under .300 as a hitter in his first and final years, when he was given starter’s minutes, enjoying his best season at the age of 32 in his final outing with the Indians, tallying 150 hits, 33 doubles, 8 homers and 92 RBIs in his final year, 1922 (he hit .366 as a utility player in the 1921 season, with 60 RBIs in only 194 at-bats). 

Not only a portrait in class and courage, but a remarkable example of love and devotion to the game.  Let alone a once-in-a-lifetime talent. 

A freak injury robbed him of his velocity and gave him constant pain in his pitching arm, and yet by contemporary standards (AJ Burnett, please note), he would be a meal ticket on today’s Yankees or Red Sox, even with a gimpy arm. 

I am sure that learned baseball historians could cite a player like Herb Score as having Hall of Fame potential before he changed his motion and wrecked his arm. 

Well, out of 156 games Joe Wood started, he COMPLETED 121, posting a 117-56 record with a 1.99 ERA for eight seasons with the Red Sox…a cumulative 1.99 ERA…I mean, sweet merciful Jesus—are you kidding me? 

Cab Calloway, ‘The Ghost of Smokey Joe’ (1939)

Whereas Score was 55-46 with a 3.36 ERA.  He completed 47 out of 127 starts, and as I understand it, the lowest hits per 9-inning ratio in baseball history?  Not too shabby. 

Perhaps the stretch Sandy Koufax had in his final five years if more remarkable, tabulating more innings, more strikeouts and more wins, but then again, Joe Wood never had the benefit (if you can call it that) of cortisone shots in his wing…

It think it is high time the Veterans Committee bellied up to the bar and gave Joe Wood the respect and accolades he deserves.  He is what the living legacy of this game is all about.  And as if the proof of his stats and that triumphant 1912 season were not enough, the man himself, as documented in Lawrence Ritter’s classic THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES, is all the more impressive. 

Warmest regards,

Chip Stern
Washington Heights
[Home of the NY Highlanders]

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