November 8, 2013

Book Review: Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography Of A Baseball Legend, By Gerald C. Wood

Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend
By Gerald C. Wood
University of Nebraska Press (2013)

It's difficult to imagine anyone writing a more thorough biography of Smoky Joe Wood than what Gerald C. Wood (a possible, though extremely distant, relation) has produced. Despite its many good points, this book is also flawed.

The first 25 pages of the book detail the life of Smoky Joe's father, John F. Wood, a fascinating character in his own right. John F. – both stubborn and eccentric – was a "lawyer and two-time newspaper editor, as well as a politician, gold rusher, chicken farmer, wood- and metal-worker". John F. also worked as a schoolteacher (his wife was a former student) and as a land speculator. Joe always expressed pride in his father, but Gerald Wood concludes that "Joe's defensiveness toward John masked the hurt of a boy orphaned twice by his father's lust for gold".

Howard Ellsworth Wood was born in October 1889, the second of three children, in Kansas City, Missouri. Wood explains how Howard Ellsworth became "Joe". While living in Chicago, the family attended the World's Fair in 1893. The antics of two performing clowns (billed as "Joey and Petey") reminded Joe's parents of their two boys and they began calling them Joe and Pete.

One of this book's strengths is its attention to detail, but Wood often goes overboard, swamping the reader with unnecessary facts. The Woods descended from pioneers in Orange County, New York, so Wood offers a lengthy history of the area. He also includes quite a bit on John F.'s travels near the turn of the century to the state of Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia, searching for gold. (Gerald Wood makes liberal use of letters John F. wrote home, part of the Wood Family Archives to which he had access.)

The book's most serious problem is Wood's insistence on mentioning every game Joe pitched and giving his pitching line and (sometimes) a little play-by-play. This excessive detail bogs down what should be a lively narrative. I found myself skimming these sections – one minor league season run seven dense pages – or simply skipping ahead to where the story picked up again. Also, Wood offers few looks beyond Joe's performances. The reader often has no idea who else on the Red Sox is doing well (or poorly), where the team is in the standings, or what else is going on in the American and National Leagues. Also, Wood puts undue importance on Joe's win-loss record as a measure of his success, and when ERA is mentioned, it is usually only at season's end.

Joe's beginnings in professional baseball are expertly recounted. If Joe felt abandoned by his father, he found a surrogate family on the diamond. Wood writes that Joe "filled the void [left by his father] with baseball. Joe's success on the town team offered acceptance and prestige while his father roamed the Southwest, trying to get rich quick." Baseball was always a refuge for Joe. "I don’t know of anything that I’d rather have done," he told one interviewer. "Baseball is all I ever wanted."

In 1912, the Red Sox moved from the Huntington Avenue Grounds to brand-new Fenway Park – and Joe had the finest season of his career. He led the major leagues with 34 wins and had a 1.91 ERA (2nd best in the AL). Joe also led the league with 10 shutouts, including a 1-0 victory over Walter Johnson in a much-hyped duel in Boston on September 6. In late August, Boston Post writer Paul Shannon first used the “Smoky” nickname that would stay with Joe for the rest of his life. After Joe bested Johnson, other papers picked up the nickname.

Although supremely talented, Joe was often injured. In 1913, he sustained a sprained ankle in spring training and a fractured thumb during the season. Joe pitched with excruciating pain in 1915, likely from a torn rotator cuff. He sat out the 1916 season after being disgusted by a one-third cut in pay and the trading of his friend Tris Speaker to Cleveland.

Unable to pitch and desperate to remain in the game he loved, Joe transitioned into an outfielder after the Red Sox traded him to the Indians. He finished 10th in batting average in 1918 and was among the league leaders in doubles, RBI, and slugging percentage. In addition to playing both left and right field, he also played 19 games at second base.

Over the next two seasons, Joe platooned in the Cleveland outfield with Elmer Smith, with Joe playing against left-handers. In 1920, Cleveland overcame the shock of Ray Chapman's mid-August death to win the pennant and defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

Wood retired from baseball after the 1922 season to spend time with his wife and four children and also for the security of regular, long-term employment. He accepted a coaching job at Yale University, a position he would hold until 1942.

The book offers details of the gambling and game-fixing scandal that enveloped Joe in 1926. In the spring of that year, Dutch Leonard told AL president Ban Johnson that Joe had conspired with Speaker and Ty Cobb to bet on and fix a Tigers-Indians game late in the 1919 season. Joe admitted placing a bet and collecting his winnings. Although Commissioner Landis declared the accused not guilty of fixing a game, he was completely silent on the betting issue.

The "Legend and Legacy" chapter offers an excellent overview of Joe's career, along with his thoughts on all aspects of the game and its history. This is the type of entertaining recap that was sorely needed in other sections of the book. Gerald Wood also includes a bit of trivia: Joe and Babe Ruth are the only players to have 300 innings pitched one year and 500 at-bats in another. They are also the only two players to start a World Series game as both a pitcher and an outfielder.

This review originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of "The Inside Game", SABR's Deadball Era Committee's newsletter.


laura k said...

Are you related to either Joe or Gerald?

allan said...

I don't believe so.

johngoldfine said...

Surely all Woods are chips off the old block?

Jere said...

I saw that coming.

Philip said...

Take a cedar, jgf. You can pine over baseball history all you like, but leave the punning to those with the balsa to stick with it. Maple you think it's something to fool around with, but to us practitioners, it's no j-oak.

laura k said...

Philip ftw!

allan said...

He's one clever son of a birch!

Jere said...

Guys, let's get back on topic. Did the book strike a chord with readers or was its bark worse than its bite? Does the title have a ring to it or does it leave something to be desired? Now that you've read Wood, are you rooting for him to branch into poetry?

allan said...

Qs: Will Wood log on and cedar this review? Willow he be pining to reply? Or perhaps simply leaf without comment?