Before there was Rick Ankiel and Clint Hartung, there was Smoky Joe Wood. Ankiel and Clint “Hondo Hurricane” Hartung were pitchers that made the transition from the mound to the field. Although Hartung didn’t have the success that Ankiel has enjoyed, Ankiel has yet to achieve the success Smoky Joe Wood enjoyed.
Originally a pitcher, Smoky Joe blazed through the Midwest playing amateur ball, beating professional ballplayers before he was able to shave. The baby-faced Wood signed with the Red Sox as a teenager and made his debut as an 18 year-old in 1908. Wood tossed just 22 innings in 1908 but gave up only 14 hits. He gave folks a glimpse of his greatness as a rookie in 1909. Wood posted a 2.21 ERA and threw four shutouts at the tender age of 19.
He took his game up a notch in 1910, fashioning a 1.68 ERA for a fourth place BoSox team. The Red Sox offense consisted of Wood’s Hall of Fame roommate Tris Speaker and little else. Tris had solid support from left fielder Duffy Lewis and occasionally got offensive help from the inconsistent Harry Hooper, but other than Speaker, the Sox offense was punch-less. Thus was the chagrin of BoSox pitchers – Wood included. Despite his microscopic ERA, Wood had a losing record. Losing record aside, he proved that he had the gas to put hitters away. Smoky Joe averaged 0.729 strikeouts per inning: Hall of Famers Ed Walsh (0.697), Chief Bender (0.620), Eddie Plank (0.492) and Christy Mathewson (0.579) didn’t put away batters with the same gusto as Smoky Joe. Only the great Walter Johnson fanned batters at a higher rate than Wood.
If 1910 was a taste of what was to come, then 1911 was a full meal – meat, potatoes, corn, bread and a glass of iced tea on the side. Wood won 23 games in 1911 on a 2.02 ERA. Smoky Joe finished second to Walsh in strikeouts, but Wood pumped gas at a quicker rate than his peers. Walsh averaged 0.691 strikeouts per inning and Walter Johnson averaged 0.641 whiffs per inning. Wood was head and shoulders above the two Cooperstown gents, fanning an average of 0.834 men an inning. These three legends were the only three 200 strikeout pitchers in the American League.
If 1911 was a full meal, then 1912 was a smorgasbord. Wood set Major League baseball afire with his overpowering right arm. He led the American League with 34 wins, ten shutouts, and a .872 winning percentage. The Red Sox rode Wood’s right arm to an American League pennant (they wouldn’t have had a prayer of making the postseason without him) and somehow he only managed to finish fifth in MVP voting. In the World Series, Wood pitched well albeit not as dominating as the regular season. He did however post a 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio during the Fall Classic.
Wood suffered an injury in 1913 and was limited to 145 innings. When he took the mound, he was still the strikeout artist Boston fans had come to love, fanning 0.842 men per inning – Hall of Famer Walter Johnson averaged fewer with 0.702. Not healthy in 1914, Smoky Joe threw just 113 innings before rebounding in 1915 when he led the AL with a 1.49 ERA and .750 winning percentage.
Wood held out in 1916 and then had his contract purchased by the Cleveland Indians for the 1917 season. All the Indians got of Smoky Joe was fifteen innings. His arm was dead. Nowadays, pitchers just slice open their arms and let a doctor tinker with tendons and muscles, but back then, the doctor’s scalpel wasn’t an option. In an attempt to cure his dead arm, Wood used to hang from the hay loft in his barn, trying to stretch out his dead arm, but to no avail. He finally resigned himself to end his days as a pitcher.
With World War I underway, Cleveland needed bodies and Wood felt he could handle himself in the batter’s box. Boy, was he right. Wood took to hitting like Jimmy Dykes took to accosting umpires. Converted to left field, Smoky Joe led the 1918 Indians in both homeruns and RBI. Limited to a reserve role when players came back from the war, Wood played a pivotal role in Cleveland’s 1920 Championship season. He hit .270 in the Series but had his finest hour as a hitter in 1921 when he posted a batting average of .366 and a slugging average of .562.
In his last year at the Major League level, 1922, Wood finished second to Detroit’s Hall of Fame right fielder Harry Hielmann for most runs batted in by a right fielder.
W 115/L 57/PCT .669/G 225/IP 1,436/H 1,138/BB 421/SO 989/SHO 28/ERA 2.03
G 695/R 267/H 553/2B 118/3B 30/HR 24/RBI 325/BA .283/SA .411