Wood, Finished as a Pitcher, Still Contributed to Indians’ Success

In 1916, new Indians owner Jim Dunn made a splashy signing, buying Tris Speaker’s contract from the Red Sox for $70,000 – then the highest price ever paid for a major league ballplayer.

A hundred years ago, Dunn, with Speaker’s advice, bought another contract from Boston. That player wasn’t as productive, but it turned out to be an important deal for the Indians.

The Tribe took a flyer on Smoky Joe Wood. He was far removed from his dominant 1912 season, where he went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA, winning three games in that year’s World Series. In fact, he hadn’t pitched at all during the 1916 season, yet the Indians and their fans believed he still had enough in the tank to be of some service.

“If you want to know how I feel about the news that we have bought Joe Wood, you can put it down that I am tickled to death,” said manager Lee Fohl.

Fohl noted that Speaker, Wood’s former teammate in Boston, was particularly vocal about acquiring Wood, who was bought for $15,000. The Red Sox initially wanted catcher Steve O’Neill for the pitcher, but the Indians couldn’t be swayed.

Howard Wood was born in Missouri. After a trip to the circus to see two clowns, Petey and Joey, Howard Wood became Joe (his brother became Pete), and he picked up the nickname Smoky after a sportswriter saw his blazing fastball.

Wood’s 1912 season was one for the ages. He pitched ten shutouts and at one point won 16 straight games to tie a Major League record. He was sidelined by appendicitis at the start of the 1914 season, and a shoulder injury kept him out of the next year’s World Series, also won by the Red Sox.

“They are a pretty wise bunch running the Cleveland club,” said Nap Lajoie, whose Major League career had come to a close the year before, but was the player-manager for the minor league Toronto Maple Leafs. “And I don’t think they would have bought Wood at such a price if they did not feel he would be able to come through.”

Lajoie said a healthy Smoky Joe Wood would give the Indians the pennant. He was right … eventually.

Wood made his first start for the Indians in May of 1917. It was like he was throwing batting practice to the Yankees, giving up four runs – two earned – on 11 hits. He was, for all intents and purposes, done as a pitcher. But he wasn’t done in the Major Leagues.

Wood tried to convert to the outfield, and later in the 1918 season, he got back into the Indians lineup. He was never going to be an everyday player, but he was an important cog in the Indians team that won the 1920 World Series.

Wood retired after the 1922 season, and was hired by Yale University to coach baseball. Three years later, he found himself to be a player in what could have been a scandal. Former player Dutch Leonard alleged that Indians player-manager Speaker and his opposite number with the Tigers, Ty Cobb, had conspired to throw the last game of the 1919 season, and Wood placed bets to collect on the fix.

Ultimately, the players were absolved of any wrongdoing when Leonard refused to appear at a hearing. Wood retained his job at Yale until 1942. He spent seven years running a golf range in California with his brother, and returned to New England for his retirement.

Wood lived long enough to be recognized by Yale president Bart Giamatti. Although the Baseball Hall of Fame eluded him, he received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1985 – two months before his death at the age of 95.

Photo: Cleveland Memory Project

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