The author: Gerald C. Wood
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 386 pages, $34.95
The pitch: One of the first warning signs of a book that may lot live up to its weight is when one of the back-cover reviewers calls something a product of “exhaustive research.” It often means that it will leave the reader exhausted.
Kinda like this one.
Not to downplay the subject matter — Howard Ellsworth Wood, who legally changed his first name to Joe around 1950, was one of those baseball comets during the Deadball Era. He won 20 games for the Boston Red Sox at age 21, then had a ridiculous 34-win season the next season, with three more victories in the 1912 World Series. The year after, he had the AL’s best ERA at 1.49 despite arm problems that led to a torn rotator cuff.
Three years after being away from the game on rehab and readjustment, he got his release from the Red Sox, joined the Cleveland Indians as an outfielder, and had seasons of .366 in 1921 and 91 RBIs in ’22.
Then that was that. The comparisons to Babe Ruth end.
So why Wood isn’t in the Hall of Fame? It’s the case that author Gerald C. Wood seems to be championing with a voluminous account of S.J. Wood’s life, hoping that most of the content supplied by his son, Robert, will at least force voters to decide that the weight of his case is in direct correlation to the size of this project.
Wood’s book comprises some 336 pages of text and photos, plus more bibliography, notes and an index. Yet hardly any of it really jumps off the page to engage the reader than otherwise a matter-of-fact list of achievements, mundane or otherwise.
In other words, fair or not, it’s far less engaging a tale told as what Edward Achorn did in 2010 with one of our favorite that year on Ol’ Hoss Radburne called “Fifty Nine in ’84.”
We really had to dig to find anything that was briefly worth reiterating about some local ties. Such as: Joe moved to L.A after he was finished playing and spent six years with his brother Pete running “a Wilshire Blvd. golf range that catered to the rich and famous.” That would be Westshire Golf.
Joe had a son who pitched in the Pacific Coast League and made his way up, down and through L.A., but to no major achievements.
Aside from his short career, it seems Smoky Joe was just as known for becoming involved in a gambling scandal that involved Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, which Wood later admitted to being the banker/agent for the bets made, but that’s the extent of it.
Otherwise, this is someone better known for being included in the 1981 book “The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time,” but authors Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honing did so with a stipulation. Anyone who had the “Smoky Joe Wood Syndrome” meant they had “exceptional talent” but had their journey was “curtailed by injury or illness,” yet they still “should be considered an all-time great despite a relatively short career.”
And that’s a pretty short list.
A shorter book could have conveyed that, we suppose.
Hopefully, years from now, when someone does the Rick Ankiel story, they don’t use this as a template.
One other tidbit: Amidst the volume of research is a note about the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.” The script is based on the book “Shoeless Joe,” but Smoky Joe Wood is not mentioned in the Kinsella manuscript. When writer/director Phil Robinson put his movie together, he decided to include a reference to Wood because Durina Wood, a Hollywood costume designer, was one of Robinson’s friends. And, as Robinson knew, she was Smoky Joe’s granddaughter.
More to know:
== An official Smoky Joe Wood website
== A concise wire 1985 obituary from the New York Times, via the Baseball-Alamanac.com
== A 2008 piece in Bleacher Report asking why Wood isn’t in the Hall