Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hurling heat for the high altitude hometeam


Great time and distance had separated “Smoky Joe Wood” from his outstanding professional baseball career (mostly with the Boston Red Sox) by the time he was 91 and living in New Haven, Connecticut. But in a UPI story appearing in the Reading Eagle on April 19, 1981, there was still talk of possible inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame and still fond memories of how he developed the basic skills and interest on fields of dreams of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “I’m not interested in it now,” Joe Wood was quoted in the UPI story at the time. “So many of those fellows I played against and with are not in. Take our third baseman, Larry Gardner, from Enosburg Falls, Vt., on of the best players that ever played. They never mention him.”
Playing for the town team in Ouray, he learned the trade on the diamonds of his home field and mining towns and camps like Rico, Silverton, and Telluride in the heyday of town team ball.
“Town teams, not professional teams, were the fans’ favorites, favorites they supported with cheers, their turnout at home and away games and their pocketbooks that fattened or withered with the outcome of every game. Betting on the local nine was a primary pastime of the game,” noted San Juan historian Duane A. Smith in his recent book “San Juan Legacy: Life in the Mining Camps.”
From an early age Wood loved and lived the sport.
“I was born with a baseball in my hand. That’s all I thought of. That is all I think of really. That all I used to do as a kid, play ball. Except for making a few nickels and dimes. We were so darn poor.”
Howard Ellsworth Wood was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1889 and acquired the moniker “Joe” after he and his family attended a circus and found two clowns so funny that they started calling their two sons by the stage names of the clowns and both nicknames stuck for life.
“Joe Wood’s reign as on of the most dominating pitchers in baseball history lasted a brief two seasons, but it left an indelible impression those who witnessed his greatness first-hand,” wrote Michael Foster in an article for the Baseball Biography Project.
Among those impressed: The Journal Courier noted that the legendary Ty Cobb called him “Without a doubt, one of the best pitchers I ever faced.”
Walter Johnson, considered by some to be the greatest hurler of all time, said when asked to compare himself with Wood. “There is no man alive that can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”
Paul Shannon, a sportswriter of the old Boston Post, labeled Wood “Smoky Joe” because of the heat of his ‘dead ball era’ fastball. Earlier in his career, in the minor leagues, he was known as “Ozone” Wood because he fanned so many batters.
Joe Wood’s father Jonathon, was a one-time successful Chicago Lawyer and later, a country lawyer with a wanderlust for gold. After stints in the Klondike in Yukon Territory, in 1900 he loaded his family in a covered wagon and set out for Colorado, eventually ending up in Ouray. “Working out of the family’s Fifth Street home, he renewed his legal practice and began publishing a weekly newspaper, the Ouray Times,” wrote Foster for the Baseball Biography Project.
Ouray at the time was “the wild and wooly west where guards sat up on the old stage coaches coming down from the mines loaded with bullion,” Joe Wood told UPI in 1981.
By 1905, the family had returned to Ness City, Kansas and Joe, who finished school in Ouray, and began playing for the local Ness City club.
“As the close of the 1906 season approached, baseball fans in Ness City learned from posters posted on storefronts across town that the Ness City Nine was slated to take on an unusual opponent, the National Bloomer Girls out of Kansas City. Though they advertised themselves as an all-girls team, the popular bloomers outfit routinely augmented their strength by adding young boys, ‘toppers,’as they were known, to the roster. Joe sparkled in a 23-2 trouncing of the visitors that afternoon, and at the close of the contest Bloomer owner Logan Galbraith offered him $21 a week to join the team for the duration of the summer,” wrote Foster.
After that summer beginning his pro-baseball career, Joe signed with Cedar Rapids Rabbits, then later Hutchison White Sox, Kansas City Blues and caught the attention of the Big Leagues. His contract eventually ended up being purchased by the Boston Red Sox. He made his Big League debut on August 24, 1908 at the tender age of 18.
In 1911 and 1912, Smoky Joe won 57 games for the Red Sox, including pitching a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns. He tied an American League 16 straight wins in the last half of the 1912 season. He also won three games for the Sox in 1912 World Series.
The next year he had to fight hard to get his annual salary up to $7,500.
“In baseball, you get paid for what you have done, not what you are going to do. Today, the big money some players get is out of hand,” Joe noted in 1981.
Players also didn’t make huge sums endorsing products.
Wood endorsed one product when he was pictured in an ad for Regal Shoes.
“The whole world loves a winner. How would you like to be in Joe Wood’s shoes? Smoky Joe wears Regals,” said the ad. The company paid him in shoes; a dozen pairs.
In 1913, Joe slipped on wet grass fielding a bunt and broke his thumb. He continued to pitch for several more years maintaining a winning record and low ERA, but because of the injury and recovery time, he was forced to pitch far fewer games. He was eventually traded to the Cleveland Indians where he embarked on a second career, this time as an outfielder, (much like his one-time team-mate Babe Ruth) and batted respectably (.366 in 1921), staying in the league until 1922 when he set a personal best of 92 RBIs.
He went on to coach baseball at Yale University. Among his players there, was his son who went on to a brief career of his own in the majors, and a young George Bush, destined to be President. Later, he and his brother opened a golf range in California.
“I made more money in that seven years than I did my entire time playing and coaching baseball,” Joe is quoted in the Baseball Biography Project. In 1985, at the age of 95, Smoky Joe died while living in a convalescent home in New Haven.
Today, Ouray still remembers him. Youngsters dream of perhaps their own possible place in the Baseball Hall of Fame as they compete with others from Ridgway, Montrose and nearby rivals on Joe Wood Field in Fellin Park in his old hometown. Just last year, the city of Ouray spent $3,100 to add 50 tons of infield material in the park.
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