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Gerald C. Wood. Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. 386 pp. Cloth, $34.95.

Babe Ruth first comes to mind when considering those who successfully made the transition from pitcher to fielder. While Ruth compiled 94 wins in his pitching career, his pitching prowess paled in comparison to that of a Red Sox teammate who also transitioned from pitcher to outfielder. Smoky Joe Wood won 117 games over a seven year period, most notably posting a 34-5 record in 1912 and then, following arm injuries, embarking on a six-year career as an outfielder for the Indians, posting a career-best .366 average (and an OPS of L000) in 1921. Ruth, of course, would eventually gain fame as the Sultan of Swat. But during the late 1910s, his pitching reputation paled in comparison to his teammate's; indeed, as Walter Johnson once noted, "Can I throw harder than Joe Wood? Listen, my friend, there's no man alive that throws harder than Smoky Joe Wood" (308).

In his biography of the Sox's first great pitching stalwart, Gerald Wood exhaustively details Smoky Joe's life and career, offering the reader a thoroughly accurate portrait of Wood as ballplayer, Yale baseball coach, and final link to the Red Sox's early-twentieth-century dominance. Professor emeritus at Carson-Newman College, Wood spent over a decade researching and writing Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend, an idea spawned, as he notes in an interview, from seeing "Ken Burns's documentary and [being] embarrassed [he] hadn't heard of the hero of the 1912 season who had [his] last name." Using archival materials provided by Smoky Joe's family, Wood's effort transcends that traditionally seen in sports biographies, as he melds the ballplayer's reminiscences about his childhood and postbaseball career with accounts of such events as Smoky Joe's involvement in a 1919 betting scandal that also involved baseball luminaries Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, one of a number of a-ha moments in this biography. Gerald Wood also stuffs details into accounts of virtually each game Smoky Joe pitched in or appeared in as a fielder. While sites like offer aficionados access to box scores, these statistical recordings of games lack the color the author infuses into his more detailed accounts, which include the unique nicknames of the period: Sea Lion Hall, Gloomy Gus Williams, Cuke Burrows.

Gerald Wood devotes two long chapters to Smoky Joe's formidable 1912 season and subsequent World Series, during which the pitcher won three games, including the deciding eighth game in relief against Christy Mathewson (one of the games was declared a tie due to darkness, hence the eight game series). A day after he gave up six runs in the first inning, Smoky Joe entered the deciding game in the top of the eighth inning and pitched two scoreless innings before Fred Merkle singled in Red Murray to give the Giants the lead. The author recounts the bottom of the inning, which resulted in "a classic of baseball lore," best known for Mathewson's calling off Merkle on a pop the first baseman would have easily handled. That mishap preceded the legendary hurler's giving up the game-winning hit to Tris Speaker on the next pitch. Describing an overlooked but crucial play moments before, Gerald Wood notes the underrated importance of Smoky Joe "bare-hand[ing] a grounder from Chief Meyers to prevent an insurance run" in the top of the tenth, sustaining an injury that resulted in his being taken down for a pinch hitter (147).

While the hand injury he sustained in the Series healed in the off-season, more worrisome to Smoky Joe, his teammates, and the Red Sox faithful was the dead arm that plagued him throughout the Series and, indeed, for the rest of his career. As Gerald Wood maintains, by mid-1915, "after every game the pain was so excruciating he couldn't eat with his right hand or lift his arm above his shoulder for a week. . . . But he felt responsible for the bills of his whole family and would give the Sox their money's worth" (175). Smoky Joe's Red Sox career effectively ended following the 1915 season: despite his willingness to pitch in pain, the ball club cut his salary by a third for 1916, leading Joe to "stay [home in] Shohola and '[feed] the chickens" (183). After signing with the Indians and attempting to resurrect his pitching career in 1917, Smoky Joe made the switch to the outfield for the Tribe the following year, thus embarking on the second phase of his career, a productive five-year stretch off of the mound. Following the 1922 season, during which he hit .297 and drove in 92 runs in his sole year as a nonplatoon outfielder, Joe abruptly retired to take the baseball coach's job at Yale University, a position he held until 1942.

In the book's final two chapters, Gerald Wood discusses Smoky Joe's potential as a Baseball Hall of Fame candidate, pointing out, among other facts, that "in the modern era only Ruth and Wood have three hundred innings pitched in one season and five hundred at bats in another" (308). He also notes that "during the early twentieth century, Smoky Joe Wood's fame was comparable to that of Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson" (308), yet Smoky Joe's Hall of Fame consideration peaked when he appeared on 18 percent of the ballots in 1947 (293). As baseball and Hall of Fame decisions become more statistically driven, "Joe's not playing ten years at one position" remains an "obstacle," in that he fails to have compiled the cumulative statistics voters seem to prefer.

But Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend stands as more than an extended plea for Hall of Fame admission. In a 1985 obituary for Smoky Joe, Los Angeles Times writer Earl Gustkey referred to the player as "pass[ing] through America's baseball history like a comet, dropping from sight as quickly as he appeared." Yet as readers will discover in Gerald Wood's insightful and thorough portrait of the Red Sox hurler, Indians outfielder, Yale coach, and baseball ambassador, the appreciation for Smoky Joe Wood should come not from individual achievements but from the sum of all the parts of the man's life.
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Title Annotation:BOOK REVIEWS
Author:Kates, Ron
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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