In 1900, a 10-year-old boy and his family traveled by wagon across the Kansas plains into Colorado and settled in the still-wild mining town of Ouray. Howard Wood, born in Kansas City in 1889, was nicknamed 'Joe' after a circus clown. He kept that moniker until he died in 1985 at the age of 95, when he was the last living major league baseball player to have played in the majors prior to 1910.
His highest vote total for the Hall of Fame was 18 percent. It certainly can be argued that he deserves the honor. But the shroud of scandal kept Hall voters away. In that, he shares a common thread with four of the game's greatest players ever, who themselves may never get into the Hall.
John Wood, Joe’s father, had as many varied pursuits as the places he relocated his family. He practiced law, ran a newspaper, taught school and even dug for gold along the Yukon River. When he took his family from Kansas to Ouray by covered wagon, little Joe Wood, who learned the game of baseball on the streets of Chicago, sat on the front seat of the wagon wearing his ball glove to “show anyone who was interested where he wanted to go,” he would later say.
In Ouray, Joe nurtured his love of baseball by filling many roles, including mascot, batboy and player, for a Ouray team that played other surrounding mining town teams. In 1905, the family left Ouray and headed back to Ness City, Kan. It wasn’t long before Joe was suited up for the local Ness City team, pitching and playing infield.
A barnstorming team, the Kansas City Bloomer Girls, came to play the Ness City nine. The Bloomer Girls, who sported two or three men dressed in wigs, were handily out-pitched by the young Wood, 23-3. The Bloomer Girls signed Wood for $20 to help them finish out the season.
So began a professional career that led to playing for the Boston Red Sox in 1908 and lasted until his final game playing for Cleveland in 1920. He was a flame-throwing pitcher and later, after an arm injury kept him out of the 1916 season, he returned as an outfielder. He threw so hard he earned the nickname 'Smokey Joe Wood'.
At age 22, Wood led the league with 34 wins against only five losses. In his 11 seasons pitching, he gave up only 10 home runs as a pitcher and had a 3-1 record in the 1912 World Series. According to baseball-reference.com, for 11 seasons as a pitcher his average year looked like this: 21-10 record, 2.03 ERA, 21 complete games, 255 innings pitched and 176 strikeouts. He was good. One of the best all time. His lifetime 2.03 ERA and .671 winning percentage would put him third and sixth all time, respectively, if he had enough innings to qualify. Of 158 games started, he completed 121. He and Babe Ruth remain the only players to first play in a World Series as a pitcher, then later as an outfielder.
But baseball's Hall of Fame has yet to enshrine him and probably won't.
In 1907, a year prior to his major league debut, he played ball for the Hutchinson (Kan.) Salt Packers. Decades later, three of the best ever in baseball also passed through Hutchinson.
Roger Clemens pitched for the Hutchinson Broncs in 1982. In the majors he won 354 games and should have been a lock to be elected to the Hall of Fame. But, allegations of steroid use during his career led to only 36 percent of voters siding with him this year, his first year of eligibility. A player needs at least 75 percent of the vote to be enshrined.
Rafael Palmeiro, a Hutchinson product from 1983-84, retired from the majors in 2005, hit 569 career home runs and should have been a first-ballot inductee into the Hall. That is, until he wagged his finger during a Senate sub-committee hearing and emphatically told lawmakers that he never, ever used steroids. Months later, baseball suspended him for 10 days after detecting steroids in him. In his third year of Hall eligibility voting, he received 8.8 percent of the vote, down from the 11 percent he received his first year.
A third Bronc, Barry Bonds, left Hutchinson after 1984 and went on to become the majors' all-time home run leader with 762 dingers. A seven-time league Most Valuable Player, if ever there was a lock for the Hall, it was Bonds. Yet, the scandal of steroids swirled around him, and he garnered only 36 percent of the vote in his first ballot this year.
This Hutchinson trio may not ever get into the Hall because of their association to the steroid scandal. Smokey Joe Wood, who probably could have used steroids for his ailing pitching arm, had another scandal to deal with.
In 1926, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, both in the Hall of Fame, were accused of fixing a 1919 game along with Wood. Public sentiment swayed baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and he covered up the persuasive evidence. Voters to the Hall, however, used the incident to keep Wood out.
Wood later managed the Yale University baseball team for 20 years. Among the players he coached was President George H. W. Bush. And at the age of 95, Wood was given an honorary degree by Yale. A. Bartlett Giamatti, who soon would become commissioner of baseball, handed Wood his diploma. Giamatti, of course, presided over banning the all-time major league hits leader, Pete Rose, from baseball for betting on his own team.
For an eight year stretch, there was no better hurler in baseball than Wood. If Cobb and Speaker were forgiven, and the Hutchinson trio still gets votes, then Wood, who was guilty only of giving it his all, should have been in the Hall long ago. In 1985, Wood was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. In 2010, he was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. Here in Ouray, our voters have spoken. The ball field in Ouray bears the name "Smokey Joe Wood." He'll forever be in our Hall of Fame.
Alan Todd is publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer.