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"Smokey Joe" Wood and the Red Sox Curse

by William McGaughey

In the fall of 2004, the Boston Red Sox baseball team broke an 86-year-old curse, they said, brought on by a previous owner's ill-fated decision to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Down three games in the American League playoffs, the Red Sox beat the Yankees four games straight and went on to win the World Series in a clean sweep of four games. They have an undeniable claim to fame and fortune. However, I have another perspective on "the curse".

Think back to the year 1912. In April of that year, the Titanic sank in the north Atlantic Ocean. In November, there was a three-way presidential race between Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt running on the "Bull Moose" ticket. The Boston Red Sox were the premier team in Major League baseball, winning both the American League championship and the World Series. Their ace pitcher that year, "Smokey Joe" Wood, was the star of the team.

Joe Wood, known for his blazing fastball, compiled a record of 34 wins and 5 losses (and a 1.91 ERA) in the 1912 regular season. He won three World Series games. After beating Walter Johnson 1-0 on Sept. 10, Johnson said: "No man alive throws faster than Joe Wood." This explains the name "Smokey Joe". He had a fast ball that smoked.

The following year, Smokey Joe injured his arm in an accident and never regained his winning form. Wood pitched three more seasons with the Red Sox before going with the Cleveland Indians where he played in the outfield. He was on the same pitching staff as Babe Ruth and was a friend of Tris Speaker's. For much of his adult life, Smokey Joe Wood was the head baseball coach at Yale. (The first President Bush was captain of the Yale baseball team in 1948. I don't know if Joe Wood still coached the team.)

Smokey Joe's two sons, Joe Jr. and Steve, agitated for many years to have their father elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Though an exhibit mentioned him, he was never formally inducted. When Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy campaigned for the Presidency in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, he formed an instantaneous bond with New England voters in recommending Smokey Joe Wood for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I know something about this because, as a boy vacationing in northeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1950s, I sometimes visited the backwoods home of Smokey Joe Wood's son, Joe Jr . who lived there with his wife Harriet and their children, David, Caroline, and a baby who liked the taste of beer. In 1940, the Boston Red Sox signed Joe Jr. with a bonus. He pitched for that team for several seasons without his father's success.

The younger Joe Wood cashed in his baseball earnings to become a mink rancher. I remember the rows of wire cages on a hillside next to the Wood home, ten miles away from the nearest town. Each day, Joe Wood Jr. would slap a patty of fresh horse meat on top of the cage for the mink to eat. He bought old horses for butchering. More than once, I rode bareback with Smokey Joe's grandchildren through lands infested with rattlesnake.

Smokey Joe himself had a house on the Parker"s Glen Road in Shohola Township, just down the road from his son's, where he lived by himself during the summer. I think he was a widower then. In the winter, he lived in New Haven with his daughter Ginny. Occasionally he would come into Milford where my parents had a house. They say that Smokey Joe used to sit in a lawn chair along the third-base line to watch the kids play Little League baseball in Milford. My two brothers played baseball at that field in the summer of 1954.

I met Smokey Joe only once. It was in the summer of 1958. I was walking along the highway between Milford and Port Jervis when suddenly a car stopped to give me a ride. Smokey Joe Wood was the driver. Knowing my parents, he was aware of the fact that I was planning to enroll at Yale that fall.

During the few minutes that I rode in that car, Smokey Joe Wood had some interesting things to say. He told me how pleased he was that baseball fans of that day continued to remember his career. He said he was getting as many letters from fans requesting autographs as ever before.

Smokey Joe also put in a plug for the sport of baseball as opposed to varsity crew. "No son of mine will try out for crew," he declared. The sport was too tough on the heart, he said. Too many former crew members have dropped dead of heart attacks in their 50s. Perhaps old controversies about the violence of college sports were still an issue with him.

Smokey Joe Wood lived well into his 90s before passing on in the summer of 1985. Those who witnessed his illustrious career with the Red Sox are themselves mostly departed. Today's sportswriters have other heroes to celebrate as the golden moment of the 1912 baseball season becomes a distant memory. Smokey Joe was among the phantom old-timers mentioned in the film, "Field of Dreams." But Joe Wood never made it to the Hall of Fame.

Then, miraculously, on Sunday, February 29, 2004, Smokey Joe Wood was inducted into the Ted Williams Museum and Hall of Fame in Citrus Hills, Florida, along with three other players. Smokey Joe's sons, Joe Jr. and Steve, are now both dead. A remaining son, Bob, lives in New Hampshire. Even so, Joe Wood has finally been given an approximation of the honor denied to him for so many years. And that, in my hallucinatory opinion, is the reason that the curse against the Boston Red Sox was lifted in the same year.

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