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Sunday, December 19, 2021

Wilbur Wood; He suffered the 1960s

 

TRIVIA WINNER: Congrats to Roger Smith of Scarborough, Maine, who correctly identified Gerry Arrigo as the pitcher who gave up the first home run ever hit in the National League by Vic Davalillo. The Prize: Starbucks Gift Card.

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NEW TRIVIA QUESTION:  When Wilbur Wood had his breakout season of 1968 he led the White Sox in wins with 13. How many White Sox pitchers were losers of at least 10 games that season?
 
ANSWER to the Trivia question in the previous column: 
Vic Davalillo hit his first National League home run off Reds pitcher, Gerry Arrigo.

The decade of the 1960s must have been a blur for Wilbur Wood, and he must have thought about just hanging it up. Fortunately he didn't because it was after the decade where he became the most remarkable pitcher of his day and not without controversy. 

                              (2013 Interview with Wilbur Wood.)

Wood came up with the Red Sox in 1961 and and after four seasons had still not won a big league game. He was 0-7 including the last two losses with Pittsburgh where he was sent in September, 1964 in a cash deal. By this time he had pitched in 39 games, tossing 104 innings and allowing 116 hits including 10 homers. Most pitchers would have given up by then. Not Wilbur. In a start and his first complete game, Wood pitched a nice game against the Braves but gave up the winning run in the ninth on a bases loaded walk to another Wood, Woody Woodward.

It was 1965 before he won his first game. It wasn't until August 29th Wood would see his name with a "W" next to it in the box score. In the 6th sixth inning and the score tied with Houston 2-2, Bob Friend allowed the first two batters to reach base. Harry Walker, the brash one, called upon the quiet man Wilbur Wood. Wood easily handled three straight hitters, Joe Morgan, Jim Wynn and Rusty Staub with a ground out, an intentional walk and a ground-ball double play. 

In the bottom of the inning, Bill Mazeroski led off with a single, Jim Pagliaroni doubled him home and Jerry Lynch pinch-hit for Wood and drew a walk. The Bucs scored one more in the inning and went on to win 4-2. Wood had his first win. 

One of the early cuts in spring training, 1966, Wood's wife, Sandra would later say he actually thought about quitting and he may have but she encouraged him to keep at it. With the Columbus Jets of the International League he was tremendous. He was 14-8 with a 2.41 ERA in more than 200 innings. The White Sox noticed him and sent former 19-game winner Juan Pizarro to Pittsburgh for Wood. One of the Bucs all time worst trades. Pizarro would win a total of nine games for the Pirates.

Wood meanwhile realized he needed to do something different, something bold. He'd experimented with a knuckleball while in high school. One of the best knuckleballers of all time was also with the White Sox and Wood approached Hoyt Wilhelm who agreed to help him. It changed Woods life forever. Using the weird pitch in 1967 he had a fine season, 4-2, 2.45. Then using it a lot more he broke out in 1968 the year of the pitcher and was named AL Fireman of the Year. He worked in a Majors leading 88 games, led the league in Games Finished with 46 for a 13-12 record and a 1.87 ERA. This was the start of the new Wilbur Wood.

The following season he closed out the decade strictly in relief again leading the AL with 76 games, 10-11 and a 3.01 ERA. At this point Wood had established himself and his knuckleball as one of the best relievers in the game. 

However, as anyone who follows baseball knows it was in the 1970s he became a phenomenon.  From 1971-1975 he never started fewer than 42 games in a season. He started 224 games during that time frame, each time either leading the AL or the Majors. He won at least 20 games for four straight years while winning 24 twice. He pitched over 300 innings each season except the last with 291. Twice he led the big leagues with 376 and 359 innings. He started 70 games on two days rest and even started both games of a double header.

He also had the dubious distinction of losing 20 twice during that span including in 1973 when he was 24-20. The latter a rare feat indeed. Wood finished his 17 year career in 1978 when he still pitched 168 innings with a 10-10 record but a 5.20 ERA. He entered Free Agency and when no one came calling he called it quits with a 164-156 record and a much fatter wallet. In 1967 when he came back to the majors he was making $12,000 a season. The year he retired he was making $140,000. Now that's progress.

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