Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Glory of Their Time, Chapter 4: Wilbur Wood

We always hear about "throwback" players in the game today. They were around thirty years ago when my parents were kids, and they were around when my grandparents were in their teens.

In that span, I don't think a player has ever earned the "throwback" tag more than Wilbur Wood. He pitched more than a quarter of his team's games. As pitching philosophies were changing, Wood stayed constant. Even his name sounds like it belongs in the 1800's. (His middle name is Forrester, if "Wilbur Wood" didn't sound old-timey enough.)

His career progression is among the more interesting to track.

2001 Topps Archives #47 Wilbur Wood

Wilbur Wood's major league career began with the Red Sox in 1961, pitching in six games.

He wasn't a regular pitcher in his first few big-league seasons. He'd be brought up for one game in '62, and would go 0-5 in 25 games in '63. He'd be gone from Boston soon after his rookie card was released in '64.

1965 Topps #478 Wilbur Wood

Wood was dealt to the Pirates midway through the '64 season. This '65 Topps card is the first one I'm featuring on my blog that I don't currently possess (although I hope to in the future). His stats for Boston in the first part of '64 were about as unflattering as his '65 Topps picture: 5 2/3 innings pitched and a bloated 17.47 ERA. He'd pitch in just three games for Pittsburgh in '64.

He'd have his best season yet in '65, posting a 3.16 ERA in 51.1 innings, mainly as a reliever (he made one start that year).

1969 Topps #123 Wilbur Wood

Wood was dealt to the White Sox in October of 1966. I'd use an earlier card for this portion of the post, but this is the earliest issue I own of Wood as a White Sox (or Sock?).
He'd spend all of 1966 in the minors, pitching for Columbus of the International League. He went 14-8 with a 2.41 ERA, with eight shutouts. It would be the last time he played in the minors.

He was called up to the big club for the '67 season, where he'd stick for 12 seasons. Still being largely used as a reliever, Wood posted a fine 2.47 ERA in '67.

Wood pitched in an amazing 88 games in 1968, posting a miniscule 1.87 ERA and saving 16 games. 1968 would be the first of three consecutive years that Wood would lead the league in games pitched.

For the first seasons of his career, Wood would not start a single game in 1969 or 1970. It looked like Wood was going to be a bullpen mainstay for the Sox in future years.

1973 Topps #150 Wilbur Wood

1971 was the first year that Wood was used as exclusively as a starter. After never starting more than eight games in a single season, Wood started an amazing 42 games in '71. All he'd do was go 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA in 334 innings, dazzling American League hitters with his classic knuckleball. It was his first of four consecutive 20-win seasons.

Wood was just as good in '72, with an amazing record of 24-17 and a 2.51 ERA, this time pitching in an unheard of 376 2/3 innings in 49 starts.

However, the season Wood would have in 1973 is among the most amazing of the last half-century. He'd again lead the league for a second straight year with 359 1/3 innings pitched. He'd post his highest ERA since 1964 with a 3.46 mark. But what makes his '73 season so special was his record. He won 24 games. He lost 20. It's a hard enough feat to win 20 games in a season. It might be even tougher to lose 20.  Yet Wood found a way to do both in a single season.

If that's not a "throwback" season, I don't know what is.

1974 Topps #120 Wilbur Wood

Wood looks confident in his '74 Topps photo; he deserved to be after his amazing '73 season.
He'd come extremely close to matching his unheard of 20-20 feat in '73, just missing it by posting a 20-19 record. He'd lead the league in games started for the third straight year with 42 in '74. With 320 1/3 innings, it would be the last time he'd pitch over 300 innings in a sesason.

Unfortunately, it would also be his last good year in the bigs.

1975 Topps #110 Wilbur Wood

Someone as old-school as Wilbur Wood looks a little out of place with the "futuristic" '75 Topps design. 

Wood wouldn't have a great year in '75. Although he did win 16 games, he led the league with 20 losses and posted an unspectacular 4.11 ERA. He'd lead the league in games started (with 43) for the fourth and final time.

1976 Hostess #99 Wilbur Wood

This Hostess card represents Wood's final three seasons in the majors fairly well. The dark of night is creeping in as this photo is taken; Wood looks to be alone in the ballpark save for a lone figure in the distance. This day looks to be coming to a close. So does Wood's career.

He'd pitch in just seven games in 1976. 

1979 Topps #216 Wilbur Wood

Wood did last long enough to see those ugly "softball" uniforms the Sox introduced in the late-'70s. This 1979 issue is his final Topps card.
After a forgetful 7-8 campaign in '77, Wood would give it one final go in 1978. He'd post a respectable 10-10 record, although his bloated 5.20 ERA was his highest since 1964. 

He'd retire after the 1978 season.

1976 Topps #368 Wilbur Wood

With the way pitching has changed in the last few decades, we'll never see another pitcher like Wilbur Wood. No one will ever come close to matching his 20-win 20-loss season. No one will ever pitch 376 2/3 innings like Wood did in '72. To put it in perspective, Justin Verlander led the league with 251 innings pitched in 2011.

Wood's career is a lot like this 1976 card. A guy who stood out in a crowd. His name, his stats, his knuckleball, everything. 

Everything in Wilbur Wood's career just stood out. And that's what makes him so interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have the 1977 Wilbur Wood Topps card. You may have it if you don't already have one.