Glancing Back, and Remembering Wilbur Wood
Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm was not only the master of the knuckleball, but also its greatest evangelist. His promoting the pitch to bullpen teammates inspired at least two successful careers: one was the career of reliever Eddie Fisher, the other was the career of reliever-turned-starter Wilbur Wood.
Wood’s career was going nowhere when Wilhelm advised him to rely on his knuckleball and not simply treat it as an occasional trick pitch. Wood was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1960 and pitched in the Bosox’s minor league system for five years with only occasional stops in Beantown.
He was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates in September of 1964 and finally won his first major league decision in 1965. He spent the 1966 season at the Pirates AAA affiliate in Columbus, going 15-8 before being traded to the Chicago White Sox for Juan Pizarro.
It was a trade that would change Wood’s career. He met Wilhelm, and listened.
He went 4-2 for the White Sox in 1967 with a 2.42 ERA. That was four times as many major league games as he had previously won in his career. In 1968 he set a major league record by appearing in 88 games, going 13-12 with a 1.87 ERA and 16 saves. In 1969 he made 76 appearances – all in relief – and went 10-11 with 15 saves. In 1970, his 77 relief appearances and 2.81 ERA produced a 9-13 record with 21 saves.
Then Wood made the last major transition of his career. He moved to the starting rotation, where the low physical stress of throwing the knuckleball allowed Wood to pitch more innings than any other starter in baseball – in fact more innings than any major league starter since the “Dead Ball” era prior to 1920. Wood went 22-13 in 1971 with a 1.91 ERA over 334 innings pitched. He averaged 21-16 with 45 starts and 348 innings per season from 1971 to 1975. And his earned run average over that period was 3.08.
Injury finally slowed Wood down, but it wasn’t his arm that gave out. In May of 1976, Tigers center fielder Ron LeFlore hit a vicious line drive back at Wood, shattering his knee cap. He made a valiant effort to come back, but was never the same pitcher, going 17-18 over his final two seasons and retiring after the 1978 campaign.
Wood finished with a career record of 164-156 and a 3.24 ERA. He was an All-Star selection three times.