Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Smoky Joe Wood

Claim to fame: Novelist James T. Farrell once wrote of Wood, “Some of the most exciting early games I saw were in 1912, when the Boston Red Sox came to town. They won the pennant that year, and they always beat the White Sox when I went to the games. Smoky Joe Wood, who belongs in the Hall of Fame, won 34 and lost 5 that year. In memory it seems as though he hurled all those games against Chicago. With shadows pushing over the ball park he would stand out there on the pitching mound in his red-trimmed gray road uniform, hitch up his pants, and throw. To this day, I have a recollection of a strange sensation as if my head had emptied, when he fired the ball in the shadowy park. The White Sox couldn’t touch him.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Wood received votes for Cooperstown from the Baseball Writers Association of America nine years between 1936 and 1951, peaking at 18 percent of the vote in 1947. The Veterans Committee can enshrine Wood through its Pre-Integration Era subcommittee, which covers players from 1871 to 1946 and is due to meet next prior to 2013 inductions.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Wood essentially has two things going for his Hall of Fame case. First, he has one of the greatest baseball names of all-time. Smoky Joe Wood sounds more like a Steinbeck character than a ballplayer. I’d venture that beyond Shoeless Joe, Smoky Joe might be the only Deadball Era player most fans today would know or care about. Wood also had one of the greatest pitching seasons ever, 1912, and his dominance that year went beyond his 34-5 record, 1.91 ERA, 10 shutouts, or 258 strikeouts. He also racked up 9.5 WAR, a better than 3-1 strikeout-walks ratio, and a 1.015 WHIP. If ever a pitcher deserved to be enshrined on the basis of one season, it’s Wood though Denny McLain of 1968 and Dwight Gooden of 1985 can’t rank far behind.

Wood doesn’t have much else on his resume beyond 1912 since he permanently injured his arm the following year and threw just 18.1 innings past 1915. It’s worth noting Wood transitioned to the outfield for a few seasons thereafter, even hitting .366 with an OPS+ of 151 in reserve duty in 1921. Mostly, though, Wood’s a tantalizing example of what might have been with his 117 career wins, all compiled by the age of 25 and his lifetime 2.03 ERA. Baseball’s enshrined pitchers before who were done early, from Addie Joss to Dizzy Dean to Sandy Koufax, but Wood’s lifetime marks would be the least of the bunch.

Whether Wood belongs in the Hall of Fame probably depends upon one’s view of the museum. For those who see Cooperstown strictly as a place to honor players with superior career stats, Wood doesn’t make it. Not even close. But for players who, for even a time, might have captured the spirit and magic of baseball and helped elevate the game, Wood has to be one of the very best without a plaque. And unlike many who held this mantle and then fell dramatically from grace, from McLain and Gooden to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, Wood seems just as mystifying almost 100 years after his last pitch. That has to be good for something.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark