In 1973, Chicago White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood went 24-20. It was the first time a hurler both won and lost 20 games in the same season since the great Walter Johnson went 25-20 for the Washington Senators in 1916.
Wilber Wood was “everyman.” According to baseball writer Roger Angell, he had “the physique of an accountant or pastry cook on holiday.” A cigar-smoking, left-handed knuckleballer, Wood was notorious for his disdain for exercise. The portly portsider had a 39-inch waistline, saying, “I need all that weight in the middle to keep my balance.”
Despite his considerable constitution, Woody was a workhorse. The first White Sox pitcher in franchise history to win at least 20 games in four consecutive seasons, he had 57 saves and 163 wins during his dozen seasons in Chicago. Wood led the American League in 33 different categories during his playing days, most of them good. A three-time All-Star, he pitched in the big leagues from age 19 to 36.
In 2018, Max Scherzer led the NL in innings pitched with 220.2, while Corey Kluber topped the AL with 215. The previous year, Jeff Samardzija paced the NL with 207.2 innings and Chris Sale led the AL with 214.1. In 1972, Wilbur Wood pitched 376.2 innings, the most in the live-ball era [post 1920]. The following season, Woody threw 359.1. Both were big-league bests. His two-season mind-numbing total of 736 innings pitched set a modern-day record that will likely never be matched.
Wilbur Wood won 20 games four times and lost 20 twice.
There will never be another pitcher like Wilbur Wood. In 1973, he twice started both ends of a doubleheader. In May of that year, he finished a game suspended by rain, took a 30-minute break, then started the regularly scheduled game. Two months later, he started both ends of a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium. Woody wasn’t sharp that day and lost both games, 12-2 and 7-0.
His knuckleball, dubbed Woody’s Wobbly Wonder, was a lethal weapon. Wood posted consecutive scoreless inning streaks of 27.2 in 1972 and 29 in 1973. He tossed complete game two-hitters – two of which went 11 innings – and added nine complete game three-hitters. The hefty hurler twice finished in the top ten in MVP voting, and three times was a finalist for the Cy Young Award.
Wood was both a league-leading relief pitcher and leading starter in his days with the White Sox. He was a key part of three of the most memorable teams in franchise history. Wood anchored the deep bullpen the Pale Hose had in 1967. The Near Miss White Sox had the American League pennant squarely in their sights until a disastrous final week of the season dashed their hopes. Woody was the lead starter for the Outhouse or Penthouse Sox of 1972. That club battled the Oakland A’s down to the final week for the Western Division title. If not for a back injury to third baseman Bill Melton, the A’s dynasty of the 70s may never had gotten untracked. Wood was a spot starter for the 1977 South Side Hit Men that demolished all franchise hitting records and carried on as the baseball version of the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 22, 1941, Wilbur Forrester Wood Jr. was signed out of Belmont [MA] High School by the Boston Red Sox. A fastball/curveball pitcher, he performed well in the minors, but his stuff was not good enough to fool big league hitters. After three seasons in Boston, Wood toiled for two years with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Prior to the 1967 season, he was dealt to Chicago, where he mastered the knuckleball under the tutelage of Hoyt Wilhelm.
In Chicago, Wood used his knuckleball exclusively and his career took off. Used exclusively in a relief role in 1968, he set a then-MLB record with 88 appearances and was named The Sporting News “Fireman of the Year.” In 1971, Sox skipper Chuck Tanner moved Wood into a starting role, where he blossomed. In his first season as a starter, Woody went 22-13 and led the American League in ERA-plus [ERA adjusted for ballparks]. The next two seasons, he led the league in wins, starts, innings pitched and batters faced, while also allowing the fewest earned runs and hits.
Woody shares a birthday with Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who was born on the same date in 1907.
Displaying uncanny durability, Wood led the AL in starts four straight seasons, taking the ball in 49, 48, 42 and 43 games between 1972 and 1975. By contrast, the MLB-best for the each of the last three seasons has been 34 starts. The American League changed baseball forever when it adopted the designated hitter rule for the 1973 season. The DH was suited perfectly for pitchers like Wilbur Wood in that it allowed them to remain in games through the later innings rather than be removed for a pinch hitter.
Wood finished behind Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry and Jim Palmer in Cy Young voting between 1971 and 1973, three of the best pitchers of the 1970s. His 1976 campaign was cut short on May 9 when a line-drive single by Ron LeFlore fractured his left kneecap. Wood had surgery, underwent a grueling rehab, and returned the following year, but showed few signs of his former mastery.
While his knuckleball induced ground balls and double plays, it was also difficult to control. Woody tied a record by hitting three consecutive California Angels in the first inning of a game in Anaheim in September of 1977. Although he would retire the side and hold the Halos scoreless in the first, the lumpy lefthander didn’t make it out of the bottom half of the second inning before giving way to Bart Johnson in a game the Sox would go on to lose.
Immensely popular in Chicago, Wilbur Wood was a key part of the Bill Veeck-led revival that kept the Sox in the Windy City. He played in 661 games, compiling a 164-156 record with a 3.24 ERA. Woody recorded 1,411 strikeouts, 24 shutouts and 114 complete games during his remarkable career. He retired in 1978 and returned to his native New England. In 2017, Mr. Wood was named to the Chicago White Sox All-Time team.
On this date in 1972, a 30-year-old Wilbur Wood tossed a three-hit, complete game shutout over the New York Yankees. Woody faced 32 batters, striking out four and walking two to up his record to 10-2 on the year. The White Sox bettered their record to 31-18, while the Yanks dropped to 20-29 for the season.