The Way of Wood
On September 23, 1972, a little more than 11,000 fans were at Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the Oakland Athletics in a game with significant importance for the visiting team. Leading Chicago by six games with only six left to play, they needed one more win to clinch their third straight AL Western Division.
The starting pitchers shared the number 19: A’s starter Vida Blue had that many wins, while his counterpart Wilbur Wood had that many losses, although he would tie for the most wins in the majors that season with 24. It was the knuckleball pitcher’s 49th start that season (the most in MLB), and he had hurled 372 innings to that point. His knuckler wasn’t at its best, and Wood lasted only 4.1 innings, giving up 12 hits and seven runs. The A’s went on to win 10-5 to capture the division title.
In the top of the fifth, Wood struck out the leadoff batter, A’s designated hitter Deron Johnson; but the next three players singled, and he was taken out of the game. Blue wound up winning his 20th game, and Wood losing his 20th – the first pitcher to win and lose 20 games in a season since Walter Johnson went 25-20 for the Washington Senators in 1916. But Wood punching out Johnson would be significant: it ran his innings total to 376.1, one third more than Mickey Lolich had hurled for the Detroit Tigers the year before.
No one has pitched more frames in a season since, and probably never will. In the last 102 years, no one has topped 376.1 innings.
(The previous night, Sox starter Stan Bahnsen lost his 20th game, and Chicago became the first American League team to have two pitchers with 20 losses since 1930, when Jack Russell and Milt Gaston lost that many for the Boston Red Sox.)
In a five-season stretch, Wood exceeded 300 innings four consecutive years, and in the fifth he tossed 291.1. From 1971-74, he won 90 games, the most in the major leagues.
Described by SABR author Gregory W. Wolf as “the best left-handed knuckleball pitcher in major-league history,” Wood started with the pitch early, when he was 12.
His father, Wilbur Wood Sr., a semi-pro shortstop, showed him how to pitch a “palm ball” in the backyard of their home in Cambridge, MA.
Over the years, Wood “fooled around” with his fingertips until it became a knuckler. “It (the palm ball) rotates like a knuckleball,” he said.
After a stellar high school career, in 1960 he signed with his local team, the Boston Red Sox, as a fastball-curveball pitcher. After a season and a half in the minors, Wood, then 19, made his debut at Fenway Park on June 30, 1961. He pitched the final four innings in a 10-2 loss to Cleveland, giving up three hits and two runs while striking out three. Wood appeared in five more games as a reliever before being optioned to the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Red Sox in the Class A Eastern League, where he struggled with a 3-7 record. At this point, Wood’s knuckleball was his third pitch.
The Red Sox called up Wood two more times, but he did not pitch well.
In September 1964, he was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the Bucs, Wood had a pretty good year in 1965, 1-1 and a 3.16 ERA in 51.1 innings. But he was outrighted to the Pirates AAA team in Columbus at the start of 1966.
By this time, Wood knew his heater lacked the velocity to get major league hitters out – “my fastball was a couple of yards too short” – so he over-relied on his curveball: “They knew it was coming,” he said.
He had a good year at Columbus, and based on a recommendation of a scout, the White Sox acquired Wood (the White Sox later sent Juan Pizarro to Pittsburgh to complete the deal).
But being sent to the White Sox turned out to be a blessing: on the pitching staff was 44-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm, the best knuckleball pitcher in history.
Wilbur Wood of the Chicago White Sox demonstrates his 'knuckle ball' at the club's Comiskey Park stadium in Chicago, Illinois, 30th July 1973. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
“It wasn’t what he showed me, or anything. We had many discussions about the knuckleball. His big point was if you’re gonna throw a knuckleball, you have to throw it as your main pitch; it has to be thrown 60, 70, 80 percent or more – in other words not mixing in curveballs or fastballs, with knuckleballs being an extra pitch,” said Wood.
After taking Wilhelm’s advice, Wood said, “I never threw another curveball.”
“You win or lose with your best pitch,” he said, “and that’s why I threw the knuckleball” in tight situations.
Though he had thrown the pitch for many years, Wood, according SABR’s Wolf, lacked confidence in it and couldn’t control it well. Wilhelm taught Wood the fine points and mysteries of the pitch. First, Wilhelm helped with Wood’s delivery. “I had a tendency to drop down with my arm when I threw the knuckler. Hoyt (had) me throwing it strictly overhand. (The knuckleball) breaks down more consistently,” Wood explained. Wood had already mastered the grip (with the tips of his fingers), and Wilhelm helped refine the follow through of his wrist. “He (had) me throwing the knuckler more with a stiff wrist and with the hand up. If you twist your wrist either way, the ball will rotate and you won’t get a good break,” Wood said at the time.
Wood’s transformation into a full-time knuckleball pitcher brought immediate success. In his first 26 appearances after that, Wood posted a 1.51 ERA. He was given a spot start in July, against Kansas City, and held the Athletics to seven hits in 8.1 innings for the win, his first ever as a starter.
He made seven starts and won four of them. Working out of the bullpen for the rest of the season, Wood helped keep the White Sox in the 1967 pennant race, pitching 11 times in the last month (the White Sox finished three games behind the Boston Red Sox for the title). He finished with a 2.45 ERA over 51 appearances and 95.1 innings.
Later, Wood said, “I probably wouldn’t have paid as much attention to the knuckler if I thought I might wind up as a starter.”
Chicago White Sox Wilbur Wood (28) in action, pitching vs New York Yankees at Comiskey Park. Chicago, IL 5/6/1973 CREDIT: John Iacono (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
He continued to work with Wilhelm to refine his knuckleball and make adjustments. Wood credited pitching coach Marv Grissom for helping him alter his wind-up. “I used a full wind-up at the start of [the 1967] season. Then in midseason, I went to a half-windup. In spring training (in 1968), Grissom talked me into not using my wind-up at all.”
Eliminating the windup made his occasional fastball more effective because batters were not anticipating he’d throw it without a wind-up. It also gave Wood one of the best pickoff moves to first base.
Wood’s confidence in the knuckler was boosted by trust in his catchers, Ed Hermann and later Brian Downing. When Wood arrived with the White Sox, the club had two knuckleballers, Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher. The catching prospects in Chicago’s system, said Wood, caught those pitchers in spring training, and had experience with handling the pitch.
In May 1968, manager Eddie Stanky made Wood his primary reliever, and he set a then major league record by pitching in 88 games. From 1968-70, Wood led the majors in appearances. The following year, manager Chuck Tanner made him a starter.
“I believe his thinking was he preferred having pitchers who could throw the ball up in the upper 90s; while with someone who had a knuckleball, there was the opportunity for throwing passed balls, wild pitches, and losing a ballgame in that fashion, and since he had a couple of pitchers who could throw with that type of velocity to go that way, with Terry Forster and Rich Gossage, that made it very simple, and it worked out very well for us,” said Wood.
In his first season as a starter in 1971, Wood went 22-13 with an ERA of 1.19. From 1972-75 he led the majors in starts.
Pitchers Wilbur Wood #28 and Bill Moran #34 of the Chicago White Sox shows the grip of one of their pitches before a Major League Baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles circa 1974 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Wood played for the White Sox from 1967-78. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
When asked if he thinks his 376.1 mark will be broken, he laughs, saying, “I don’t think it will be broken the way the game has changed now. If he (a pitcher) got to pitch five innings, he had a helluva day.” If a pitcher threw only five innings a start in Wood’s time, “if he did that too often, he’d look for a job.”
In 1972, Wood gave up 105 earned runs, the most in the majors; but because he pitched so many innings, his ERA was still only 2.51.
And being a knuckler gave Wood a chance to make baseball history.
On May 26, 1973, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox played 16 innings with the score tied 2-2, when the game was suspended. But instead of resuming the game the following day, May 27, White Sox management decided to restart the suspended game on May 28, when Wood was scheduled to start, and the White Sox had Wood begin the 17th inning of the makeup game and then make his scheduled start.
In the first game, Wood pitched four innings, giving up an unearned run in the top of the 21st inning, but Dick Allen hit a walk-off home run in the bottom half giving Wood his first victory of the day. He pitched a complete game shutout in his start against Cleveland for his second win, 4-0.
On July 20, 1973, Wood started the first game of a doubleheader against New York. He didn’t make it out of the first inning, in which he threw 26 pitches, probably all knucklers. Manager Chuck Tanner had him start the second game, and Wood gave up five earned runs in four and one-third innings. He is the last pitcher to start both ends of a doubleheader.
Pitcher Wilbur Wood #28, of the Chicago White Sox, throws a pitch during a game in 1973 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Two hitters who gave Wood trouble were Rod Carew and Tony Oliva, each of whom won multiple batting titles.
“They had real good bat control, and a short swing,” explains Wood.
In 1976, Wood started six of the team’s first 14 games. In his seventh start, on May 9, with two outs in the sixth inning, the Tigers’ Ron LeFlore smashed a line drive that shattered Wood’s left knee cap. “I never saw the ball,” Wood said later. The hit ended Wood’s season (he had won four of seven decisions and posted a 2.24 ERA), and he was never the same. Pitching afterward, he said, “wasn’t fun anymore,” and he retired at 36, a relatively young age for knuckleball pitchers (Wilhelm lasted until he was 49).
Since he retired, Wood said no pitchers have contacted him about learning how to throw a knuckler, because the reasons for why a pitcher would choose that pitch are unusual.
“They’re hurt or (at) the tail end of their career, and it’s a little late to learn a new (pitch). It takes time to learn it and learn to throw strikes with it. It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.