A Conversation With: Wilbur Wood

He is a member of a very select fraternity. It’s a fraternity that goes beyond the usual small fraternity of former major league baseball players. It’s so small that you can count the members on both hands, if that.

That fraternity is composed of former pitchers who excelled as both starter and relievers.

Think about it. How many pitchers can you name who did well in both roles? A few immediately come to mind: Dennis Eckersley, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, John Smoltz and Hoyt Wilhelm, but many fans don’t know that Wilbur Wood was both a league-leading relief pitcher and a league-leading starter in his days with the Sox.

Wood’s White Sox career spanned from 1967 through 1978, and during it he was a key part of three of the most memorable White Sox teams in club history.

1967 Wood was a part of the deep bullpen the Sox had, as the “Near Miss” White Sox had the World Series squarely in their sights until a disastrous final week.

1972 Wood was the lead starter on the 1972 “Outhouse or Penthouse” White Sox [Note: That phrase was authored by Sox outfielder Rick Reichardt when talking about the surprising season.] Those Sox battled the Oakland A’s down to the final week for the Western Division championship. If not for the back injury to third baseman Bill Melton, the A’s dynasty of the 70’s might never have happened.

1977 Wood was also a spot starter on the 1977 “South Side Hit Men” Sox club that smashed all existing team hitting records and has carried on as the baseball version of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Wilbur was one of the most popular Chicago athletes in the 70’s in part because he wasn’t 6´5´´, with a body by Adonis. Wilbur looked like your Uncle Butch or Cousin George. He was an everyman. And all Sox fans could relate to a guy who didn’t look like a sculpted god yet somehow found a way to consistently get major league hitters out again and again.

Wilbur was a three-time All-Star, a four-time 20-game winner, and recorded 57 saves and 163 wins in his career with the White Sox. He was named the 1968 American League Fireman of the Year, and in 1972 was both the American League Pitcher of the Year and the left-handed starting pitcher on The Sporting News American League All-Star team.

Wood led the American League in 33 different categories during his playing days, most of them in the good column. Among them were leading the league in appearances, games started, games finished, innings pitched (including a mind-blowing 376 innings pitched in 1972!), batters faced, wins and getting hitters to ground into double plays.

He had consecutive scoreless inning streaks of 29 in 1973 and 27 ⅔ in 1972. He tossed three complete-game two-hitters, with two of those taking 11 innings. He also added nine complete-game three-hitters. Wood started both ends of a double header twice [Note: Once because of rain that allowed an off-day. Wilbur finished the suspended game against Cleveland that began on May 26, 1973, then after a 30-minute break, began the regularly-scheduled game. This happened on May 28, 1973] and was named to the White Sox All-Century team.

There will never be another pitcher like Wilbur Wood.

When I spoke with Wilbur the topics were varied, from how and why he learned to throw the knuckleball, to how he became a starting pitcher and his initial reluctance to do so, to the pennant races of 1967, 1972 and 1977, his relationship with Eddie Stanky and Chuck Tanner, pitching so many innings and stories of his teammates during those great days.

He’s a unique man with a unique story.

Mark Liptak: Wilbur, you came to the Sox on Oct. 12, 1966. Juan Pizarro was the player eventually sent to the Pirates for you. Why don’t we start about how you found out about the deal and your reaction to it?

Wibur Wood: I actually found out about it from a friend. I was at home and got a call from someone saying they heard it over the radio! I guess it was later in the day that I got a call from the White Sox letting me know about it.

Your career was floundering with both the Red Sox and the Pirates, but then in 1967 (51 games, four wins, four saves and an ERA of 2.45) suddenly it all turned around. How did that happen? 

I had spent parts of seven years in the big leagues, and as my record showed things weren’t going that well. I was signed as a fastball/curve ball pitcher and did very well with those in the minor leagues, but they just weren’t good enough for the majors. I’d be fine for three or four innings, but after I went through the batting order once I’d start to get hit. I just decided to junk my curve and everything else and go 100% with the knuckleball. I actually had thrown that pitch a long time; I started using it back in high school and semipro ball. Sometimes I’d still throw a fastball to get the hitter’s timing off ,but that was only once in a while.

Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher were already on the Sox at that time and they threw the knuckleball a lot. Did they teach you anything about it that you didn’t know?

We’d talk more about the finer points of the pitch. It’s funny, but all knuckleballers tend to throw the pitch the same way. I recently spoke with Tim Wakefield at a charity golf tournament, and he held the pitch the same way I did, which is the same way Hoyt and Eddie did.

How was your knuckleball different from Hoyt’s and Eddie’s?

My pitch had a tendency to break down and away from right-handed hitters. Eddie’s had a tendency to break down and in to them. Hoyt’s was unpredictable: When he threw it, it could go all over the strike zone.

The wind could change how the pitch was moving as well. The area around home plate in most of the stadiums that I pitched was where the wind would blow after it bounced off the stands, or in some parks like the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, just come right in and bounce the pitch around. A knuckleball acts by having the wind push against the seams.

I always used to feel sorry for White Sox catchers. Guys like J.C. Martin, Gerry McNertney, Ed Herrmann. It had to be rough trying to catch not one, not two, but three different knuckleball pitchers.

Well remember that the guys who caught us on the Sox, and I’d mention Pete Varney as well, they came up through the Sox system and in spring training they’d catch us. In the spring, because you have so many pitchers in camp, you’d bring in just about every catcher in the organization. So these guys had a chance to see [knuckleballs] for three years or so. Then when they made the Sox, they were used to it. Now if guys came in from somewhere else like in a trade, and never saw that pitch before, it would be tough.

Hawk Harrelson has commented on the fact that he didn’t understand why more pitchers don’t try learning that pitch. He mentioned it might really help guys who are struggling, or coming off an arm injury. When you pitched, Wilhelm, Fisher, Phil and Joe Niekro and Jim Bouton, among others, threw the knuckler. Any thoughts on why the knuckleball has become a lost art? 

See, if you are trying to learn the pitch because you’ve had an injury, it’s too late. I used to get a lot of calls when I was playing from pitchers who got hurt, and they’d ask about throwing it. The knuckleball isn’t something that’s learned overnight. I threw it for years, from when I was in high school. It takes that long to get used to it. What major league organization is going to give a pitcher three or four years to master the pitch?

That 1967 season was the season the Sox almost won the pennant. It’s been a long time, but I imagine the disappointment of that final week (where the Sox lost all five games to the lowly A’s and Senators) still remains.

That was my first good year in the major leagues, and I remember getting caught up in all of it. We were right there until the last week.

[The Sox closed the 1967 season with two games in Kansas City and three at home to Washington — the two worst teams in the league. After sweeping Cleveland that weekend, the Sox flew to Kansas City where they were off Monday. Tuesday’s game was rained out, and they played a doubleheader Wednesday night. The Sox were actually off for three days, because they last played Sunday afternoon — unheard of in a pennant race. Chicago lost both games, and then were off again Thursday before hosting the Senators. The White Sox were beat 1-0, eliminated from the four-team pennant race, then played flat and lost both weekend games to finish the season.]

One thing I particularly remember from 1967 was after manager Eddie Stanky made those comments about Carl Yastrzemski. [On June 5 before a series in Chicago, Stanky commented that Yastrzemski “May be an All-Star from the neck down, but in my book he’s a moody ballplayer. And I don’t like moody ballplayers.”] We went into Boston and played them in a big series. Every tomato in the city of Boston was in Fenway Park, and when Eddie went out to change pitchers the fans let him have it … and he couldn’t dodge them all! I was sitting in the bullpen laughing my ass off watching it.

You were a quick study with the knuckleball, because by 1970 you were one of the top relief pitchers in all of baseball, including your stellar season in 1968. [In 1968, Wood led the league with 88 appearances, with 13 wins, 16 saves and an ERA of 1.87 for a team that won just 67 games. Wood also saved 15 games in 1969 and 21 games in 1970, both for terrible teams.] Why do you think you were able to pick up the nuances of that pitch the way you did where others couldn’t?

I was fortunate because I was always able to throw strikes with the knuckleball. That was my biggest asset. I was always around the plate. Eddie (Herrmann) never even had to put down a sign, he knew what I was going to throw, I knew what I was going to throw, and the fans knew what I was going to throw.

In the 1970s when Carlton Fisk was with the Red Sox and we’d play them, I’d scream at him from the mound because he’d waste so much time. I’d yell, “Get in the box; I’m throwing a god damn knuckleball, not a fastball. You know it!” I mean why prolong the agony, right? [laughing]

The White Sox fell on miserable times in the late 1960s and 1970. They lost more games in that three-year period than at any other time in franchise history. The Sox lost 106 games in 1970 alone. It had to be agony going to the park every day. I don’t know how you guys kept your sanity!

It was awful. I’ll tell you how bad it was. The only games that I ever wanted to come into were games where I could pick up a save. I never wanted to go into games where the score was tied, because I knew, and everybody on the team knew, that we’d find some way to lose the game. We had no chance. The pitchers knew it and the position players knew it.

Joe Horlen told me about his 1971 spring training injury, which caused him to miss most of the season. But that’s only half of the story, because as a direct result of his injury Chuck Tanner began considering the option of making you a starting pitcher. I have heard you were against the move but for the sake of the team decided to give it a try. Why the initial opposition?

That was a strange situation, because even before the injury I was almost traded. It’s true; the Sox had a deal in place with Washington. I was going to be traded for Darold Knowles. But I was holding out that year. I was fighting for more money, and I never signed a contract. So the trade was null and void. It was pretty apparent that Chuck didn’t want me in the bullpen. He wanted hard-throwing guys, and we had players like Terry Forster and “Goose” Gossage coming up, so I became a starter. Roland Hemond said this one time, and it’s true: “Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.”

As a pitcher, can you talk a little about the differences in preparation between starting and coming in to finish games?

I enjoyed pitching in relief, because I knew when I went to the park that there was a chance I’d get in the game. When you are a starting pitcher, you pitch — then sit for three or four days. I used to take ground balls in the infield on days when I wasn’t pitching just to keep busy, and I’d run a little bit, but sitting around just wasn’t for me.

The 1971 season was the start of an incredible run of success for you. (42 starts, seven shutouts, a save, 334 innings pitched, 210 strikeouts, 22 wins and an amazing ERA of 1.91.) A lot of folks felt that you should have won the Cy Young because you threw a very unpredictable pitch, a knuckleball, whereas Vida Blue, who did win the honor, had a conventional arsenal of pitches. Did you think you had a chance to win the award, and how did you feel about that season? (Wood never faced Blue head-to-head that season. Wood finished third in the voting, behind Blue and Mickey Lolich.)

Honestly, I didn’t think about the Cy Young back in those days. At the time, it wasn’t that important to me. Looking back, would I have liked to have won it? Sure.

I’d imagine that by the end of the year, you were comfortable starting games.

I was a little apprehensive at first doing this, it was just like before any game you’re always a little nervous. But when you start having success you get comfortable, and I had success starting right away. I was tickled pink that things turned out the way they did.

The Sox made great strides from the disaster of 1970 to 1971, but heading into the 1972 season did you expect the team to be as good as it was, even with Dick Allen on board?

I thought in the spring that we’d have a pretty good team because the guys weren’t selfish. They did what they had to do to win games. I knew that we’d win games, but I didn’t know how many. As far as Dick, he made all the difference in the world. He was a tremendous hitter. [Strike-shortened 1972 saw the Sox win 87 games and finish 5 ½ games behind the eventual World Champion A’s. Allen would win the AL MVP and narrowly miss winning the Triple Crown. He finished with a .308 batting average, 37 home runs and 113 RBIs.]

By June 4, 1972, the date of the famous “Dick Allen Chili-Dog Game” against the Yankees (in a doubleheader nightcap with New York the White Sox trailed 4-2 with two on and two out in the ninth. Tanner wanted Allen to pinch-hit but he was eating a chili dog. He wolfed down his snack, getting chili all over his jersey. On the third pitch from Sparky Lyle, Allen blasted a three-run, game-winning home run.), the Sox were an amazing 18-2 at home. As a guy who occasionally gave up some long fly balls, I’d imagine you enjoyed playing in a pitcher’s park. 

Oh, absolutely. I loved pitching in Comiskey Park. It had a big outfield, and gave you room for a mistake. I’d spin one and a guy would hit it, yet most of the time our outfielders were able to run it down because they had the room to get to balls in the gaps.

You were selected for your second All-Star Game, and in this one you actually pitched. How was that experience for you? (In the 1971 game at Detroit ,neither Wood nor teammate Melton appeared. In the 1972 game in Atlanta, Wilbur pitched two innings, allowing one run on two hits with a strikeout, as the National League won 4-3, in 10 innings.)

It was a great experience for me. Just a lot of fun. I’d gone the year before, but it was a great thrill to actually be able to participate in one of these.

Wilbur, you pitched a lot of great games, but to me this was your best with the Sox. On Sunday, Aug. 12, 1972 in Oakland, the Sox had cut a seemingly safe A’s lead of 8 ½ games down to one. The White Sox had split the first two games of this huge series, and you took the mound against Blue Moon Odom. Two hours and forty five minutes later, you walked off the mound a 3-1 winner in 11 innings, having fired a two-hitter. The Sox were now tied for first place in the division. What do you remember from that afternoon? (The complete game was Wilbur’s 20th win of the year.)

I’m sorry, that I don’t remember any more details [besides] when Ed Spiezio hit the [game-winning] home run. To me, even though it meant going into a tie for first place, it was just another day. Like I said, I’d get a little nervous before the game, but once you go to the bullpen and start throwing you get into the flow of the day and forget about everything else.

When I spoke with your catcher and teammate Ed Herrmann, he told me that he felt whoever won that series would win the division, but that it took so much out of you guys just to get that split that it drained you and Oakland was able to pull away.

Ed’s right. It was draining, especially on the position players. In a big series like we had with Oakland, a lot is expected of players. It’s draining. Plus, we had kept knocking on the door that season trying to catch those guys [and] that becomes draining, too. Because we were in a pennant race, we had to play our guys every day. That race was so close, you just couldn’t give guys time off.

If Bill Melton wasn’t lost for the season with the herniated disc on June 28 of that year, do the Sox win the West? (Melton, the 1971 American League home run champion, fell off his garage roof the previous November getting down his son who somehow wandered up on it. He fell on his back, which damaged a disc. Bill went to spring training and played through it the first few months of the year, but the condition got worse, with pain shooting down his legs because of pressure on a nerve.)

I don’t know if we would have won, but I know our chances would have been a hell of a lot better.

You pitched almost 377 innings tin 1972, an astonishing total, with eight shutouts, 24 wins, and an ERA of 2.51. Even though the knuckleball was your primary pitch, were you ever concerned about throwing that many innings?

I didn’t think about it that much. I was throwing the ball well; I had been in a groove the entire season. I wanted to give it a shot, I enjoyed it. I also didn’t like down time, just sitting around. So when they said “do you want to pitch every second day or third day?” I said “sure.”

People said I didn’t get sore because all I threw was the knuckleball, but that’s not true. I’d get stiff and sore, and in those days pitchers never used ice. I didn’t get as sore as if I was throwing, say, a slider, because I wasn’t putting the pressure on my elbow and shoulder, but I did get sore.

Hopes were never higher than in 1973. The Sox were the favorites according to the press, Melton was back and the team got off to a roaring start. By late May, the Sox were 26-14, with a t3 ½-game lead over the Angels. But even before injuries tore up the team (the team used the disabled list 38 times), the Sox weren’t very happy. GM Stu Holcomb’s hard line salary policy alienated many guys. Players like Rick Richardt, Mike Andrews, Jay Johnstone and Spiezio were released when they couldn’t come to terms, and that decimated the depth of the club. What was the mood in the locker room that season?

I don’t remember exact instances in the locker room where players got mad, but I’m shocked about the number of times we used the disabled list. I didn’t realize we used it that often.

As for you personally, an oddity took place on May 28, 1973, when you started the completion of a suspended game against the Indians and then after you won that one, went out and beat them again in the regularly-slated game. What was that experience like? (Wood’s line for the night: 14 innings, one run, seven hits, nine strikeouts, for a 13-3 record and it wasn’t even June yet!)

When a game goes that long, everybody figures that basically it would be over in an inning or two. It was my night to start anyway, so I figured I can give them an inning or two. It turned out the [suspended] game went five innings. I felt fine [and] knew I could throw a few more innings at least, so I started the second game. Everything was going well, so I just kept going and was able to finish it off.

I don’t know if both of these are related or not, perhaps you can shed some light on it. The 1973 Sox were ruined by injuries. It seemed everybody from Brian Downing to Allen to Ken Henderson to Carlos May were hurt. On July 20, 1973 in New York you started both ends of a doubleheader against the Yankees. Was that because of the injuries to the team, perhaps the pitching staff, or did you and Tanner have something else in mind? (Wood wasn’t sharp that day losing 12-2 and 7-0. He became the first pitcher to start both ends of a regularly-scheduled doubleheader since Cincinnati’s Fred Toney on June 23, 1918.)

No that wasn’t planned. Chuck was going to start someone else in game two, but I got knocked out early in the first game. I told Chuck I didn’t pitch much; I can go back out if you need me. Maybe I shouldn’t have, because they beat me up in the second game too! [laughing] That was strange, because I always had good success against the Yankees. (Wilbur failed to record an out in game one, giving up four hits and five earned runs. In game two he lasted 4 ⅓ innings, again allowing five earned runs.)

Despite the Sox being mediocre in 1973 and 1974 you still won 20 games, running that 20-win streak to four straight seasons. You made the All-Star Game again in 1973, but there was something missing from the Sox in those years. It wasn’t like in 1971 and 1972. Any idea what went wrong?

Well the injuries played a big part, and overall we were getting older. The team wasn’t as young as in 1971 and 1972.

When Bill Veeck took control of the Sox again in December 1975, he let Tanner go as manager. What was it like to play for Chuck? He seemed to be the exact opposite of your first Sox manager, Eddie Stanky.

Chuck was a player’s manager. I enjoyed playing for Chuck, we all did. Chuck was the most positive guy I’ve ever been around. No matter how bad things were going Chuck would always find something to be positive about, something to try to keep you going.

In fact, Chuck spent more time with guys who were having trouble or in a slump then with guys who were going well. I thought that was really smart. Remember in baseball you only have 25 guys, if two or three guys are down or having a hard time suddenly your roster is really short. Chuck tried to keep everybody ready to play because that gave us a better chance of winning.

In 1976, the Sox arguably weren’t any better than the versions from 1974 and 1975 but you personally were off to a great start. Opening Day for example, you shut out the Royals, 4-0. By early May of that year you were pitching brilliantly again: five complete games in seven starts, ERA less than 2.50 and a winning record. It all came apart in Detroit, courtesy of a line drive off the bat of Ron LeFlore. What do you remember about the injury and what was broken?

Ron hit me in the kneecap with a line drive, and it just blew it apart. He swung at a ball using an inside-out swing.That’s always the toughest for a pitcher to pick up, because it looks like he’s pulling the ball. Instead, he hit it right back up the middle. I never saw it. I wasn’t trying to catch it, I was just trying to get out of the way.

Originally, the kneecap was wired together to hold it in place. I didn’t have a cast. The doctors felt this way it would heal quicker, and maybe I could be out there in September. That September, I was working out at home trying to get ready to come back when I slipped on the grass and the kneecap went out again. This time, they had to put some pins in it to hold it together and I had a cast on, so I was done for the season.

My father had the same type of injury, a broken kneecap, and I saw how tough it was for him. He was older then you when he got hurt, but given that you were 35 at the time ,was there any question about coming back for the next season?

No, because I had another year on my contract. I had signed a two-year deal with the Sox in 1976, so I was going to come back.

The 1977 season turned out to be magical for the Sox, one that is still cherished by Sox fans. Was there any indication in the spring that this club would be as good as it turned out to be?

No, not in spring training, but looking back we did have a lot of guys who wanted to play. We had guys like Eric Soderholm coming back from injury, and we had a lot of fighters.

You started 18 games that season and pitched some good ones, including what I call the Lamar Johnson game on June 19, 1977. (The Sox played the A’s in a doubleheader, winning 2-1 and 5-1 behind Wood and Francisco Barrios. Wood started the first game, going eight innings on six hits. It’s called the Lamar Johnson game, though, because the first baseman/DH sang the National Anthem, then went out and got the only three White Sox hits, two of them solo home runs.) You still had that magic.

Well, maybe, but to tell you the truth, I was gun shy. I’ll admit it. LeFlore’s shot got to me. I pitched everybody inside, I wasn’t going to let them get out on the ball and maybe hit another one back up the middle. It’s hard to pitch that way.

This team electrified Sox fans because of their ability to pound the baseball and win games in dramatic fashion. Sox fans demanded something that wasn’t seen in baseball until then, the curtain call. Adding to it Nancy Faust’s rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” would send the crowd into a frenzy. Some of your teammates have told me that wasn’t a big deal; others have said they were uncomfortable with it because they felt opponents were being shown up. What were your feelings on all this?

You would have to put me in with the group that was uncomfortable with all that. I always had a saying, “Don’t wake up sleeping dogs.” Let ’em stay quiet, and leave town with a 5-4 loss. They’d say “Well we played a good game, and if we made one play, we would have won it.” Don’t wake them up;let them go home happy. Of course you see [curtain calls] more now, but back then it was a different story.

The season ended too quickly for Sox fans, as the team couldn’t keep up with an unbelievable Kansas City surge (the Royals went 35-4 from August 17 and September 25). When the Sox lost both Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble to free agency, everyone knew the magic was gone. The team was pretty bad in 1978, but you still had a respectable season going 10-10 for a team that only won 71 games. When did you decide it was time to retire?

In September 1978, the Sox traded me to Milwaukee, but I didn’t want to go. I’m sure that bothered the folks in Milwaukee, but I figured that I’d try the free-agent market that offseason and see what happened. Well, I wasn’t offered a uniform by anybody! That was the end of it. It was time. I wasn’t myself. I was gun-shy since the LeFlore hit.

You were named by the fans as a member of the White Sox All-Century Team. How did you get the news, and what was your reaction?

Roland Hemond gave me a call to let me know about it. Then that summer, we made the trip to Chicago. It was a great honor. Thanks be to the knuckleball that made it all possible! [laughing]

You spent 12 years in a Sox uniform. This is going to be hard, but how about summing up your time for me on the South Side and those fantastic years?

I was fortunate. I spent 12 very pleasurable years in Chicago. We had some decent years. Granted, we never won a championship, but more often than not we were in the hunt for it. Those are the seasons where you start playing in April and you look around and realize it’s September already. You ask yourself, ‘Where did it all go?’ Those are the years that I had the most fun and that I’ll remember.