Wood was the first African-American star for the Tigers

jake-wood-1965-topps-baseball-card

Jake Wood’s 1965 Topps baseball card

Even though he is a vested veteran by this point in his career, Jake Wood looks like he is about 14 years old on his 1965 Topps card. As he strikes a pose at the Detroit Tigers’ spring training site in Lakeland, he also appears to be remarkably skinny. Just take a look at the left sleeve on his home Tigers uniform. It looks like Wood could fit two arms into that sleeve, not just the requisite one.

Wood may have looked like an undersized teenager on his Topps card, but he had dynamic talent, including breakneck speed. In fact, Wood seemed headed for stardom from the very beginning. One of the first African-American players to sign with the Tigers’ organization, the onetime shortstop made his debut for Detroit in 1961. Though he barely weighed 160 pounds, he played in all 162 games at second base that summer. He showed major promise, hitting 11 home runs, stealing 30 bases, and leading the American League with 14 triples. He finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting, but some folks, like Willie Horton, felt he should have placed higher in the balloting.

In fact, it was Wood’s presence on the roster that ultimately convinced Horton to join the Tigers, and not the New York Yankees. Horton played hooky from school just so that he could watch Wood play on Opening Day in 1961. “That [Wood’s presence] was probably the main reason that I signed with the Tigers,” Horton told Jason Beck of MLB.com many years later.

Wood had become the first black player to emerge as a regular for the Tigers, something that Larry Doby and several others were unable to do. Wood’s achievements became even more impressive within the context of the day-to-day racism that he faced. While Wood claimed that fans in Detroit treated him well and without regard to race, the conditions of spring training were different. Throughout the late 1950s and early sixties, the Tigers trained within the boundaries of a very segregated Lakeland. Having grown up in integrated Elizabeth, New Jersey, Wood described the situation in Florida as “culture shock.” While all of the players stayed in barracks at “Tigertown,” the black players in the organization were forced to sleep in separate barracks from the white players. This practice did little to encourage the African-American players, or to promote team unity. The water fountains at the ballpark were also segregated. While the white players drank from one water fountain, the African-American players drank from a fountain that was labeled “Colored.”

During the spring of 1959, Wood and the other black players took a small stand against the racism they faced. They demanded that the Tigers supply them with a rental car on spring training road trips. The Tigers relented, giving Wood and the others a bit more freedom.

By 1961, Wood had found a better spring training home than the segregated barracks. He lived with his in-laws, who owned a house in Lakeland. He then emerged as the Tigers’ second baseman, putting up those aforementioned numbers as a highly impressive rookie. Yet, there were some problems with his game, too. He batted only .258 and struck out way too frequently—141 times to be exact. The latter figure led the league and became a point of concern within the Tigers’ organization. With his speed, the Tigers wanted Wood striking out less and reaching base more often.

The Tigers tried to address the lack of contact by encouraging Wood to bunt more often in 1962. He did make more contact, reducing his strikeouts to 59 in 111 games, but the rest of his offensive game fell off significantly. He didn’t hit for power or average, and with his on-base percentage sinking below .300, his stolen base production also declined.

In 1963, Wood enjoyed a better spring training experience, as the Tigers moved out of their segregated hotel in Lakeland and provided one hotel for all of their players. That season, Wood bounced back by hitting .271 and matching his rookie campaign with 11 home runs, but he also dislocated one of his fingers in midseason. Wood did his best to play through it, but finally had to give in to season-ending surgery on one of the tendons in his left hand.

By 1964, Wood had lost the second base job to the newly acquired Jerry Lumpe, who had been picked up in a deal with the Kansas City Athletics. Lumpe would remain the starter for three seasons, rendering Wood a backup middle infielder and part-time outfielder.

In 1967, the Tigers reduced Lumpe to a reserve role, but that was only to make room for Dick McAuliffe, who would emerge as the best of the three players. Now reduced to third-string status, Wood appeared in only 14 games for Detroit and managed only one hit 20 at-bats. By the final days of June, the Tigers had decided to part ways with their one-time phenom. On June 27, the Tigers sold Wood’s contract to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds made Wood a full-time outfielder, but used him only sparingly. He accrued only 17 at-bats in 16 games. With no future in Cincinnati, the Reds traded him to the Cleveland Indians that winter. But Wood never appeared in a game for the Indians, instead spending the entire 1968 season at Triple-A, while his former Tigers teammates were building a world championship in 1968.

The Tigers then reacquired Wood in 1969, but only as minor league filler. Demoted to Double-A Montgomery, he played the entire season in the minors, trying to climb back to the big leagues as a center fielder. But it didn’t come to pass. At season’s end, Wood retired. It was hard to believe, but at the tender age of 30, Wood was done as an active ballplayer.

While Wood’s playing days did not fulfill the high expectations that his talents once indicated, he has never harbored regrets over his career. He went on to find success working for Abraham and Straus, a Brooklyn department store that eventually was converted into Macy’s. In terms of baseball, his presence alone, as an African American on the Tigers at a time when the franchise had few black players, came to inspire a number of black youths to play baseball in the Detroit area. That influence is something that Wood continues to take pride in, even though nearly 55 years have passed since his major league debut.

At last word, Wood was still playing softball in a Pensacola (FL) league geared to players 70 and older. That’s a testament to his conditioning, his good fortune, and his staying power. The skinny kid from New Jersey, now 78 years old, has somehow found a way to maintain the youth of his 1965 Topps baseball card.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.