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Smokey Joe and the Time Bandit: Chapter 11

As Joe Wood and Walter Johnson hurl their way toward immortality, the temporally displaced Ryan O'Malley has a precarious front row seat.

Walter Johnson was the Justin Verlander of his time, only better.
Walter Johnson was the Justin Verlander of his time, only better.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Throughout the month of July, the Red Sox cemented their position at the top of the American League. The offense was now rolling and Tris Speaker was leading the way. Fenway suited him well. The spacious right field area allowed his slashing drives to bounce deep into the corners and carom away from fielders. With his speed, a ball lost in the deepest parts of the corner could easily turn into a triple or an in-the-park home run if the fielder was late getting to it. For it time, it seemed as if everything he hit went for at least a double. The short foul pole in right also helped him as he managed to hook a few shots around it for home runs on his way to leading the league in dingers.

Duffy Lewis was also taking full advantage of FenwayPark, hitting the wall regularly and making opposing left fielders pay for their inability to handle his cliff. Lewis was probably the second best hitter for much of the season, at least when the team was at home, but he was something of an outcast on the team given his style of play. He was a dead pull hitter, which was less common in that power-deprived era and he was also fairly slow. He was a disaster when trying to steal a bases and I often wished manager Jake Stahl would stop him from running entirely. Stahl let him run though, or maybe even forced him to run, and Lewis was thrown out more than twice as often as he succeeded. I found it completely frustrating to watch. Stahl also had a terrible habit of calling on Lewis to bunt, often to advance Speaker. Despite being one of the most powerful hitters in the line-up, Lewis led the team in bunts. This strategy was too deeply ingrained in the game at this point for anyone other than me to question it and the few times that I tried to mention it to Stahl, he merely smirked at me as if I was the most ignorant possible observer. Runs were at a premium and you would wait forever if you waited for a big hit, so in some ways, this inside baseball was defensible. It was often maddening for a modern fan like me to watch, however. The rules by which Stahl operated outweighed any and all particulars of context, as if he was dictating strategy from a slide rule. As frustrating as Stahl could be as a manager, he was beginning to make up for it with his bat. After missing much of the spring with an ankle injury, he returned in late June and was now hitting the ball hard. Between Stahl and Lewis, the Red Sox had two hard hitting righties to bat around Speaker and take advantage of Fenway’s unique dimensions.

The July home stand would have its share of big hits, but the headlines almost always belonged to Joe Wood. Wood was 16-4 to start the month of July, but his record was deceiving. He had been maddeningly inconsistent. He would often start a game with no feel for the strike zone, taking an inning or three to finally settle down and throw strikes. Other times he would cost through the early inning and suddenly lose control, walking hitters or leaving the ball in the middle of the plate. The Red Sox offense had bailed him out on more than one occasion and that gave many fans the impression that he was better than he actually was. Win-loss records were given more weight than anything else in the minds of even the most intelligent baseball fans at this time. I would often argue will the men at in the press box or at Third Base about how deceiving they were, but in the end, few would concede the point. At this time, pitchers almost always completed their starts and if they ended up top, the rest was just details for most observers. To me, it was an irritating blind spot in my colleagues’ baseball intelligence, but like many of the things that I found strange about dead-ball era baseball, it was largely a symptom of the way the game was played then. Strikeouts were much less common overall and, as best as I could tell, balls in play went for hits far less often then they do now. A pitcher had to throw strikes and let his fielders do the work behind him. Aside from Walter Johnson and perhaps Christy Matthewson, few pitchers could ever just take over a game and put the other team away. If a pitcher found a way to get through all nine without losing, he had succeeded, the thinking went. In this way, the dead-ball era pitcher was often looked at the way that we look at a quarterback in football- much of his job was just not costing his team the game. If he could dominate, that was fine, but he simply had to keep things moving toward the end game. Wood had been frustrating to watch, but he had hardly ever needed relief and he was one of the rare few who could take over the game completely at times.

In July, Wood began to dominate. He had always been one of the hardest throwing pitchers, but now he seemed to take a step forward and become a more complete pitcher. In that July 8th win against St Louis, he had relied heavily on his change up and curve. He even looked as if he might be saving his arm for a more worthy opponent at some points. This step forward might have been the result of working with his new personal catcher, Hick Cady. Cady was a rookie and had begun the year as a bench warmer. Veteran Bill Carrigan was a fan favorite and something of a minor star for the Red Sox. He had come up during Cy Young’s time and was one the leaders of the old guard, Catholic section of the club. He was a terrible match for Wood and Stahl preferred to match backup Les Nunamaker with his temperamental star. Fortune had forced the change, however. Nunamaker had suffered a nasty injury, splitting the skin between his thumb and index finger in a game in Chicago and Cady had gotten his shot. He was a Mid-Westerner like Wood and though Carrigan was available, the tension between him and Wood was enough for Stahl to pick Cady. It would pay off. Cady was strong-armed and sure-handed. While Carrigan was declining after just a few years- catching in those days was a horrifying proposition, with many catchers using no shin-guards or chest protectors and little padding on gloves and masks- Cady was young and hungry. With the young catcher in the battery, Wood began to roll.

The rest of the rotation began to fall into place as well. Buck O’Brien and Hugh Bedient had firmly secured their place in the rotation and now Charley Hall and Ray Collins emerged as viable options as well. The team let future cheat Eddie Cicotte go to the White Sox as a result. The news sent shivers down my spine. The dark cloud of the 1919 World Series had begun to form right in front of me in 1912.

There was no time for such concerns then, however. Boston baseball was at a fever pitch by July and the madness seemed to grow with every win Joe Wood notched. From July 8 to August 26, neither Joe Wood or Walter Johnson lost a game. With the Red Sox pulling miles away from their American League competitors in the standings, the pursuit of Rub Marquad’s new record for consecutive wins took over the attention of the baseball world. This created a perfect storm as the Red Sox and Senators prepared to face off in a four game series between September 4th and 7th. As Joe Wood’s ghost writer and the Crier’s Red Sox man, I was positioned dead at the center of the story. Wood was not much interested in helping to write the stories that bore his name, but I persisted in trying to get some of his own thoughts onto the page. On the days that he did not pitch, I would hound Wood for details on his strategy against opposing line ups or an account of his pre-game preparations, but he was vague at best and if he was hung-over or in a foul mood he could be dismissive or worse.

The one time that he actually opened up was when I posed the subject of Walter Johnson. Wood had grown up in Kansas like Johnson and though he had broken into the big leagues just one year after Johnson, he clearly looked up to the "Big Train." Johnson was a superstar, on par with Cobb or Matthewson, while Wood was still viewed as an aloof talent. He had two stellar seasons before 1912 and Johnson even cited Wood for throwing the fastest, but the brash Sox star still understood that he had yet to achieve anything on par with his rival. The biggest difference was in their win totals. Johnson, who played for the weak-hitting Senators, had won 25 games in each of those past seasons and he struck out over 300 in 1910. The moniker "Ozone Joe" still hung over him.

Some time in early August just as the streak was beginning to dominate headlines, I tried again to sit down with Joe and work on his article on some quiet train through the Midwest.

"What it is, O’Mammy?" He said with minor irritation as I approached his seat.

"I was hoping we could talk about Walter Johnson," I said, "for your column."

Begrudgingly, he motioned for me to sit across from him. I sat down on and took out my pad. "What’s your opinion of Johnson?" I asked him.

"The same as everyone else, I guess, that he’s the best in the game." He said, giving me little to work with.

"He says you are hardest throwing pitcher in the game?" I told him. He snickered.

"Besides him, that’s true," he laughed.

"He didn't qualify it that way," I persisted.

"He’s just being modest," Joe explained. "you ask anyone, Walter Johnson’s the hardest throwing pitcher there’s ever been. He just doesn't want to be boastful."

"Maybe you’re being modest just the same," I pressed. Joe got a kick out of that.

"I’m not the modest type" he quipped through a wide grin.

"How’s your fastball these days?" I asked, moving on.

"It’s a bit off, my arm has been sore these last few starts, to tell you the truth," he confessed. I was finally getting somewhere.

"You think Stahl will give you some extra rest down the stretch?" I asked. It was the wrong thing say. Joe looked at me scornfully once again.

"Damn well, better not," Wood lashed out. He had been insulted by the question. Though I might have been entirely accustomed to managers and General Managers fretting endlessly over the health of a pitcher’s arm, it had never occurred to Wood or anyone else on that train that this would one day be the case. As boy Wood had just missed the tail end of the days when a team might have only one pitcher or two pitchers on the roster. The three or four man rotation was still derided by many old-timers as the ultimate sign of the waning strength in the modern age. He shut down completely now and I knew I would get little else of interest.

"If you and Johnson are both still unbeaten, do you think you will face him in September? I asked, taking a hopeless shot at bringing him back to the conversation.

"It’s question for the damned manager," he snarled as he got up and left the car. It was a knee-jerk response, but Wood was right. If Stahl continued his practice of keeping Wood from lining up against the other team’s ace, he and Johnson would never meet in a decisive battle for Marquad’s record.

I found Stahl in the dining car sipping drinks and talking strategy with Bill Carrigan and Larry Gardner.

"If Johnson and Wood carry their unbeaten streaks through to September, would you pitch Joe against Johnson? I asked after settling in with this friendlier group.

Stahl gave me a long look. " Doesn't much makes since for us, as I see it, what with the pennant in our sights," the manager replied. He hated the idea of gambling a sure win with Wood by putting against the one guy on a team that might beat him. It had never made sense to me, but it was pure logic in his mind and I suspected he wouldn't change just because of the hype. Then his look changed. He smiled, first at Carrigan, then back at me.

"Might not even be an issue, by that point though," he mused relishing his own enigmatic tone.

I wasn't sure exactly what he meant- he might have just been referring to one pitcher losing- but I guessed at another meaning, and as it turned out, I had guessed right.