Fifty years ago, first homegrown African-American player debuted
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 03/07/11 3:15 PM EST
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jake Wood turns 74 years old in June, but he doesn't look it. He plays second base in his local softball league. He moves around better than some folks 10 years younger.
The way he feels, it doesn't feel that long since he was making history here.
It doesn't really hit him until he's sitting in the clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium on a Sunday morning, looking around at the clubhouse and its amenities, and sitting next to a 19-year-old outfield prospect named Avisail Garcia.
Jake Wood and his wife, Marsha, acknowledge the fans at the Tigers' ceremony for him last June. (Duane Burleson/AP)
"You look back, and it's just hard for me to realize it's been 50 years," Wood said, shaking his head. "Fifty years! Man, these guys aren't even that old! So when you talk about me, these guys weren't even born. When you mention me, their grandfathers might know me. Fifty years!"
The Tigers remember him. Fifty years after he became the first African-American player to come up through the farm system and make it to Detroit, and produced one of the best seasons by a Tigers rookie, he'll throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the stadium Wednesday before Detroit takes on the Phillies. It's part of the Tigers' celebration of their 75th Spring Training in Lakeland.
The team had already broken the color barrier with Dominican-born Ozzie Virgil in 1958 and Larry Doby a year later, but both had been traded to Detroit. They had Maury Wills for a brief time in the offseason after the '58 season, but had to send him back to the Dodgers. For a team that had been viewed as slow to adjust, and needing young talent of all sorts, Wood was a young talent.
In Wood, the Tigers had a talented, speedy second baseman flashing a combination of extra-base power and speed for a few years, but they didn't have the opportunity. Frank Bolling had three straight seasons of double-digit power, a nice package at second, but he fell off a bit in 1960. That same year, the 23-year-old Wood batted .305 at Denver with 24 doubles, 18 triples, 12 home runs and 34 stolen bases in 149 games.
"If they didn't trade Bolling, the opportunity would've never presented itself," Wood said.
So they had an opening at second base, and Wood had his first chance to go to Spring Training with the Major League team. He was in the same locker room at old Henley Field as the great Al Kaline and Rocky Colavito and the young, developing Norm Cash, guys he looked up to. But he still had to perform. His season stats were strong, but he usually took a while to come into form.
"You have to always be physically and mentally prepared to get in there, because you never know what happens," he said. "For me, Spring Training, I had a good spring, a great Spring Training, which I normally didn't have. So where would I be if I didn't? Would I have never got that opportunity? First of all, you have to have the ability -- not only physically, but the mental aspect of this game. And then take advantage of the opportunity."
Lastly, he said, he needed the support system. And the Bolling trade brought him someone who could help with that. Bill Bruton, a veteran leadoff man and speedster for the Brewers, came to Detroit in the deal.
"[Bruton] used to be my roommate," Wood said. "That was a big asset for me, because if he wasn't there, how would you survive? And him being in the Major Leagues for such a long time, he knew the league, what to expect, what to do, what not to do. Everybody needs that."
Before Wood could survive in the big leagues, though, he had to survive camp. And at that time, Spring Training was different for African-American players, who had to stay in private homes instead of hotels. Wood had experienced it the previous four seasons in Lakeland during Spring Training, but being in big league camp didn't change a thing. Having Bruton around let him know what to expect, not just in Florida, but in Major League cities.
Wood still remembers those final days of Spring Training, waiting for the final roster cuts. He had learned what to watch out for, and he was on the lookout.
"You get nervous because after the first month, they have about 30 guys," Wood said. "Those borderline guys, you're nervous that you're going to make it or don't make it. We were on the road, so that cutoff day, everybody was a little leery. But when you go back after a workout, if they've got a bag in front of your locker, you're gone. No bag, you're going to the big leagues."
No bag was in front of Wood's locker. The rest was history. Wood played all 162 games that season, batting .258 with 17 doubles, 14 triples, 11 home runs, 69 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in 39 attempts. And a young high school slugger named Willie Horton would skip school in Detroit to go watch him play. Wood's success convinced Horton's father that his son should sign with the hometown Tigers.
"For some strange reason, even in the Minors, I always started slow or whatever," Wood said. "There, just everything went right for me. I wish it would've continued about 15 more years. But you thank God for the time. It's just precious."
Wood was a veteran player a few years later and helped Horton break into the big leagues and endure. They remained friends for years after they finished playing. Horton, now a special assistant with the club, invited Wood back to camp last year for the first time since his final big league season in 1967.
Wood looks around, and he can't believe it's been so long.
"Now I look, and these guys are in their early 20s," he said. "They're big, but they're still young. But they need that support, because of the emotional aspect of the game. You're up, you're down. Just to keep it on an even keel when you're going good or going bad, especially when you're going bad, you need support from your teammates, from your family, from the organization."
The year after Wood's career ended, Horton helped the Tigers to the World Series in 1968. Wood hopes he can get his shot, even if he's a spectator.
"I just hope that they can go all the way this year," he said. "I would love to see that, because I'd love to go to a World Series game in Detroit. I've never been in that kind of atmosphere. I would just like to experience that, from a fan's point of view. Because that's something special, what those guys are trying to do. They're starting right now, the accumulation of 162 games. Just to see the exhilaration when they win, that does me good."