This article was written by David Nemec
Born in Thorn Hill, Ohio, a small rural community near Youngstown, on July 28, 1865, Bob Wood was all smoke and mirrors when he first decided he’d rather play professional baseball than spend the rest of his life as a blacksmith.
Even after he’d made the major leagues he successfully circulated the tale that he was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and came to the US at age 12, according to The Sporting News (June 10, 1899), which featured a likeness of him. In the winter of 1891-92 he successfully shaved six years off his birth year of 1865 and wrote to folks in Sioux City, Iowa, who were thinking of signing him for the 1892 season that he must be called “Major Bob Wood” and was 6-feet-2½ in his stocking feet and weighed a solid 187 pounds, but the February 24, 1894, issue of The Sporting News said his friends back in Findlay, Ohio, all had a good laugh when they heard that story, for he “was barely 150 and maybe a foot short” of 6-feet-2 (he was actually 5-feet-8 and 153).
Wood then passed his 29th birthday in 1894 still catching with the independent Findlay club before joining Indianapolis of the Western League as a backup receiver to Ed McFarland in 1895. According to the April 1, 1899, issue of The Sporting News, the right-hander came to the Hoosiers as strictly a pull hitter before Indianapolis pilot Bill Watkins taught him how to hit to the opposite field. Wood spent most of 1895 riding the bench and grumbling that he wanted to be traded as McFarland caught practically every game. But the following year “the dark complexioned young man,” as described by The Sporting News of June 27, 1896, earned more playing time with the Hoosier club after driving in seven runs in back-to-back innings against Detroit with a grand slam and a bases-clearing double. Earlier in the season, on April 11, Sporting Life had predicted as much, deeming Wood “a corking hitter, fully as good as McFarland, a much headier player, and a good thrower,” though some of its scribes were still calling him Woods in its pages.
Two years later, when Wood finally reached the majors, with Cincinnati, he was in reality nearing his 33rd birthday when he debuted on May 2, 1898, at Pittsburgh against his old manager Watkins by catching Bill Dammann and going 2-for-4 in a 7-3 win over the Pirates’ Jim Gardner. He was viewed by his Reds teammates as a decent catcher, a capable hitter, and one of the worst baserunners in the game. The Sporting News said in its October 16, 1897, issue: “There is no telling what he is going to do on the bases … one of the poorest base-runners that ever singled and reached bag No. 1.” But since he was just 26 years old – or so he led everyone at that time to believe – it was thought that a respectable major-league career might still lie within his reach.
After the 1899 season Wood’s second in the major leagues, The Sporting News said in its February 17, 1900, issue that he was expected to be released to Indianapolis of the newly renamed American League along with outfielder Socks Seybold in the expectation that Cincinnati would obtain catcher Marty Bergen from Boston, but was given a reprieve after Bergen committed suicide. The paper then added a new complaint, saying he was “not too brainy,” and piled yet another criticism on him at a later date, reporting that his glaring lack of power (he hit only two home runs in 1,246 at bats in the majors) came because he “used the lightest bat” on the team. Even though Wood remained with the Reds and was the best hitter for average of their three catchers, he was the least used behind the plate, often occupying third base instead. The August 18, 1900, issue of The Sporting News announced that Wood had been farmed to Chicago of the American League with Cincinnati paying his salary until the AL season ended, at which time he would be returned to the Reds. But Wood never came back to Cincinnati, and in The Sporting News’s December 29, 1900, issue Ernie Lanigan revealed the reason that Cincinnati skipper Bob Allen had him jettisoned. In the Reds’ game of July 21, 1900, at Brooklyn, Wood had muffed a third strike in the ninth inning to allow Gene DeMontreville to score the winning run from third base in Cincinnati’s 6-5 loss to Brooklyn’s Frank Kitson.
The American League’s ascension to major-league status in 1901 brought Wood back to “The Show” as a member of the Cleveland Blues. Even though he did most of the catching for the Forest City entry in 1901 and hit well as a backup to rookie Harry Bemis in 1902, the October 18, 1902, Sporting Life reported that both he and outfielder Ollie Pickering “have been let out for good” by Cleveland. Wood was quickly snapped up by Milwaukee of the rebel American Association and was rated among the loop’s top catchers before Sporting Life noted on September 12, 1903, that he had been felled for the rest of the season by a broken rib and was recovering at his home in Girard, Ohio, a town about five miles from Youngstown, where he owned a livestock farm. The same paper announced on April 30, 1904, that he had been sold to Detroit for $1,500.
The following spring, while still a member of the Tigers, Wood purportedly was still just 33 when he caught his last big-league game, at St. Louis on May 6, and made one hit along with two errors in a 9-4 loss. But in truth he was a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday and owned the distinction of being the first man to catch more than 200 major-league games (290) despite not making his debut until he was past 30. It would be years, however, before anyone knew that.
Wood quit the Detroit team shortly after his finale with the club, perhaps feeling his true age. But on August 19, 1905, Sporting Life reported that George Stallings, manager of the Buffalo Eastern League nine, was negotiating to obtain Wood’s contract from Detroit in return for pitcher Rube Kisinger. Wood then spent the balance of the 1906 season and most of 1907 in the Eastern League before dropping down to the Southern League, where he finished his pro career with Little Rock in 1908 after appearing in 100 games at age 43. When he died in Churchill, Ohio, on May 22, 1943, of a ruptured appendix after working for a number of years as a blacksmith for the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, his May 27 obit in The Sporting News said he was 72. We now know he was really only two months short of his 78th birthday.
This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec’s Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900 (Bison Books, 2011) vol. 1.
In assembling this biography I made extensive use of Sporting Life, The Sporting News, and the Cincinnati Enquirer for details of Wood’s semipro and professional baseball career.