Given baseball’s nature as a spectator sport, fans bless players with fame, and almost never find it themselves. An exception is Frank Wood, who gained notoriety in the 1890s as “Well! Well! Well!” Wood loudly directed his signature call towards his hometown New York Giants, quickly gaining the attention of the sporting press. Yet Wood’s fame is more informative for what it suggests about the sudden achieving, and complicated aftermath, of celebrity status.
Frank B. Wood was born in 1845, in Lansingburgh, New York, a village later incorporated into the city of Troy. His father, Artemas, founded a brush factory, eventually known as E. & C. Wood. His mother, Louisa, was Artemas’s second wife. Frank was the second of the couple’s four children. When Artemas died in 1857, Frank’s half-brother, Charles, took over the family business.1 By the late 1860s, E. & C. Wood employed hundreds of workers, manufactured tens of thousands of brushes per month, and had a salesroom in lower Manhattan.2
On August 13, 1863, Frank Wood enlisted in the 21st New York Cavalry. His regiment saw action in the Valley Campaigns of 1864, as part of the Union Army of the Shenandoah. When the war ended, the 21st was assigned to Camp Collins, Colorado, for guard duty. Wood was mustered out on September 9, 1865.3 Wood came back to Troy and, in 1866, married Mary Sherwin.4 The couple soon settled in Jersey City.
With Jersey City’s Champion Baseball Club, Wood seems to have occasionally played center field.5 Mostly, he represented the team as its secretary. In this role, he attended the convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players held in Philadelphia in December 1867, and was elected as second vice-president.6 The next year, he was elected the organization’s first vice-president.7 When the NABBP splintered into professional and amateur groups in 1871, Wood – who also worked on behalf of a New Jersey state amateur league – fell in with the latter camp. In March 1872, again representing the Champion Club, Wood was elected president of the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players.8 But the future favored the professionalism of the sport, and the NAABBP soon withered away.9
Per the 1870 US Census, Wood worked as a clerk and lived with Mary and a small daughter in Jersey City. He soon became involved with local politics and the social events that surrounded them.
In October 1873, E. & C. Wood’s main factory burned to the ground.10 At the same time, an economic crisis gripped the country.11 The company stayed in business, but its misfortunes may have impacted Wood. Mentions of his baseball activities disappeared. Instead, his troubles dotted local newspapers.
In February 1873, he was accused of making a political bribe.12 In May 1874, his habit of passing himself off as a reporter to gain free admission to “places of amusement,” earned him a flattening punch from a theater owner.13 In January 1877, he “thought he would have some fun with a candy shop woman,” by bracing the door from the outside. A fine for disorderly conduct resulted.14 In August 1879, “Frank Wood, a tall, slim man, with a few bristling hairs projecting on his upper lip, and with a pair of eyes that betoken a certain degree of redness,” appeared in a Hoboken court for “acting in an uproarious manner in the sleeping apartments of Mrs. Raymond, a widow over whose respectability hangs a cloud.”15 Two days later Wood, a resident of New York, “was unable to pay a fine of three dollars, hence his commitment for a period of twenty days.”16
In the 1880 US Census, Frank B. Wood is listed as a clerk, living in Manhattan with his wife Mary, daughters Mary and Carrie, and son Frank. Then, for the rest of the decade, his trail seemingly dries up.
Except in one regard: patents. For a decade, beginning in 1882, a Frank B. Wood from New York State (later in this span, specific to New York City) filed a dozen patents ranging from an Automatic Electric-Signal-Printing Register to a Non-Interfering Successive Signaling System and Apparatus.17 Later, as Wood achieved fame as a fan, his role as an inventor was occasionally mentioned.18 A certain genius seems to have illuminated his troubled life.
Third baseman Arlie Latham also demonstrated an innovative nature in the 1880s. In addition to his colorful clowning, baseball historians Jeffrey Kittel and David Nemec observe, “Latham also was a pioneer in the nineteenth-century style of base coaching characterized by obnoxious yelling that was designed to rattle opposition players and umpires.”19 One of Latham’s favorite taunts was “well, well, well,” with adjoining phrases likely sanitized in the sports pages. One of his favorite targets was his ex-teammate, pitcher/outfielder Bob Caruthers. “Well, well, well, Mr. Caruthers, how are you feeling about this time?” Latham asked in June 1888, as his St. Louis Browns ran down Caruthers’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms in the American Association race.20 By 1891, both played in the National League: Latham with Cincinnati, Caruthers with Brooklyn. On August 11, when the teams met in Brooklyn, Caruthers relieved starter Adonis Terry late in the game. “Well, well, well!” Latham shouted in derision. “The idea of sending such as that out! Now boys, we have got a pudding.”21
Later generations might call the expression a meme: “An element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.”22 (And, ironically, “well, well, well” gained notice as internet meme in 2009.23) Latham didn’t invent this cultural element, or perhaps even bring it to baseball. But, briefly, he owned it. Others soon imitated. “Captain [Jim] Cudworth has appropriated Latham’s ‘Well! Well! Well!’ and gives Worcester audiences a dose of it daily,” Sporting Life noted in July 1889.24
Latham’s Reds visited the Polo Grounds twice as the 1891 season waned: August 13-15 and September 7-9. The Giants stood in third place during this stretch, the Reds languished in the second division, and most of these games were sparsely attended. Latham good-naturedly sparred with the cranks to pass the time.25 Perhaps one of Latham’s playmates had a moment of inspiration and borrowed the player’s expression, delighting the stands by hurling it back at him. Or, perhaps after Cincinnati left, a fan adopted it and sarcastically directed it at a Giant for a boneheaded play.
Whatever the origin may be, by the time the Giants visited Brooklyn on September 24, a star had been born. The next day, a Brooklyn sportswriter relayed the following:
Before the game began Mr. [Charles] Byrne [Brooklyn’s owner] heard the loud yell of the crank, known as the “Well, well, well” fellow, who has for a month past annoyed the better class of patrons of the Polo grounds. Being determined that no such annoyances should be permitted at Eastern Park, he went downstairs and, after spotting the crank, ordered him to leave the grounds, at the same time offering him the admission he had paid. Old “Well, well, well” declined to go, and some of the bleaching board occupants wanted him left alone. “He’s done no harm,” said one. “Let him alone.” Mr. Byrne quickly informed these fellows that he proposed to run his grounds to suit his best class of patrons, and if anyone was dissatisfied with his methods all they could do was to get down and out. With that he had the police eject the offender.26
The Giants soon extended the same courtesy. As the 1892 season dawned, sportswriter C.F. Mathison identified this fan for the first time: “Frank B. Wood is the name of the hoarse-voiced individual who goes to the Polo Grounds and bellows – ‘Well, well, well,’ when the New Yorks are getting it in the neck. For this Wood got it in the neck and has been barred out.” Then adding a note of (likely) satire, Mathison placed Wood alongside the era’s other famous fans: “Dixwell came here with the Bostons and the talk about the General’s ‘Hi, hi, hi’ screech made Wood jealous. He has issued a challenge to Dixwell for yelling-matches in New York and Boston, with Marshall P. Wilder, Judge Collum and DeWolf Hopper as judges.”27
Wood continued to battle his demons. In November 1892, he appeared in the Tombs Police Court on charges he had “threatened to kill” the supervisor of the H.B. Claflin Company, where he had previously clerked. The report in the New York Sun included an account of what happened after the Giants barred him from their park:
He stationed himself on the hill overlooking the enclosure after that, and continued to hurl invectives at the home team until compelled to move on. Latterly Wood began to haunt the newspaper offices where he soon became as great a nuisance as he had been at the Polo grounds, and his visits were only put an end to by threats of arrest. Wood is a tall, raw-boned individual, with a red face and a fierce mustache.
The presiding judge threw Wood in jail for 30 days. His honor, “a lover of the national game,” was then informed the prisoner being led away was the “’Well-Well’ man.” The judge sighed, “I wish I had recognized him; I would have given him six months at least.”28
New York Herald sportswriter O.P. Caylor wrote at length about “Old Well! Well! Well!” on September 10, 1893. Wood, Caylor suggested, may have been blessed with means, but was not burdened by ambition. “He is one of the favored few for whom work constantly waits. He can get employment almost whenever he wants it, which is not persistently often.” Caylor also hinted at a rupture in Wood’s personal life. “He is the head of a family to whom he has been kind, if not always considerate.”29
“The baseball season, however, is to him what a rose is to a butterfly,” Caylor wrote. After being barred from the Polo Grounds, Wood “was a wailing lost soul just outside the walls of paradise … and [would] send up his yowling cry while he vainly searched for a friendly knot hole which had no peeping occupant.” Fortunately, over the 1893 season, “The New York players have acquired a superstitious belief that he brings them good luck, inasmuch as since the club gave him a roaming, rooting commission at the Polo Grounds the team has been doing good work and playing successful ball.”30
With a lengthy road trip beginning the next day, Caylor reported, “Arrangements were made yesterday for him to accompany the team on its Western trip, to act in the capacity of roaring mascot and grand imperial rooter.” Indeed, Caylor claimed management had approved plans for Wood to join the team the next season. His suggested role for Wood was inspired. “If men like … Latham are permitted to stand on the coacher’s lines and do nothing but howl, yowl and yell, why not put a man there for New York who is capable of competition against these men as well as having a margin left over?”31
Caylor’s portrait of Wood the individual dripped with artistic license.32 His hyping of Wood the fan seemed overdrawn. In the era’s New York newspaper wars, any discovery that could grab public interest was valued, especially when writing about a team that wasn’t involved in a pennant race. Joe Vila, sportswriter with the New York Sun and a Sporting Life correspondent, judged Caylor’s find on these terms. Dismissing Wood as a “weather beaten subject,” Vila sneered that “the Herald ... seems to regard this nuisance as a popular idol, whereas he is generally looked upon as a drunken loafer.”33
Perhaps the Giants’ management permitted Wood back into the Polo Grounds some time during the 1893 season. Perhaps during the successful month-long home stand that led up to Caylor’s piece, Wood utilized “Well! Well! Well!” more as a positive rallying cry than a bitter weapon. But evidence to support such wonderings is lacking. Also elusive is any evidence that the players adopted Wood as a good luck charm, or that management planned to use him in a future role.
As for the road trip, when the Giants pulled into Cincinnati on September 15, that city’s press reported: “The New Yorks say ‘Well Well’ was afraid to go to Cleveland [the trip’s first series], but is expected to join the Giants here to-day.”34 But six days later, as the team arrived in St. Louis, Wood was still missing in action. Captain John Montgomery Ward told a local scribe (who likely dabbled with artistic license himself) that Wood “concluded to stay home when Charley Comiskey informed him the Western circuit, and especially St. Louis, would not stand any shouting against the home team. It seems ‘Commy’ warned him that if he yelled for the opposition at new Sportsman’s Park, Chris Von der Ahe’s army of private watchmen would tear him to pieces.”35 Vila’s take on Wood not accompanying the Giants west: “The old guy has been sadly jollied.”36
For the remainder of the decade, New York’s newspapers rarely mentioned Wood as a fan. When such a reference appeared, it was usually accompanied with disdain. Summarizing the highlights of “a real nice, jolly game at the Polo Grounds” on June 1, 1896, the World concluded, “When it is added that the irrepressible baseball nuisance, ‘Well! Well! Well!’ was not a spectator, unfortunate absentees will realize just what they missed.”37 Two years later, a Brooklyn sports page submitted this verse:
Can none by hook or crook prevent
The baseball crank from his wat t’ell?
Or ostracise the loud-tongued gent
With his infernal “Well, well, well?”38
More frequently, the press treated Wood as a troubled, D-list celebrity. He gravitated towards corridors of power – police stations, the mayor’s office, the courts – to bellow his expression in protest.39 Sometimes the protest seemed populist in tone, sometimes nativist, but mostly it seemed Wood sought attention.
As a new century dawned, the Giants dwelt in the cellar, and old Well-Well lived on as a yardstick by which other deafening fans might be measured.40 Yet by 1903, disinterested owner Andrew Freedman was gone, and John McGraw was putting his stamp on the squad. That April, as New York prepared to take on visiting Boston, “the old familiar ‘Well! Well!’ rung out with all its ancient inspiring twang.” A reporter scampered into the seats to interview Wood.
“Felt as if I was a sure hoodoo,” he explained in gentle tones that rocked the arena, “and went right out and quit. Even stopped reading the papers. Now and then asked a friend: ‘They still tail ending?’ Same old reply, and I sure began to fade. But say, friends, well, well, well, guess there’s something on the green carpets these moons. No? Well! Well! Well!”41
Wood again faded into obscurity, but as the Giants returned to winning ways, and their attendance soared to new heights, nostalgic myth-making kept his legend alive. As early as 1904, the “well, well, well” phrase materialized in syndicated stories of Polo Grounds life.42 Then, in 1910, Zane Grey’s “Old Well-Well” short story appeared in Success magazine.43 At the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1890s, Grey had played collegiate baseball and, later that decade, moved to New York to begin a dental practice.
Grey began his tale by bathing his subject in a heroic light:
He bought a ticket at the 25-cent window, and edging his huge bulk through the turnstile, laboriously followed the noisy crowd toward the bleachers. I could not have been mistaken. He was Old Well-Well, famous from Boston to Baltimore as the greatest baseball fan in the East. His singular yell had pealed into the ears of five hundred thousand worshippers of the national game and would never be forgotten.
Yet Old Well-Well is forgotten by all in attendance but the narrator. He is also deathly ill, back at the Polo Grounds only to see his nephew, Burt, playing for the visiting Phillies. At junctures during the tense game, Old Well-Well almost calls out, only to swallow his words, conserving what little energy he has left.
Burt wins the game with an inside-the-park home run in the 13th inning, silencing the New York crowd. Then:
In the bleak dead pause of amazed disappointment Old Well-Well lifted his hulking figure and loomed, towered over the bleachers. His wide shoulders spread, his broad chest expanded, his breath whistled as he drew it in. One fleeting instant his transfigured face shone with a glorious light. Then, as he threw back his head and opened his lips, his face turned purple, the muscles of his cheeks and jaw rippled and strung, the veins on his forehead swelled into bulging ridges. Even the back of his neck grew red.
As the “long unheard yell” reverberates throughout the park, Old Well-Well falls forward, emptied of life.44
In truth, Frank B. Wood died at his Manhattan home on December 10, 1914. At an earlier juncture, he apparently remarried. The 1900 U.S. Census listed him as an electrician, residing in Manhattan, and for ten years wed to Kate, who was listed as a seamstress. The 1905 NY and 1910 U.S. censuses list Kate as Catherine but otherwise are consistent. The couple had no children. It is uncertain what became of Wood’s first wife, Mary, and that union’s children. It is also uncertain what became of Kate.
The day after Wood’s death, Heywood Broun eulogized him in the New York Tribune. Broun – born in 1888 – was considerably younger than Grey, and less likely to have seen Wood firsthand during his heyday in the 1890s. But like Grey, Broun applied a brush of warm nostalgia. “Wood was a Giant rooter at a time when the fortunes of the team were at their lowest,” he wrote, yet “nothing could dampen his optimism.” His catchphrase was encouraging, not invective. From Broun’s account, Wood dispensed homilies:
One day when the Giants had just dropped their twelfth straight game a young man who sat near Wood spoke in derision of the team and its prowess. Wood turned on him. “See here, young man,” he said, “you can’t expect this club to win all the time.”45
Such zen-like patience, one suspects, was alien to Frank B. Wood’s nature. Certainly, it could earn no baseball fan – past or present – fame.
This biography was reviewed by Norman Macht and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.
In addition to sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed the following sites:
Courtesy of Fulton Postcards (fultonhistory.com)
1 “Charles Wood Obituary,” Troy Semi-Weekly Times, April 10, 1917.
2 “New York Manufacturing News,” Boston Commercial Bulletin, January 13, 1866; “New York Manufacturing News,” Boston Commercial Bulletin, August 28, 1869.
3 For background on the 21st, including Wood’s place on its roster, see “21st Cavalry Regiment,” New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/21stCav/21stCavMain.htm, accessed June 27, 2017.
4 “Married,” Troy Weekly Times, November 3, 1866.
5 “Base Ball,” Jersey Journal, October 14, 1868.
6 “Local Affairs,” Jersey Journal, December 16, 1867.
7 “Base Ball, Etc.,” Jersey Journal, December 15, 1868.
8 “Base Ball,” Jersey Journal, March 14, 1872.
9 For an overview of baseball in this era, see John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 133-157.
10 “Out of Town Notes,” Troy Times, October 18, 1873.
11 For the Panic of 1873’s impact on the brush industry, see “Lansingburgh and Troy,” New York Tribune, November 8, 1873.
12 “State Items,” Trenton State Gazette, February 4, 1873.
13 “A Reporter Gets Thrashed,” Jersey Journal, May 11, 1874.
14 “Thought It Would Be Fun,” Jersey Journal, January 20, 1877.
15 “A Rheumatic Cure,” Jersey Journal, September 1, 1879.
16 “Hoboken Happenings,” Jersey Journal, September 3, 1879.
17 An incomplete listing of these patents: Frank B. Wood. Automatic Electric-Signal-Printing Register. US Patent 252409, dated January 17, 1882. Automatic Electric Signaling Apparatus, US Patent 275006, dated April 3, 1883. Time and Date Stamp. US Patent 303382, dated August 12, 1884. Telegraphic Call-Instrument. US Patent 321073, dated June 30, 1885. Telegraphic Call Box. US Patent 329871, dated November 3, 1885. Telegraph Register. US Patent 338329, dated March 23, 1886. Electric Bell. US Patent 359309, dated March 15, 1887. Method of Electrically Recording Signals. US Patent 420851, dated February 4, 1890. Hotel Indicator. US Patent 454924, dated June 30, 1891. Non-Interfering Successive Signaling System and Apparatus. US Patent 461464, dated October 20, 1891.
18 O.P. Caylor, “New York’s Noted Baseball Crank,” New York Herald, September 10, 1893.
19 David Nemac, ed., Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 1 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 415.
20 “Grand Stand Chat,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 29, 1888.
21 J.F. Donnolly, “Brooklyn Budget,” Sporting Life, August 15, 1891, 9.
23 See “Origin of “Well, well, well. What do we have here,” English Language and Usage, https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/51604/origin-of-well-well-well-what-do-we-have-here, accessed June 27, 2017.
24 “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, July 17, 1889, 4.
25 For game accounts featuring Latham’s antics, see “A Slight Retrogression,” New York Sun, August 14, 1891; “A Queer Accident,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 14, 1891; “Might Have Been Worse,” New York Sun, September 8, 1891.
26 “Made to Pay,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1891.
27 C.F. Mathison, “New York News,” Sporting Life, May 14, 1892, 12. Apparently, it was Giants manager Pat Powers who banned Wood from the park. See “The Opening Will Occur Day After Tomorrow,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 10, 1892.
28 “’Well, Well’ Wood is in Trouble,” New York Sun, November 5, 1892.
29 All quotes from “Baseball Crank.” Also see O.P. Caylor, “Some Famous ‘Fans,’” The Sporting News, September 2, 1893, 1.
32 Caylor’s Wood was captured by the Confederates and spent several months in Libby Prison. Also, after the war, Caylor suggested Wood played a vital role with the birth (and naming) of the Troy Haymakers. Both claims are plausible, but historical documentation seems elusive. Also, contrary to other evidence, Caylor seemed to over-emphasize Wood’s Brooklyn fandom.
33 Joe Vila, “New York News,” Sporting Life, September 23, 1893, 12; Joe Vila, “New York News,” Sporting Life, September 16, 1893, 4.
34 “Base-ball Gossip,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 15, 1893.
35 “Well! Well! Well!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 21, 1893.
36 Vila, “New York News,” September 23, 1893.
37 “Back to His Old Love,” New York World, June 2, 1896.
38 “Town Topics,” Brooklyn Life, July 30, 1898.
39 “The Gleaner’s Budget,” New York World, November 17, 1894; “Ireland Vindicated at the City Hall,” New York Tribune, June 25, 1897; “Annoyed the Chappies,” Pittsburgh Press, December 11, 1896; “A Rooter Arrested,” Pittsburgh Press, June 15, 1899.
40 “’Hard Luck’ Rooter,” New York World, September 6, 1900; “Notes of the Game,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1901; “With the Ball Players,” Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Sentinel, August 1, 1906.
41 “Two New York Teams Battle,” New York World, April 23, 1903.
42 See “Bull Thompson’s Hit,” Washington Post, September 11, 1904. This story was syndicated from the New York Sun.
43 For background on Grey, his connections to baseball, and the story, see John Thorn “Old Well-Well,” Our Game, https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/old-well-well-f2cab42f1e96, accessed June 27, 2017.
45 Heywood Broun, “Old Giant Rooter Hushed by Death,” New York Tribune, December 11, 1914.