Remembering Detroit Tiger Trailblazer Jake Wood

As the second to the last American League team to break the color barrier, when the Detroit Tigers debuted Dominican Republic native Ozzie Virgil on June 6, 1958, suffice it to say that the organization was not exactly loaded with men of color.

It would take another three years before a black player signed by Detroit and brought up through the team’s minor league system became a regular starter.

And that man was rookie second baseman Jake Wood who quickly became a popular Tiger in 1961 after helping Detroit nearly steal a pennant from the New York Yankees.

Racism in Baseball’s Minor Leagues

Signed by the Tigers in 1957, Wood played four seasons in the minors with six different teams, and for five of them the speedster hit over .300.

As a black man, Wood experienced first-hand the pain of racism and segregation.

At the Lakeland training camp, the black players stayed at the Tigertown facility while the white players stayed in hotels.

Until the early ‘60’s black players could not eat or live in certain sections of Lakeland and the stands at Henley Field, the forerunner of Joker Marchant Stadium, had designated sitting areas and separate restrooms for blacks.

When I interviewed Wood for a Detroit Free Press article in 2008, he also told me that some of the coaches were prejudiced.

“When I was switched to second base from shortstop, no coach gave me any instruction. But Reno Bertoia, to his credit, showed me some footwork. Reno and Paul Foytack were the two teammates who really tried to help me.”

When the Tigers broke camp in 1961, two of their starters were black. Centerfielder Billy Bruton acquired from the Braves, and Wood, whose double play partner was Chico Fernandez from Cuba.

Wood made his debut in the season opener on April 11th at newly renamed Tiger Stadium.

Batting leadoff, the second baseman went 1 for 4 but collected his first major league with a two run, seventh inning homer off of Jim Perry in the 9-5 loss to the Indians.  

As it happened, Wood’s 1961 season would be the best of his seven-year career.

In the American League, Wood led the league in triples with 14; ranked third in stolen bases (30); sixth in hits with 171 (only Norm Cash 193 and Al Kaline 190 had more on the Tigers); and second in games played (162).  However, Wood also set an American League record by striking out 141 times. He batted .258 with 11 home runs and 69 RBIs.

Remembering my First Game at Tiger Stadium

One of the best memories from my very first game at Tiger Stadium was as a seven-year-old on July 7, 1962 sitting in the lower deck reserved section near first base, and seeing Wood steal his 20th base of the season in the bottom of the first inning. After taking a nice lead off of first, the crowd had yelled in unison, “Go, go, go !”  (Wood went 3 for 5 in the game and Norm Cash hit two homers, but the Tigers lost 7-6)

Wood remained the starting second baseman through most of the 1962 and 1963 seasons, but after the Tigers acquired second baseman Jerry Lumpe from Kansas City as part of the big Rocky Colavito trade in November 1963, the New Jersey native became a utility infielder, pinch hitter, and pinch runner.

In late May of the 1967 season Wood was optioned to Toledo and a month later he was sold to the Cincinnati Reds where he played in 16 games and batted .188. Although he was sold to Cleveland in October of that year, he would never play in the majors again. Wood finished his baseball career after playing for the Triple A Portland Beavers in 1968 and the following year for Double A Montgomery in the Tigers organization.

Willie Horton has told me that if it wasn’t for Jake Wood coming up through the Tigers’ organization he probably would not have signed with Detroit and recalled being allowed to skip school once in 1961, so he could see Wood play.

Horton was later instrumental in seeing that Jake Wood was honored at Comerica Park during African American Weekend.

Wood, 85, lives in Pensacola, Florida. Into his late seventies was still playing in  numerous softball tournaments.