Remembering Former Detroit Tiger Jake Wood

TOUCHING ALL THE BASES: Jake Wood, a Tiger from the 1960s, sparks some diamond-bright memories for one stalwart fan
Photograph Courtesy of Richard Bak

Basking in the warm summer glow of our Detroit Tigers, who last year captured their first American League Central Division flag since — well, since ever — and this season added the powerful, prodigal Prince to their lineup, spring expectations at the corner of Montcalm and Witherell were seldom higher. Loud, rapturous fans jam Comerica Park every time the gates open. Tigers merchandise leaps off shelves. Kid Rock may decide to tattoo an Old English “D” on his other arm.

Ted Nugent had a name for this phenomenon more than 35 years ago: cat scratch fever.

Me, I’ve loved the Tigers even when the Tigers weren’t cool (2003, 1996 and 1975, for instance). And anytime I’m privileged to be inside Comerica’s spacious confines, my attire seldom varies. I’m in shorts or jeans, a baseball cap with some variation of the Old English “D” emblazoned proudly on the front, and wearing what may be my most prized article of clothing: an immaculate white Tigers home jersey (half of “baseball’s tuxedo,” as Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe and countless others have described Detroit’s uniform over the decades) and a prominent number “2” on the back.

It’s the name embroidered above that number, however, that generates the greatest amount of comment: WOOD. No, former Chicago Cubs great Kerry Wood never has thrown so much as a hanging slider on behalf of Detroit’s American League franchise, and I’m not waging a one-man campaign against adopting aluminum bats in the major leagues. Old-timers usually make the connection instantly — often, regrettably, as they’re standing in line behind me in the men’s room.

“Hey, is that Jake Wood?” they ask. I affirm it is, we exchange a few pleasantries, wax rhapsodically about the Tigers teams of the ’60s.

Adorning your replica jersey with the name of a vintage player has distinct advantages. Current players have the potential downside of being injured, cut, traded, or demoted. I long admired the athleticism and determination of Brandon INGE, but it would have felt creepily uncomfortable to flaunt his uniform number last summer while Inge toiled in Toledo — let alone this year. How deep in the closet are those GRANDERSON tops now that Curtis is patrolling center field for the hated Yankees? With personalized Detroit jerseys running $194.99 and higher, pledging fan allegiance to an active ballplayer can be a costly gamble.

But why, you’re asking, choose WOOD over HORTON, FIDRYCH, LOLICH, or any of the 2,000 or so boys of summer who have represented our town? Jacob “Jake” Wood Jr. was the starting Tigers second baseman from 1961 to 1963 and a member of the Bengals’ roster until he was traded to Cincinnati 13 games into the 1967 season, missing Detroit’s ’68 World Series hysteria by that much. A lanky, whippet-quick infielder, he led the league in triples his rookie season. (And also, unfortunately, in strikeouts.)

Why commemorate a career .250 hitter by parading his name between my shoulder blades on game days? Well, there’s a per-letter charge to have names stitched on the backs of replica jerseys, so WOOD is a far more sensible Tigers honoree than, say, TRACEWSKI. But it goes far deeper than that.

I wear it as a tribute to my late mother.

On June 6, 1958 — fully 11 years after Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s color barrier — the Tigers became the second-to-last team in the major leagues to integrate, preceding only the Boston Red Sox. Walter O. Briggs Sr., who owned the Tigers in that era, made it clear his team would never sign a black player while he was in control, telling confidants he wanted his Tigers to remain as lily white as their home uniforms. Even though Briggs died in 1952, his estate, which maintained ownership until the team was sold in 1957, apparently was intent on respecting his wishes. The following season, the Tigers traded for a utility player from the Dominican Republic named Ozzie Virgil.

None of these developments was lost on my mother, Caribell, who relocated to Michigan with my father in the ’40s from Georgia, where she thrilled to the diamond exploits of the Atlanta Crackers. Mom loved baseball. She loathed the Tigers, for their intransigence to integrate the franchise sooner, and with every passing season her anger increased.

My mom, a caring, compassionate fireplug of a woman, also had the capacity to curse like a drunken carney worker, and she saved much of her invective for any time a Tigers game was broadcast on its regional TV network. She certainly could hold a grudge. Her ire was eased ever so slightly, however, when Wood was called up from the minors in 1961. Even today, a full half-century later, I have a distinct memory of watching Wood taking his lead from first base on a black-and-white screen as my mother cheered, “There he go! Jake Wood! He ’bout to go!”

We celebrated his every accomplishment, because he looked like us and wore the home colors. Wood wasn’t from some foreign island; he was from Jersey. And he holds the distinction of being the first African-American player developed through the Tigers farm system to actually make the big club.

Last year, during a trip to Michigan on behalf of the Tigers, Wood, now 75 and still playing in a seniors softball league in Pensacola, Fla., said that like so many other ballplayers of color at that time, all he ever wanted was a chance. “Looking back, I saw many guys who were far more talented than me, but the opportunity never presented itself to them,” Wood told the Grand Rapids Press.

There is another Jake Wood of note today, the British comic who provides the voice of the gecko in those Geico insurance commercials. For me, however, there always will be only one. And how fitting that his uniform number should have been “2.” In my life, God is No. 1. My mother is 2. I, along with Jake and countless others, rank third. Each time I don my cherished Tigers jersey, every fiber seems to caress me with warm memories of my mother … my very own angel in the outfield.

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