When Wilbur Wood pitched in the major leagues, his signature was
a knuckleball that left hitters shaking their heads as they
walked back to the dugout. Wood's signature since leaving
baseball in 1978 has been, well, his signature. "They say to me,
'Are you Wilbur Wood the ballplayer?'" says Wood, 60, of the
doctors he schmoozes in his current job as a pharmaceutical
salesman for Carolina Medical in suburban Boston. "Then they
want an autographed picture. I wait a couple of days and bring
it to their office. And I'm back in the door again."
As a 17-year major league veteran, Wood knows a thing or two
about making a pitch. A knuckleballer from the start, the
lefthanded Wood took awhile to hone his craft. Signed in 1960 by
his hometown Red Sox, he spent 3 1/2 seasons working out of the
bullpen for Boston and another 1 1/2 with the Pittsburgh Pirates
before being traded to the Chicago White Sox, with whom he came
under the tutelage of knuckleball master Hoyt Wilhelm.
His knuckler nuanced, Wood continued as a reliever, leading the
American League in games for three consecutive years (1968-70)
before earning a starter's role. He won 164 games in his career,
including 20 or more in each season from 1971 through '74. In
each of those years he pitched more than 300 innings, and in '72
and '73 he led the league with 24 wins. In May 1976 a line drive
off the bat of the Detroit Tigers' Ron LeFlore shattered his left
kneecap, and led to two operations and countless hours of
rehabilitation. "I was a little gun-shy," says Wood of his return
the next season, when he went 7-8 in 123 innings. "I didn't want
the ball coming back over the middle again."
After a mediocre 1978 season, Wood retired from baseball. He
headed home and spent the next year fishing, which led to his
buying Meister's Seafood, a Belmont, Mass., fish market. After
five years of doing everything from filleting salmon to sweeping
floors, he sold the business and set out to establish his next
career. Says Wood, "Being a ballplayer or being a salesperson,
you have to sell yourself."
Wood sold a friend on giving him a chance in pharmaceutical
sales, and he proved a natural. These days he has cut back on his
hours to spend more time with his wife of 10 years, Janet, and
his three children and three grandchildren. He still enjoys
cooking, gardening and "watching a good ball game," though he
laments the ascendancy of the fireballing reliever. "Today," says
Wood, "a lot of managers don't like a trick pitcher."
It seems safe to say, though, that in any era, Wood would have
made his mark.
--Tim Alan Smith
success was still all in the delivery.