Here lies Jimmy Wood, an early baseball star and one of the organizers of Chicago’s first-ever professional baseball team. His playing career might have lasted a good bit longer if not for an unfortunate attempt at home surgery. Wood played in the National Association for the Chicago White Stockings (1871), Troy Haymakers (1872), Brooklyn Eckfords (1873) and Philadelphia Whites (1874).
Per Baseball Reference, James Leon Wood was born on December 1, 1843, in Brooklyn. However, his place of birth was listed as Canada on multiple U.S. Census reports. Both his parents were English. By 1860, he lived in Brooklyn with his father, John. John Wood worked as an engineer, and Jimmy was an apprentice machinist. By his own account, Wood was playing ball with the Eckfords of Brooklyn by 1859. “I began playing as a second baseman and continued there [i.e., at second base] barring one year until I finished my active diamond career in 1875,” Wood wrote, with some assistance from journalist Frank Menke.
Wood lived long enough to record a mini-memoir of his playing career, which ran as a serial in newspapers in 1916. Those stories have been helpfully transcribed by MLB historian John Thorn, so you can read Wood’s own account of his life with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6. It is worth keeping in mind that, by the time Wood laid out his life story, he was in his 70s, and not every recollection may be 100% accurate.
The 1862 Eckfords conquered the Atlantics and were crowned the champions, according to The National Game by A.H. Spink. That 1862 squad featured Wood at second base and other talent like Al Reach, Ed Duffy, Josh Snyder and Marty Swandell, all of whom would become National Association players. As a teenager, Wood didn’t play in every game, nor did he always play second base. But he was praised for his fielding skill, whether at second base or the outfield, when he did get into a game. Of the early box scores and game recaps that are available, Wood is credited with a home run in a 27-11 win over the Union Club on August 29, 1862. The Eckfords were undefeated in 1863 and repeated as champions, but they started losing their players to other teams, and the Atlantics became the dominant team in New York, not losing a game in 1864 or ’65.
Wood apparently left the team after the 1864 season, and he may have had a very good excuse departing. He married Sarah Perrine on June 15, 1865, in Washington County, Ohio. They went on to have two children, Carrie Lee Wood (1866) and James Wood Jr. (1869). Wood returned to the Eckfords in 1868 and hadn’t lost a step, according to newspaper accounts. “Wood was Captain and played in his old tip-top style, capturing five players on fly balls handsomely taken,” reported The Brooklyn Eagle on a game against the Athletics on June 5, 1868. Wood’s team showed off its improved roster in a 60-3 pounding, and the team finished with a 23-12 record.
The Eckfords were 47-8 in 1869, but even that great team was beaten multiple times by the new Cincinnati Red Stockings, an openly professional team organized by Harry Wright. The Red Stockings traveled across the country and didn’t lose once. The beat the Eckfords in Cincinnati on August 16 by a score of 45-18, for example. The city of Chicago, not to be outdone, put an ad in the New York papers seeking professional ballplayers for their own pro team. Wood saw it and was intrigued.
There are at least a couple of variations of what happened next. Wood, in his 1916 memoirs, said that he wrote team organizer Tom Foley, who ran a billiard parlor in Chicago and is not to be confused with the Tom Foley who played for the 1871 White Stockings. Foley wrote back appointing Wood team captain and giving him free reign to recruit the best ballplayers, and damn the costs. Al Spink, writing in 1927, said that John Wood, Jimmy’s father, got in touch with Tom Foley, and used his own money as an advance for signing players. The elder Wood eventually had to travel to Chicago himself to get his expenses reimbursed by Foley, but they accomplished their mission. The White Stockings, with Wood at second base and early stars like Levi Meyerle, Ned Cuthbert, Fred Treacy and Bill Craver, looked primed to beat any competition. The only player Wood said he couldn’t sign was a young Candy Cummings, alleged future inventor of the curveball.
Wood had the team train in New Orleans in the spring of 1871 and demolished the locals in games. He wrote that the White Stockings once faced a team with 18 players on the field, and Chicago still won. They faced stiffer competition up north. “Our first real game in the north was against the crack Rockford (Ill.) team — the club on which Adrian Anson and A. G. Spalding got their start,” Wood wrote. “The Rockford people backed their team heavily in the betting that preceded that game — but we swamped them. We scored 14 runs in the first inning and after the fifth inning were so far ahead that I gave my boys orders to take it easy, and by that additional victory set Chicago further aflame with baseball enthusiasm.”
Wood’s White Stockings struggled against the veteran New York teams. The team also suffered what was thought to be the first shutout in baseball history, losing to the New York Mutuals in Chicago by a score of 9-0 on July 23. For years afterwards, a team that was shut out was frequently referred to as “being Chicagoed” in the papers. But the team was ready for the big showdown against the Cincinnati Reds. The two teams met in Cincinnati on September 7, 1870, and to the shock of the city, Chicago won 10-6. According to Wood, it was the first time Cincinnati ever lost a home game. And the fans were not happy. “When the last out was made we dashed for the exits and jumped into our carriages,” Wood wrote. “As we ran across the field many of us were struck with stones and bottles. The frenzied Ohioans pursued us even after we had entered our hacks, pelting us with rocks until our horses had distanced them.”
The second game was played at Chicago’s Dexter Park Race Course on October 13. Wood wrote that 27,000 tickets had been sold for $1 each but that enough people broke through the fences that the actual attendance was more than 50,000. Cincinnati got off to a big lead, but Chicago rallied and held on to win 16-13. Those and other losses may have helped doom the Cincinnati Red Stockings, because the team folded operations later that year.
The 1871 Chicago White Stockings moved into a new ballpark, Lake Front Grounds on Lake Street and Michigan Ave. They, along with eight other teams, formed the very first professional baseball league, the National Association. There are a lot of issues with the league regarding quality of play and length of schedule, and some places, like MLB.com, don’t even recognize it as a “major league.” But for all the lawlessness and slipshoddery in the NA, it did exist, and we have pretty comprehensive statistics for it. For the first time, we have some idea of what kind of ballplayer Wood was. The conclusion is, he was very, very good.
Wood was 27 years old in 1871, making him one of the older ballplayers in the league. But in his 28 games, he slashed .378/.425/.563, for an OPS of .988 and an OPS+ of 174. He was second in the league with 18 stolen bases, and his 1.8 WAR was second-best among all position players. Wood was also, far and away, the best second baseman in the league. He led the NA in games at second base (28), putouts (105), assists (83) and fielding percentage (.887). The White Stockings finished in third place with a 19-9 record and were ultimately defeated by… The Chicago Fire. The fire burned down a large portion of the city from October 8-10, including the White Stockings’ new ballpark and all its equipment. Wood, as the team’s manager, borrowed enough equipment to have the team play a handful of games on the East Coast to finish off the season, but the team then dropped out of the league.
There were plenty of highlights for White Stockings rooters before calamity struck the city. The team was in danger of being shut out by Washington Olympics pitcher Asa Brainard on May 19 and went to the ninth inning losing 4-0. With one out, Charlie Hodes walked, and Wood slammed a single to right, sending Hodes to third. Wood stole second, Joe Simmons reached on an error by Washington third baseman Fred Waterman, and Fred Treacy singled in two runs. Chicago loaded the bases on another Waterman error, and Ed Pinkham tied the game with a double. The White Stockings ended up with 9 runs, and Wood doubled in his second at-bat of the inning. The Olympics tried to rally in the bottom half of the inning, but Wood caught a pop fly from Charlie Sweasy and doubled up Doug Allison at first base for a game-ending double play. Chicago won, 9-7. The Chicago Tribune credited Wood and Pinkham for the dramatic victory. “The former played through the entire game without an error, and he showed only one case of questionable judgment in directing his team,” the paper said of Wood.
With Chicago baseball out of business for the time being, Wood signed with the Haymakers of Troy, N.Y., for 1872, and he assembled an impressive team, including third baseman Davy Force and catcher Doug Allison. He also brought along ex-White Stockings Charlie Hodes, Michael “Bub” McAtee and pitcher George Zettlein. Wood hit .336 with 11 doubles and a couple of home runs. He led the team with 26 runs batted in and was tied with Force for the lead in runs scored with 40. As the team’s manager, Wood brought Troy to Chicago early in the season for an extended “homestand” of sorts. He meant to bring the team back to Chicago in September, but the Haymakers didn’t last that long. They beat Boston 17-10 in their final game and disbanded shortly afterwards. The players hadn’t been paid in a month, and the team’s treasury was empty. Wood landed on his feet, joining the Eckfords of Brooklyn and bringing several of his ballplayers with him. Brooklyn needed the help. The team had lost all 11 games under previous manager Jim Clinton. Wood didn’t have much luck himself, as the Eckfords won just 3 of 18 games under his leadership and folded after the season. It was the team’s only year as a professional ballclub. Wood batted under .200 in 7 games as the team’s second baseman.
Wood started 1873 out of professional baseball, but he was coerced back into the game when Bob Addy, second baseman of the Philadelphia club, retired due to his off-the-field business interests. Wood joined the team as second baseman and manager on May 19. He hit .321 with 67 runs scored and 9 stolen bases, as Philadelphia finished second in the NA with a 36-17 record. However, his baseball plans for 1874 didn’t involve Philadelphia. As early as mid-August, while the season was still going on, the Tribune had reported that the Chicago White Stockings were going to resume play in 1875, and Wood was to be a big part of the team.
The newspaper announced that Nick Young was to serve as manager (really the business manager), and Wood was to be the team captain (field manager) and second baseman. “Harry Wright and James Wood are the only two good Captains among professional ball-players. The others lack judgment, are quick-tempered or have some other disqualifications,” the paper reported. “James Wood, or as the boys say, ‘Jimmy,’ is to be the Captain of the Chicago. He will also guard the second base, a position in which he has no superiors and but one equal, viz: [Ross] Barnes. Jimmy is an old ‘Eckford’ player, beginning with Dickie Pearce, [Jim] Creighton (who was the first swift pitcher) and Harry Wright.”
It wasn’t to be. When the season began in 1874, Wood was confined to his bed with a leg injury. The story, as reported in the July 11, 1874, edition of the Chicago Inter Ocean, is as follows: “Some time ago, a little abscess formed itself on his left thigh, and Jimmy, not thinking the services of a physician requisite, opened it with a pocketknife. Unfortunately, before clasping the blade, with the poison of the abscess on it, the knife fell from his hands, and the point of the blade entered his right leg just below the knee.” Within days, the leg became stiff and bent, and doctors attempted to correct the injury in July. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t like descriptions of 19th-Century surgery.
“About 1:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon Doctors A. Reeves Jackson, Gunn and Bevan repaired to the residence of Captain Wood, and after putting him under the influence of ether, proceeded to straighten the leg, and then to keep it in place by the use of splints. The attempt was not successful, for hardly had the doctors got half-way through the assumed task before the bone broke, cutting an artery. The artery was immediately secured, and upon investigation it was found that the bone below the knee was decayed and diseased. There was only one way left to save the victim’s life, and the leg was amputated just above the knee.”
One slip of a knife ended the career of one of the game’s greatest early second basemen. Though he played for almost 15 years, we only have 3 seasons of statistics from Wood’s time in the National Association, totaling 102 games. He slashed .332/.365/.467, with 33 doubles, 12 triples and 3 home runs among his 162 hits. He scored 162 times and drove in 82 runs. He stole 28 bases and drew 25 bases on balls as well. His play at second base had few peers. He had a career fielding percentage of .871 and was among the top three fielders at second base in each of his seasons. Bear in mind that he was playing without a glove, with primitive baseballs and un-manicured infields. The average fielding percentage of second baseman in the NA in those same years was .827, by comparison. It was also said that, as a manager/captain, he was second only to Harry Wright and that his tactics and style were later copied by many of the era’s other managers, like Cap Anson and Mike McGeary.
The White Stockings played a benefit exhibition game for Wood on July 30. Chicago and the opposing Brooklyn Atlantics experimented with a tenth fielder, a “right shortstop” in the game. Wood came back to lead the team toward the end of the season and held the position for all of 1875, but Chicago was no more than an average team for those seasons. Wood’s career as a manager ended after the 1875 season. “I found during that 1875 season that the managerial end of the game was a bit too strenuous for a man in my condition, and I hung up my uniform when the last game was played — never to don it again,” he wrote at the conclusion of his memoirs. He had a 105-99 record as a manager.
Baseball was changing by then. The National Association was on the way out, as Chicago president William Hulbert was determined to create a league with a better infrastructure. The National League began operations in 1876, and the reformed Chicago White Stockings were one of the best teams for the first decade or so. Wood was around 30 going into the 1874 season, and it’s not inconceivable that he could have played at a high level for several more years. Given the short seasons of the NA and the early years of the NL, it’s doubtful that he could have ever built up a Hall of Fame playing career. But a few more years as a player might have given him more recognition today as a baseball pioneer and an early star. Not to mention the man who helped to put together the first Chicago White Stockings – now known as the Chicago Cubs – team.
Wood umpired a couple of games in the National League’s inaugural 1876 season, and several teams and newspapers urged him to make it a full-time job. Instead, he remained in Chicago, organizing baseball tournaments and umpiring local games. His full-time job was a saloon keeper, according to the 1880 U.S. Census. He also bought an orange plantation and a cottage not far from Jacksonville, Fla., and lived there for a couple of years before returning to Chicago. He briefly managed a Memphis ballclub in 1888, but the team folded in July. The ballclub had been assembled by amateur businessmen, and not even Wood and his managerial acumen could make it profitable. He spent a couple more years in Memphis with his hand-picked team until the league folded. Wood partnered in 1891 with the recently retired White Stockings third baseman Ed Williamson and opened a tavern called the Baseball Wigwam, located on Dearborn St. near Madison. In its time, it was said to be the hangout of choice for baseball fans. They operated the business until Williamson’s death in 1894. Wood remained in Chicago for a few more years, where he had stories from 40 years of baseball history to share.
Wood outlived his immediate family. His wife Sarah died from typhoid fever in Chicago on December 11, 1893, and she is buried there. Carrie Lee Wood married William Chase Temple, a prominent businessman and one-time president of the Pittsburgh Allegheneys baseball club. He commissioned and donated the Temple Cup, which served as a championship trophy for the National League for several years in the 1890s. He died in 1917, and Carrie died on June 11, 1924, at the age of 58. They are buried in Palm Harbor, Fla. James Wood Jr. was a railroad clerk and lived in Memphis before he and his family moved to New Orleans. He died at the age of 54 on January 16, 1923.
Wood didn’t let his advancing age or his one leg slow him down. He lived in Florida with his daughter for a time, then he moved to Manhattan. He eventually settled in Florida and kept up correspondence with the few remaining baseball notables of his era, like Foley and Spink.
Al Spink in 1927 reported that he had received a letter from Jimmy Wood in Florida. The old ballplayer had lost his eyesight was but was otherwise healthy. That notice, in a syndicated column from June, was the last report of Wood and his whereabouts. He was a “missing” ballplayer for decades, and it took some modern-day research to determine what had happened. SABR researcher Peter Morris located Wood’s death certificate in 2006, because the assumption was that Wood had died somewhere on the East Coast. Nobody thought to look on the other coast. Wood had died in San Francisco on November 30, 1927. He was 83 years and 364 days old. The story is that he traveled west for cataract surgery, though an earlier letter from Wood to Spink said that he planned to travel to California and visit some old friends.
Wood is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans. He is supposedly buried next to his son, but online cemetery records indicate that the only two occupants of the grave are Jimmy Woods and Dorothea Miller, who is of an unknown relation to the Woods and died in 1929. The plot itself is marked “Wood-Miller,” and there is no gravestone indicating who is buried there.