ML: Wilbur you came to the Sox on October 12, 1966. Juan Pizarro was the player eventually sent to the Pirates for you. Why don't we start about how you found out about the deal and your reaction to it.
WW: "I actually found out about it from a friend. I was at home and got a call from someone saying they heard it over the radio! I guess it was later in the day that I got a call from the White Sox letting me know about it."
ML: Wilbur your career was floundering with both the Red Sox and the Pirates but then in 1967 suddenly it all turned around. How did that happen? (Author's Note: In 1967 Wilbur appeared in 51 games, with four wins, four saves and an ERA of 2.45.)
WW: "I had spent parts of seven years in the big leagues and as my record showed things weren't going that well. I was signed as a fastball / curve ball pitcher and did very well with those in the minor leagues but they just weren't good enough for the majors. I'd be fine for three or four innings but after that when you went through the batting order once I'd start to get hit. I just decided to junk my curve and everything else and go one hundred per cent with the knuckleball. I had actually thrown that pitch a long time, I actually started using it back in high school and semipro ball. Sometimes I'd still throw a fastball to get the hitters timing off but that was only once in awhile."
ML: Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher were already on the Sox at that time and they threw that pitch a lot. Did they teach you anything about it that you didn't know?
WW: "We'd talk more about the finer points of the pitch. It's funny but all knuckleballers tend to throw the pitch the same way. I recently spoke with Tim Wakefield at a charity golf tournament and he held the pitch the same way I did, which is the same way Hoyt and Eddie did."
ML: How was your knuckleball different from Hoyt's and Eddie's?
WW: "My pitch had a tendency to break down and away from right handed hitters. Eddie's had a tendency to break down and in to them. Hoyt's was unpredictable... when he threw it, it could go all over the strike zone. The wind could change how the pitch was moving as well. The area around home plate in most of the stadiums that I pitched in was where the wind would wind up after it bounced off the stands or in some parks like the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, just come right in and bounce the pitch around. A knuckleball acts by having the wind push against the seams."
ML: I always used to feel sorry for White Sox catchers. Guys like J.C. Martin, Jerry McNertney, Ed Herrmann. It had to be rough trying to catch not one, not two but three different knuckleball pitchers.
WW: "Well remember that the guys who caught us on the Sox and I'd mention Pete Varney as well, they came up through the Sox system and in spring training they'd catch us. In the spring because you have so many pitchers in camp you'd bring in just about every catcher in the organization. So these guys had a chance to see it for three years or so. Then when they made the Sox they were used to it. Now if guys came in from somewhere else like in a trade, and never saw that pitch before, it would be tough."
ML: Hawk Harrelson, the Sox TV announcer recently commented on the fact that he doesn't understand why more pitchers don't try learning that pitch anymore. He mentioned it might really help guys who are struggling or coming off an arm injury. Any thoughts on why the knuckleball has become a 'lost art?' (Author's Note: Among the pitchers who regularly threw the knuckleball during Wood's playing days were Wilhelm, Fisher, Phil and Joe Niekro and Jim Bouton to name a few.)
WW: "See if you are trying to learn the pitch because you've had an injury or so it's to late. I used to get a lot of calls when I was playing from pitchers who got hurt and they'd ask about throwing it. The knuckleball isn't something that's learned overnight. I threw it for years from when I was in high school. It takes that long to get used to it. What major league organization is going to give a pitcher three or four years to master the pitch?"
ML: That 1967 season was the season the Sox almost won the pennant. It's been 38 years but I imagine the disappointment of that final week where the Sox lost all five games to the A's and Senators still remains, at least a part of it.
WW: "That was my first good year in the major leagues and I remember getting caught up in all of it. We were right there until the last week." (Author's Note: The Sox closed the 1967 season with two games in Kansas City and three at home to Washington the worst teams in the league. After sweeping Cleveland that weekend the Sox flew to Kansas City where they were off Monday. Tuesday's game was rained out and they played a double header Wednesday night. The Sox were actually off for three days since they last played Sunday afternoon, unheard of in a pennant race. They lost both games, then were off again Thursday before hosting the Senators. They were beat 1-0 eliminated from the four team race, then played flat and lost both the last Saturday and Sunday.) One thing I particularly remember from 1967 was after Eddie Stanky made those comments about Carl Yastrzemski, we went into Boston and played them in a big series. I think every tomato in the city of Boston was in Fenway Park and when Eddie went out to change pitchers the fans let him have it...and he couldn't dodge them all! I was sitting in the bullpen laughing my ass off watching it." (Author's Note: On June 5th Stanky commented that Yastrezemski "may be an All Star from the neck down, but in my book he's a moody ballplayer. And I don't like moody ballplayers." The Sox then beat Boston two out of three.)
ML: I guess you were a quick study with the knuckleball because by 1970 you were one of the top relief pitchers in all of baseball including your stellar season in 1968. Why do you think you were able to pick up the nuances of that pitch the way you did where others couldn't? (Author's Note: In 1968 Wood led the league with 88 appearances, had thirteen wins, sixteen saves with an ERA of 1.87 for a team that won all of 67 games. He also saved fifteen games in 1969 and twenty one games in 1970.)
WW: "I was fortunate because I was always able to throw strikes with the knuckleball. That was my biggest asset. I was always around the plate. Eddie (Herrmann) never even had to put down a sign, he knew what I was going to throw, I knew what I was going to throw and the fans knew what I was going to throw. In the 70's when Carlton Fisk was with the Red Sox and we'd play them I scream at him from the mound because he'd waste so much time. I yell 'get in the box, I'm throwing a god damn knuckleball not a fastball. You know it!' I mean why prolong the agony right? (laughing)"
ML: The White Sox fell on miserable times in the late 60's and 1970. I think they lost more games in that three year period then at any other time in franchise history. The Sox lost 106 games in 1970. It had to be agony going to the park everyday. I don't know how you guys kept your sanity!
WW: "It was awful. I'll tell you how bad it was. The only games that I ever wanted to come into were games where I could pick up a save. I never wanted to go into games where the score was tied because I knew and everybody on the team knew, that we'd find some way to lose the game. We had no chance. The pitchers knew it and the position players knew it."
ML: Your teammate Joe Horlen told me about his 1971 spring training injury which caused him to miss most of the season. But that's only half of the story because as a direct result of his injury Chuck Tanner began considering the option of making you a starting pitcher. I have heard you were against the move but for the sake of the team decided to give it a try. Why the initial opposition?
WW: "That was a strange situation because even before the injury I was almost traded. It's true..the Sox had a deal in place with Washington. I was going to be traded for Darold Knowles. But I was holding out that year, I was fighting for more money and I never signed a contract. So the trade was null and void. It was pretty apparent that Chuck (Tanner) didn't want me in the bullpen. He wanted hard throwing guys and we had players like Terry Forster and Goose Gossage coming up so I became a starter. Roland Hemond said this one time and it's true, 'sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make.' "
ML: As a pitcher can you talk a little about the differences between starting and coming in to finish games, basically I mean from a preparation standpoint.
WW: "I enjoyed pitching in relief because I knew when I went to the park that there was a chance I'd get in the game. When you are a starting pitcher you pitch, then sit for three or four days. I used to take ground balls in the infield on days when I wasn't pitching just to keep busy and I'd run a little bit but sitting around just wasn't for me."
ML: 1971 was the start of an incredible run of success for you. A lot of folks felt that you should have won the Cy Young Award that season because you threw a very unpredictable pitch, a knuckleball, where Vida Blue, who did win the honor, had a conventional arsenal of pitches. Did you think you had a chance to win the award, and how did you feel about that season? (Author's Note: Wood was magnificent, starting 42 games, with seven shutouts, a save, 334 innings pitched, 210 strikeouts, 22 wins and an amazing ERA of 1.91 He never faced Blue head to head that season. He finished third in the voting behind Blue and the Tigers Mickey Lolich.)
WW: "Honestly I didn't think about the Cy Young back in those days. At the time it wasn't that important to me. Looking back would I have liked to have won it? Sure."
ML: I'd imagine that by the end of the year you were comfortable starting games.
WW: "I was a little apprehensive at first doing this, it was just like before any game, you're always a little nervous but when you start having success you get comfortable and I had success starting right away. I was tickled pink that things turned out the way they did."
ML: The Sox made great strides from the disaster of 1970 to 1971 but heading into the 1972 season did you expect the team to be as good as it was, even with Dick Allen on board?
WW: "I thought in the spring that we'd have a pretty good team because the guys weren't selfish. They did what they had to do to win games. I knew that we'd win games but I didn't know how many. As far as Dick, he made all the difference in the world, he was a tremendous hitter." (Author's Note: That strike shortened season saw the Sox win 87 games and finish five and a half games behind the eventual World Champion A's. Allen would win the league MVP Award and narrowly miss winning the Triple Crown. He finished with a 308 batting average, 37 home runs and 113 RBI's.)
ML: By June 4, 1972, the date of the famous 'Dick Allen Taco Game' against the Yankees, the Sox were an amazing 18-2 at home. As a guy who occasionally gave up some long fly balls, I'd imagine you enjoyed playing in what was a pitchers park. (Author's Note: The game that I was referring to was game #2 of a double header with New York. The Sox won the first game 6-1, then in the nightcap they trailed 4-2 with two on and two out in the 9th inning. Chuck Tanner wanted Allen to pinch hit but he wasn't in the dugout or in the locker room. Dick was found across the street at a taco stand. Running back to the park he wolfed down his snack, getting taco sauce all over his jersey. On the third pitch from Sparky Lyle, Allen blasted a three run game winning home run.)
WW: "Oh absolutely. I loved pitching in Comiskey Park. It had a big outfield and gave you room for a mistake. I'd spin one and a guy would hit it yet most of the time our outfielders were able to run it down because they had the room to get to balls in the gaps."
ML: You were selected for your second All Star game and in this one you actually pitched. How was that experience for you? (Author's Note: In the 1971 game at Detroit neither Wood nor teammate Bill Melton appeared. In the 1972 game in Atlanta, Wilbur pitched two innings allowing one run on two hits with a strikeout as the National League won 4-3 in 10 innings )
WW: "It was a great experience for me. Just a lot of fun. I'd gone the year before but it was a great thrill to actually be able to participate in one of these."
ML: Wilbur you pitched a lot of great games but to me this was your best with the Sox. Let me take you back to Sunday, August 12, 1972 in Oakland. The Sox had cut a seemingly safe A's lead of eight and a half games down to one. You had split the first two games of this huge series and took the mound against Blue Moon Odom. Two hours and forty five minutes later you walked off the mound a 3-1 winner in eleven innings having fired a two hitter. The Sox were now tied for first place in the division. What do you remember from that afternoon? (Author's Notes: First on this game itself...Odom and Wood matched each other pitch for pitch. The game was scoreless until the 9th when Allen led off with a triple and was driven home on a Carlos May sacrifice fly. In the last of the 9th, Wood had two outs when pinch hitter Brant Alyea homered tying the game. Odom left with two outs in the 10th inning. Wood kept going and when Ed Spiezio slammed a two run home run off Rollie Fingers in the 11th it made him the winning pitcher after he closed out Oakland in their half of the frame. It was Wilbur's 20th win of the year. As far as the four game series itself, it may have been the best series in the entire decade! The series began on a Friday night with a game that wound up being suspended due to curfew tied at three. It was picked up on Saturday afternoon and would go nineteen innings before the Sox lost 5-3 on a two run home run from Joe Rudi. In the regularly scheduled game Cub castoff Dave Lemons would out duel Catfish Hunter as he and Cy Acosta combined to hold the A's to two hits and win 1-0. Wood then repeated the feat on Sunday. The Monday game then saw Vida Blue shut out the Sox 3-0 for a split.)
WW: "I'm sorry that I don't remember any more details then when Ed hit the home run. To me even though it meant going into a tie for first place it was 'just another day.' Like I said I'd get a little nervous before the game but once you go to the bullpen and start throwing you get into the flow of the day and forget about everything else."
ML: When I spoke with your catcher and teammate Ed Herrmann he told me that he felt whoever won that series would win the division but that it took so much out of you guys just to get that split that it drained you and Oakland was able to pull away. (Author's Note: The A's won the division by five and a half games.)
WW: "Ed's right. It was draining especially on the position players. In a big series like we had with Oakland a lot is expected of players. It's draining. Plus we had kept knocking on the door that season trying to catch those guys, that becomes draining too. Because we were in a pennant race we had to play our guys every day.. that race was so close you just couldn't give guys time off."
ML: If Bill Melton wasn't lost for the season on June 28th of that year with the herniated disc do the Sox win the West? (Author's Note: Melton, the 1971 American League home run champion fell off his garage roof the previous November getting down his son who somehow wandered up on it. He fell on his back which damaged a disc. Bill went to spring training and played through it the first few months of the year but the condition got worse with pain shooting down his legs because of pressure on a nerve.)
WW: "I don't know if we would have won but I know our chances would have been a hell of a lot better."
ML: You pitched almost 377 innings that year, an astonishing total, with eight shutouts, 24 wins, and an ERA of 2.51. Even though the knuckleball was your primary pitch were you ever concerned about throwing that many innings?
WW: "I didn't think about it that much. I was throwing the ball well, I had been in a groove the entire season. I wanted to give it a shot, I enjoyed it. I also didn't like down time, just sitting around.. so when they said do you want to pitch every second day or third day? I said sure. People said I didn't get sore because 'all' I threw was the knuckleball but that's not true. I'd get stiff and sore and in those days pitchers never used ice. I didn't get as sore as if I was throwing say a slider, because I wasn't putting the pressure on my elbow and shoulder but I did get sore."
ML: Hopes were never higher then in 1973. The Sox were the favorites according to the press, Melton was back and the team got off to a roaring start. By late May the Sox were 26-14 with a three and a half game lead over the Angels. But even before the injuries set in that tore up the team the Sox weren't very happy. G.M. Stu Holcomb's hard line salary policy alienated many guys. Players like Rick Reichardt, Mike Andrews, Jay Johnstone and Ed Spiezio were released when they couldn't come to terms and that decimated the depth of the club. What was the mood in the locker room that season? (Author's Note: The 1973 White Sox used the disabled list 38 times.)
WW: "I don't remember exact instances in the locker room where players got mad but I'm shocked about the number of times we used the disabled list. I didn't realize we used it that often."
ML: As for you personally, an oddity took place on May 28, 1973 when you 'started' the completion of a suspended game against the Indians and then after you won that one, went out and beat them again in the regularly slated game. What was that experience like? (Author's Note: The suspended game began on May 26, 1973 and was halted after 16 inning with the score tied at two. Wilbur came on in the 17th and went five innings allowing one run. The Sox tied the game in the last of the 21st and then won it on Allen's three run home run. In the regularly scheduled game Wood tossed a complete game shutout as the Sox won 4-0. His line for the night...14 innings, one run, seven hits, nine strikeouts. Oh by the way, his record was 13-3 and it wasn't even the start of June yet!)
WW: "When a game goes that long everybody figured that basically it would be over in an inning or two. It was my night to start anyway so I figured I can give them an inning or two. It turned out the game went five innings. I felt fine so I knew I could throw a few more innings at least, so I started the second game. Everything was going well so I just kept going and was able to finish it off."
ML: I don't know if both of these are related or not, perhaps you can shed some light on it. The 1973 Sox were ruined by injuries. It seemed everybody from Brian Downing to Allen to Ken Henderson to Carlos May were hurt. On July 20, 1973 in New York you started both ends of a double header against the Yankees. Was that because of the injuries to the team, perhaps the pitching staff, or did you and Chuck Tanner have something else in mind? (Author's Note: Unfortunately Wood wasn't sharp that day losing both games 12-2 and 7-0. He became the first pitcher to start both ends of a double header since the Dodgers Don Newcombe on September 6, 1950.)
WW: "No that wasn't planned. Chuck was going to start someone else in game two but I got knocked out early in the first game. I told Chuck I didn't pitch much, I can go back out if you need me. Maybe I shouldn't have because they beat me up in the second game too! (laughing) That was strange because I always had good success against the Yankees." (Author's Note: Wilbur failed to record an out in game one giving up four hits and five earned runs. In game two he lasted 4.1 innings again allowing five earned runs.)
ML: Despite the Sox being mediocre in 1973 and 1974 you still won twenty games, running that streak to four straight seasons. You made the All-Star Game again in 1973 but there was something missing from the Sox in those years, it wasn't like in 1971 and 1972. Any idea what went wrong?
WW: "Well the injuries played a big part and overall we were getting older. The team wasn't as young as in 71 and 72."
ML: When Bill Veeck took control of the Sox again in December 1975 he let Tanner go as manager. What was it like to play for Chuck? He seemed to be the exact opposite of your first Sox manager Eddie Stanky.
WW: "Chuck was a players manager. I enjoyed playing for Chuck, we all did. Chuck was the most positive guy I've ever been around. No matter how bad things were going Chuck would always find something to be positive about, something to try to keep you going. In fact Chuck spent more time with guys who were having trouble or in a slump then with guys who were going well. I thought that was really smart. Remember in baseball you only have 25 guys, if two or three guys are down or having a hard time suddenly your roster is really short. Chuck tried to keep everybody ready to play because that gave us a better chance of winning."
ML: In 1976 the Sox arguably weren't any better then the versions from 1974 and 1975 but you personally were off to a great start. Opening Day for example, you shut out the Royals 4-0. By early May of that year you were pitching brilliantly again, you already had five complete games in seven starts, your ERA was less then 2.5 and you had a winning record, when it all came apart in Detroit courtesy of a line drive off the bat of Ron LeFlore. What do you remember about the injury and what was broken?
WW: "Ron hit me in the knee cap with a line drive and it just blew it apart. He swung at a ball using an inside/out swing, that's always the toughest for a pitcher to pick up because it looks like he's pulling the ball. Instead he hit it right back up the middle. I never saw it...I wasn't trying to catch it, I was just trying to get out of the way. Originally the knee cap was wired together to hold it in place. I didn't have a cast. The doctors felt this way it would heal quicker and maybe I could be out there in September. That September I was working out at home trying to get ready to come back when I slipped on the grass and the knee cap went out again. This time they had to put some pins in it to hold it together and I had a cast on, so I was done for the season."
ML: My father had the same type of injury, a broken knee cap and I saw how tough it was for him. Granted he was older then you when he got hurt but given that you were 35 at the time was there any question about coming back for the next season?
WW: "No because I had another year on my contract. I had signed a two year deal with the Sox in 1976 so I was going to come back."
ML: 1977 turned out to be a magical year for the Sox one that is still cherished by Sox fans. Same question as earlier in the interview, was there any indication in the spring that this club would be as good as it turned out to be?
WW: "No, not in spring training but looking back we did have a lot of guys who wanted to play. We had guys like Eric Soderholm coming back from injury and we had a lot of fighters."
ML: You started 18 games that season and pitched some good ones including what I call the Lamar Johnson game on June 19, 1977. (Author's Note: The Sox played the A's in a double header winning both games 2-1 and 5-1 behind Wood and the late Francisco Barrios. Wood started the first game going eight innings allowing six hits. It's called the Lamar Johnson game though because the Sox first baseman / DH sang the National Anthem then went out and got the only three hits the team had. Two of them were solo home runs providing the difference off Mike Norris.) You still had that magic.
WW: "Well maybe, but to tell you the truth I was gun shy. I'll admit it. LeFlore's shot got to me. I pitched everybody inside, I wasn't going to let them get out on the ball and maybe hit another one back up the middle. It's hard to pitch that way."
ML: This team electrified Sox fans because of their ability to pound the baseball and win games in dramatic fashion. Sox fans demanded something that wasn't seen in baseball until then, the curtain call. Adding to it Nancy Faust's rendition of 'Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye' would send the crowd into a frenzy. Some of your teammates have told me that wasn't a big deal, others have said they were uncomfortable with it because they felt opponents were being shown up. What were your feelings on all this? (Author's Note: The 1977 White Sox were known as the 'South Side Hit Men,' setting a club record for that time with 192 home runs. They had nine players with ten or more home runs. They would end the season in third place with a 90-72 mark.)
WW: "You would have to put me in with the group that was uncomfortable with all that. I always had a saying, 'don't wake up sleeping dogs.' Let em' stay quiet and leave town with a 5-4 loss. They'd say 'well we played a good game and if we made one play we would have won it.' Don't wake them up, let them go home happy. Of course you see it more now but back then it was a different story."
ML: The season ended to quickly for Sox fans as the team couldn't keep up with an unbelievable Kansas City surge (Author's Note: The Royals went 35-4 from the period between August 17 and September 25 including a 16 game winning streak between August 31 and September 15!). When the Sox lost both Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble to free agency everyone knew the magic was gone. The team was pretty bad in 1978 but you still had a respectable season going 10-10 for a team that only won 71 games. When did you decide it was time to retire?
WW: "In September 1978 the Sox traded me to Milwaukee but I didn't want to go. I'm sure that bothered the folks in Milwaukee but I figured that I'd try the free agent market that off season and see what happened. Well I wasn't offered a uniform by anybody! That was the end of it. It was time, like I said I wasn't myself. I was gun shy since the LeFlore hit."
ML: How about life after baseball Wilbur. Weren't you in the pharmaceutical sales business for a number of years and what else did you do?
WW: "I started out by owning a retail fish market. It wasn't that great and I wound up selling the business. Then I got a job in the pharmaceutical sales business. It was a friend of a friend type situation. I did pretty well in it and worked for this company for oh eleven or twelve years. Then they downsized and I was out of a job, in fact the company doesn't even exist anymore. Now I'm working for Carolina Medical Company. It's a very good job, and a good company. I do my business over the phone, I have the Chicago area for example. We sell directly to businesses."
ML: You were named by the fans as a member of the White Sox 'All Century Team' a few years ago. How did you get the news and what was your reaction?
WW: "Roland Hemond gave me a call to let me know about it. Then that summer we made the trip to Chicago. It was a great honor, thanks be to the knuckleball that made it all possible! (laughing)
ML: Finally you spent twelve years in a Sox uniform. This is going to be hard but how about summing up your time for me on the South Side and those fantastic years.
WW: "I was fortunate. I spent twelve very pleasurable years in Chicago. We had some decent years, granted we never won a championship, but more often then not we were in the hunt for it. Those are the seasons where you start playing in April and you look around and realize it's September already. You ask yourself, 'where did it all go?' Those are the years that I had the most fun and that I'll remember."