By Greg Burud — 3/9/2011
Fifty years later, he’s still got it. Five decades ago, Jake Wood became the first African-American from the Tigers’ farm system to play for Detroit. Today, the 73-year-old donned his Tiger’s cap and took the field once more. This time, Wood wasn’t playing second base. He was the pitcher. Wood threw out the ceremonial first pitch in honor of the Tigers’ 75th Spring Training in Lakeland. That wasn’t all that’s changed for Wood over the last fifty years. Spring Training has evolved as well. “They’ve got all kinds of equipment to strengthen the guys and we didn’t have that,” said Wood. “The field, the preparation, the strength coaches, and just the atmosphere itself is a lot different from fifty years ago. For any young man, any person, that gets involved with baseball I say, how can you not love this?”
In 1961, the Detroit Tigers traded Frank Bolling to the Milwaukee Braves. That left an opening at second base for Wood and he was invited to Spring Training. He knew that if he worked hard enough and capitalized on the opportunity, he could make the Major League club. He impressed and made the team.
The 2011 edition of the Tigers has yet to decide on a starting second baseman. Wiil Rhymes and Scott Sizemore are the frontrunners for the spot. Even though Wood is nearly three times as old, he advises each of them to take the same approach he did in Spring Training. “Be mentally prepared. In any aspect of life, when you look at people who succeed it’s [mental]. When the time comes, be ready and let the chips fall where they may.”
Despite his age, Wood hasn’t lost his hunger for competition. He was once known for his speed. Wood stole thirty bases in his rookie season. He still finds a use for his quick feet. Wood plays in national softball tournaments and also dabbles in racquetball. “I tell guys when they see me, they’re amazed that I’m trim. I can do certain things,” said Wood. “I have four trainers. We play constantly. Any person, when you remain active, you get results.”
The ceremonial first pitch is one of the most unfairly scrutinized moments in sports. Wood wanted to make sure he didn’t embarrass himself. “All I want to do is reach the catcher, because I’ve seen some guys come in and throw the first pitch. They bounce the ball halfway or they throw it in the dirt. I want to reach the catcher with some speed on it.” Wood didn’t have to worry. Just as he did in 1961, he came through.
You can watch our unedited interview with Jake Wood here: