Smoky Joe Wood

Smoky Joe Wood, who Walter Johnson called the fastest pitcher in baseball when Wood won 34 games in 1912, looks over the Red Sox 'Dream Team' on his front porch in New Haven on August 18, 1982. (Associated Press / August 17, 1982)

The gruff, old man's voice on the other end of the line fit perfectly with the pictures I had seen. "Sure, come on over," he said.

When is the best time to … "Right now! Come on over!"

Howard Ellsworth Wood was the owner of that voice, and a good deal more. He lived to be 95, and has been gone nearly 28 years, yet he is still known everywhere baseball is known and loved as "Smoky Joe" Wood.

I hung up the phone in dumb amazement. It was July 16, 1981, and for a couple of nerdy teenagers, a largely joyless summer with baseball on strike, suddenly became somewhat magical. I was 19, just finished with my freshman year as a journalism major at Southern Connecticut, and John Mooney, who lived around the block, was 17, and all we talked about that summer was baseball. Not present day, because there was none, but baseball from 70 years before, the "dead-ball" era. We had both read Lawrence Ritter's brilliant book, "The Glory of Their Times," and I would go to the New Haven library, which had a remarkable collection of old magazines, and copy stories about Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, et al. And from a recent column by Bill Ryan in the New Haven Journal-Courier, I learned that the great Joe Wood, Red Sox hero of 1912, lived in the Westville section of New Haven.

The Moon Man and I were both pestering our way onto this baseball talk show on WYBC, the Yale radio station, on Sunday nights, where an incredible patient host named Bob Amato indulged us, and we got this idea to get ourselves some more air time: Let's interview Smoky Joe Wood.

Being the young, intrepid, enterprising reporter, I looked him up in the phone book. There was a Wood, Joe, on Marvel Road. My father, who sorted mail, assured me that was in Westville. It was him, it had to be. So I called.

There were no telemarketers then, no caller ID. He answered the phone, listened to my pitch and said, "Sure, come on over … right now."

We jumped in my 1962 Studebaker Hawk – I told you, we were nerdy – and drove across the city to Marvel Road to see the old man sitting on his front porch, on a lawn chair, waiting for us. We spent a hot July evening chatting about his incredible career, the incredible names he knew as teammates and fellow ballplayers. "You'll want to see this," I remember him saying, and he ducked inside and came out with a gold pocket watch, inscribed to him, in appreciation of his pitching exploits in 1912. It was given to him, he said, by the mayor of Boston, "Honey Fitz," whose grandson John F. Kennedy became the 35th President.

Then The Moon Man started his tape recorder, he and I recorded this hokey introduction, me trying to sound like Howard Cosell, and we took turns asking The Legend, three months shy of his 92nd birthday, the silly, obvious questions teenagers would ask. He patiently answered them all, at one point saying, "Don't worry about the time, boys, I have nowhere to go."

The 15-minute interview played that week on the show, I think. Then we moved on with life. John Mooney and I lost touch after college, he went into public relations in New York and me, well, you know what became of me. Then a few years ago, our paths crossed. He was doing PR as a freelancer for a baseball writers' hangout in New York called Foley's, on 33rd street, and I was a baseball writer. We caught up after a New York Chapter BBWAA dinner and he swore to me he had the tape of that interview. … Somewhere. … In his basement.

Every so often, I bugged him to look for it. What a thing to have had last year, for the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. In 1912, the year Fenway opened, Smoky Joe went 34-5 for the Red Sox and won three more games in the World Series. Mike Vaccaro was writing a book about the 1912 Series, "The First Fall Classic," and I would have loved for him to hear it before his book, which was wonderful, was published.

But no tape was found — until Mooney decided to really clean his basement over the holidays. He sent the following email in January:

"I found the tape."

I got my hands on a machine that would play a cassette, still on sale at Radio Shack, and we met at Foley's on Feb. 25. Would it be exploring the Titanic? Or opening Al Capone's vault? Only one way to find out. We played the tape, cringed at our intro as a couple of our friends laughed, and then my first question, asking him to name his most memorable game, was met with "they're all alike." … Dead air. … Brilliant. Wood wouldn't talk, for some reason, about his famous pitching duel with Walter Johnson on Sept. 6, 1912, no matter how hard I tried. "Yeah, that was a good one," was all he said.

But he warmed up and on he went.

"I got a bunch of pictures here," he said, calling to Virginia, a woman looking after him, to get them. "I have not seen them before by anybody except my own son. They had pictures of the whole thing. The American League season ended early, a week before the National League, and the American League team had to stay in condition for the World Series, so they picked an All-Star team for the first time back in 1911 and I was lucky enough to be picked for it and I have a whole set of pictures."

In 1911, indeed, American League players formed an All-Star team and volunteered to play in Cleveland on an off day in July to raise money for the late Addie Joss' family. I looked it up. Wood, 22, started the game, and Walter Johnson relieved him. The AL season ended on Oct. 6, the NL on Oct. 12, the Series began on Oct. 14. The All-Star team re-assembled to play the AL champion Athletics in three exhibition games during the layoff. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, and Smoky Joe Wood, not yet 23, firing fastballs with his cap cocked to the left, was as big as star as any of them.

We asked him to name the best player he ever saw.

"Ty Cobb," he barked. "… Because he was the best ballplayer in the world. I pitched against him many a time. I just pitched and prayed. He hit me as well as he hit anybody else, I imagine, but he didn't take credit for any of that. Old Sam Crawford hit me harder than Ty Cobb did, on that same ballclub. But Ty could hit 'em all.

What was the biggest change in baseball, from his day to 1981?