Wood, Ken

Primary Position: Outfield
Birthplace: Lincolnton

First, Middle Names:  Kenneth Lanier
Date of Birth:  July 1, 1924      Date and Place of Death: Nov. 22, 2007, Myrtle Beach, SC
Burial: Cremated

High School: Paw Creek High School, Paw Creek, NC; Central High School, Charlotte, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R              Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 200
Debut Year: 1948        Final Year: 1953    Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: St. Louis Browns, 1948-51; Boston Red Sox, 1952; Washington Senators, 1952-53

Career Summary
G           AB           H           R           RBI         HR        BA.       OBP.      SLG.      WAR
342     995       223       110      143        34         .224      .298      .393      -3.3

Ken Wood was a lumbering 200-pound outfielder with a cannon for an arm and a bit of lightning in his bat. Unfortunately, he had hands of stone. He was so dreadful in the field, in fact, that his teams would have been better off without him in the lineup.

Poor defense combined with a lackluster bat to give Wood the lowest Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, of any of the more than 400 North Carolina natives who have played in the major leagues. That’s an advanced statistic that attempts to summarize a player’s total contributions to his team – his hitting, pitching, running, fielding — by estimating how many games a team can be expected to win with the player in the lineup instead of an average player coming off the bench or called up from the minors. The player’s value to his team accumulates over the course of his career, and the resulting number is expressed in plus or minus games, which can be a useful yardstick to compare players of different eras.[1] Wood has a -3.3 lifetime WAR, meaning the teams he played for during a six-year career in the majors lost more than three games with him in the lineup instead of a substitute.

Though he was capable of long home runs, Wood didn’t hit them consistently enough. In truth, he didn’t hit much of anything with any constancy, as his .224 career batting average attests. There are, however, a lot of light-hitting, major-league hitters with positive WARs. Leaky defense is what drags Wood’s number underwater. He played in at least 100 games a season only twice in his big-league career. He led American League right fielders in errors in one of them, 1950, and was second in the other the following year. His lifetime fielding percentage of .956 is a good 20 points below the average outfielder’s. By contrast, the great defensive outfielders of Wood’s day, players like Willie Mays and Gene Woodling, have career fielding percentages approaching .990.

In defense of his defense, Wood threw accurately when he did catch the ball. His throws nabbed 16 runners in 1950, including six at home, for the third-best outfield assists total in the league. The year before, while playing in the minors for the Baltimore Orioles, he threw out 28, one shy of the International League record at the time.

Wood’s arm had been eliciting rave reviews since he was a 14-year-old playing third base for American Legion teams in Paw Creek, North Carolina. Charles Lanier Wood was born in nearby Lincoln County in 1924, the seventh of Oscar Burgin, or “OB,” and Mary’s nine children. The family settled in Paw Creek, a small community near Charlotte, North Carolina, in adjacent Mecklenburg County by 1930.[2] OB and, eventually, most of his children worked in the community’s cotton mills.

Wood played football and baseball at the local high school before transferring to the larger Central High in Charlotte to qualify for the better legion teams there. He played well enough that the St. Louis Cardinals wanted to sign him when he was 15. They offered to let him travel with one of their farm clubs until he was old enough to play. Wood, who still had two years of eligibility for the American Legion, declined and instead played third for the Leaksville Blanketeers, a local, semipro industrial team, and for the legion in the summers.

He finally signed his first professional contract a year later, in 1941, but it was not without a bit of drama. The Browns had invited Wood to St. Louis for a tryout. He and his father had sent the team a telegram accepting the invitation. The next day Wood signed a contract with the Charlotte Hornets, the Washington Senators’ Class B club. He played one game with them before a judge ruled that his telegram gave the Browns prior rights.[I]

After hitting .318 with 25 home runs in his first, full minor-league season, Wood was drafted in 1943 but failed the Army physical because of an irregular heartbeat. The Coast Guard took him, however, and Wood spent World War II playing ball at bases in St. Augustine, Florida, and New London, Connecticut.

Wood made two short appearances with the Browns after the war. He stuck with the team in 1950, though he had a mediocre season, hitting only .225 with 13 homers. The following season wasn’t much better, though his 15 home runs led the last-place Browns.

The Boston Red Sox, looking for outfield help after the Marine Corps called Ted Williams back for the Korean War, acquired Wood in 1953. Fenway Park’s short left-field wall, the sports scribes surmised, should be an inviting target for the big, pull hitter. Wood appeared in only 15 games and could muster just two singles before being traded to the Washington Senators. He played in just 61 games in left field for the Senators and hit .238.

Wood bounced around the minor leagues for several more seasons. “I’m not hurting being sent to the minors,” he said at the time. “I’ll play ball as long as I can. What else could I do to make a living like this?”[II]

It ended where it began, in Charlotte, in 1956. Wood retired after the season. He was in the stands for the Hornets’ home opener the following year. For the first time since he was 16, he had to pay to get into a ballpark. “When they took the field to start the game, it felt like I had swallowed a baseball and it was coming back up,” Wood said. “I knew it would be tough, but I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.”[III]

He coached American Legion ball, played semipro on weekends, but mostly he sold insurance in Charlotte for the next 28 years. He and his wife, Alberta, or Bert, raised three children. They retired to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where Wood died in 2007.

[1] For a more detailed explanation of WAR, see the Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100.
[2] Wood was one of five players who grew up in Paw Creek and played in the major leagues. The others were outfielders Whitey Lockman and Pete Whisenant, infielder Tommy Helms, and catcher Bill Baker.

[II] Nowlin, Bill. “Ken Wood.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ken-wood/.
[II]Kiser, Jack. “Wood: It’s About Time to Retire.” Charlotte (NC) News, Jan. 12, 1957.
[III] Pierce, Dick. “Role as Spectator Difficult for Wood.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, April 19, 1957.