It was in 2004 that Pullitzer Prize-winning author Ira Berkow published “Making Contact” in Chicago Magazine as a follow-up to his original article on Jim Woods in 1986. The article is reprinted under the title of Jim Woods: At 17, and in the Big Leagues in a beautiful collection of Berkow pieces, It Happens Every Spring.
As Berkow tells it, Jim Woods was an extraordinary teenage phenom, jumping from high school in 1957 at age 17 straight to Wrigley Field in the dugout alongside Ernie Banks. Although he didn’t record an official at bat that year, appearing in two games as a pinch-runner, he is part of Phillies folklore in being part of the trade that sent our beloved Richie Ashburn to the Cubs in 1960 in exchange for Johnny Buzhardt, Alvin Dark, and Woods. The Phils were so bad in those days, losing 95 games in 1960 and 107 games in 1961, that Woods was their rep as the Topps 1961 Rookie card with a paper bag over his head. Not literally, but his red helmet is missing the red “P”, and his uniform missing the Phillies across his chest, as if he’d prefer not to be identified with the club. In those two years, he slash line was .207/.275/.628 in 82 ABs. His claim to fame as a pinch-hitter was crushing a pitch from Sandy Koufax off the top of the screen in left-center at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Sent down to the minors after the 1961 at age 21, Woods never made it back to The Show.
As the Winter baseball meeting ended in Las Vegas this week, I was reminded of how many promising young ballplayers don’t succeed in the majors. Berkow’s piece is a wonderful human interest story about a kid he grew up with who aspired to greatness in the sport, but made the best of life despite falling short of his baseball dreams.