Stafford: Take a seat by the Hot Stove with Woody Woodland

Tom Stafford
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Tom Stafford

These days, most folks gather around hot stoves in the winter only after the power company has cut them off and the temperature heads for zero.

But in the days before central heating, enough fans chewed the fat about baseball around hot stoves in the winter, as they were considered to be part of a cultural phenomenon known as the Hot Stove League.

When I visited him last week in his neatly kept apartment at the Ohio Masonic Community, 89-year-old Springfield-born Elbert “Little Woody” Woodland said he couldn’t remember when he last heard the words Hot Stove.

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Elbert "Little Woody" Woodland, 89, shows black tape of the sort he used to extend the life of baseballs in his sandlot days. Photo by Tom Stafford

Elbert "Little Woody" Woodland, 89, shows black tape of the sort he used to extend the life of baseballs in his sandlot days. Photo by Tom Stafford
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Elbert "Little Woody" Woodland, 89, shows black tape of the sort he used to extend the life of baseballs in his sandlot days. Photo by Tom Stafford

But that didn’t stop the man whose children now look after his collection of 60 baseballs autographed by Hall of Famers from telling stories of the sort that would have warmed the hearts of the Hot Stove crowd all winter long.

One involves making the winning bid for a Stan Musial autographed ball the same night he sat at a dinner table with his favorite Major Leaguer on an evening on which Musial pulled out a harmonica and played the National Anthem.

Another involves the day he was playing shortstop and arrived at second base on a possible double play at the same time as the ball and Don Zimmer, who took Woodland out with a slide, but patted him on the back before returning to the dugout.

A third involves Woodland crowding the plate as the leadoff hitter for Springfield High in a way that led Hamilton High pitcher Joe Nuxhall to throw a ball in middle of that same back. Which Nuxhall also patted years later as he told Woodland “the plate used to jump around on me” in those days.

The gentler contact between the two came before a Reds spring training game in Fort Myers, Fla. That day, Nuxhall -- who Woody remember as “nice guy who talked to everybody” – “was so full of arthritis, he could hardly walk.”

The man who still has a roll of the black tape of the sort he used to keep sandlot baseballs from disintegrating has some longer yarns as well.

One Hot Stovers might like took place during World War II, when Woodland and Artie Derr, with whom he played sandlot baseball on Springfield’s West Side Tigers, walked through a hole in the wooden outfield fence at Springfield’s Municipal Stadium to see a game.

“That’s where the Springfield Giants and Cardinals (then attached to those major league clubs) “played AA ball,” Woodland said, and where the center field score board had an operator of the sort that slipped in the appropriate numbers as nearly all the other ballparks of the era.

But neither the Giants nor Cardinals were playing that night, and as the boys strolled toward the wooden bleachers around home plate, they were approached by what Woodland remembers as “a scary-looking bow-legged guy in a Pittsburgh uniform” who had a question: Would the two of them want to be bat boys for his team?

With all the accumulated wisdom of a naïve kid and while suppressing his fear of the man, “I said, how much does it pay?” Woodland recalled.

When the scary-looking bowlegged guy said in so many words that two twerps like them should “consider it an honor” to be offered the volunteer job, “We looked around and said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Woodland said.

The next day, Woodland’s father, Big Woody, an excellent player who might have tried out the major leagues if it had paid better in those days, was persuaded that his son had been dead right when he he’d told the bowlegged guy “I don’t think.”

“You little dummy,” father told son, “that was Honus Wagner.”

The Springfield Daily News of the confirms baseball immortal was brought in teams which rosters that included not only Bill Dickey and Lefty Gomez, but Paul “Big Poison” Waner, who was hitting at a .500 clip during one of the visits.

Most Hot Stovers knew Waner was called “Big Poison” to distinguish him from Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner, the brother with whom he’d shared the outfield in Pittsburgh for 14 years and would also share quarters in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

A Daily News story reported that Big Poison was, at that time, “one of seven major leagues ever to collect 3,000 hits or better.” But it failed to report two other facts: That his lifetime batting average in the majors was .333 and that the whole “poison” thing was started by a fan who had yelled out “poi-son” while meaning “person.”

Municipal Stadium was standing room only the day Little Woody decided being a bat boy was a bad career move and “the All Stars beat the tar out of the House of David, 12 to 3 or something” making plays “I couldn’t believe”

As most Hot Stovers know, the House of David was a team of believers that has its own history both in and out of baseball.

This paragraph from an article at the Hall of Fame website gives the essentials:

“The House of David began playing organized baseball by 1913 as a weekend activity drawing impressive crowds at their home field in Benton Harbor, and by 1920 they were a regular feature on the American barnstorming circuit. The baseball team served several functions, the two primary purposes being to raise money for the community, but also as a means of recruiting new members to the faith. The basic tenets of the House of David included physical labor, celibacy, refraining from haircuts and shaving, and a strict vegetarian diet. The athletic teams were seen as a way to develop both the physical and spiritual discipline required by the religion.” In an August, 1945, stop in Springfield, Wagner’s All-Stars faced off against another team from a league that also was big into barnstorming.

The All-Stars ultimately posted a 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Hilldales, which the Daily News called a “crack” team just a game and a half out of first in the American Negro League.

And the Negro league teams were good enough that one of Little Woody’s keepsakes is photocopy of a story documenting that Big Woody was a member of the Clark County team that upset the Cincinnati Clowns in a barnburner at Municipal Stadium in July of 1943, by a score of 4-3.

The decisive hit came off the bat of Ben Haddix, who caught in the minors and was the brother of major leaguers Harvey and Fred Haddix. His liner over second drove Neb Stewart, who had doubled and crossed the plate with untied the game the Clowns had tied in the top of the inning.

Hot Stovers know that Ben Haddix also played for the Springfield Cardinals and later Giants. One year he also was runner-up for the batting title of the Ohio-Indiana League to teammate Ralph “Flip” Lucas, whom Little Woody said was the best local player he ever saw.

Woodland said Lucas batted over .300 a few years while playing center field for AAA Oshkosh but never made it to the big leagues, where Willie Mays played that position for the Giants organization once the color barrier had been broken in baseball.

Little Woody came face-to-face with the raw edge of that barrier when he traveled with one of manager Roger Sharp’s outstanding Springfield American Legion teams.

“We had one black ballplayer on our team, and we got invited to Louisville, Springfield’s Crystal “Boo” Ellis “was only black player in the whole tournament,” Woody said.

And after welcoming the rest of the team to Louisville’s Brown Hotel, the manager pointed at Ellis and said “that (n-word) can’t stay here.”

So Sharp “had to take him to the black part of town and get him a room,” Woody said.

Ellis is remembered locally not only for his contributions to Springfield High School’s 1950 state championship basketball team; but as the first black player and captain of the Bowling Green State University basketball team; and for a determination that allowed him to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees from Bowling Green and become the first black Superintendent of the Toledo Schools.

He was such a class act,” Woody said of Ellis.

And a hall-of-famer not only in sports.

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