Born: June 22, 1937
Town: Elizabeth, New Jersey
Jacob Wood Jr. was born on June 22nd, 1937 in Elizabeth. Jake came from a family of enormous athletic talent. His younger brother, Richard, was a football star for USC in the early 1970s and an original member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jake and Richard found success in sports by being fast and aggressive.
After graduating from high school in 1955, Jake received a scholarship from Delaware State, a school in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which was made up of traditionally African-American colleges and universities.
He played two years for the Hornets before being signed by the Detroit Tigers in the spring of 1957. He played his first pro season for the Class-D Erie Sailors. Among his teammates were two teenagers who would one day join him in the majors, catcher Buck Rodgers and second baseman Dick McAuliffe. McAuliffe would actually take Jake’s job in 1964.
In 1961, Jake won the starting second base job in Spring Training. This made him the first African-American player to rise from the Tiger system and make it to the majors. Bubba Morton and Bill Bruton also made the team that season, but they had been acquired from other organizations. Pioneer Larry Doby was Detroit’s first black player, playing 18 games with the club at the end of his career, in 1959.
Jake was part of a Tiger team that won 101 games in 1961. They finished second to the Yankees. Jake’s speed enabled him to lead the league with 14 triples. He also scored from second base on a sacrifice fly to deep center. His aggressiveness translated into a league-high 141 strikeouts. He finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Jake remained a starter through the 1963 season. He finished third in the American League in stolen bases each year. From 1964 to 1967, Jake was a utilityman, playing every position other than pitcher and catcher. He was also an effective pinch-hitter. In June of 1967 he was sold to the Cincinnati Reds. He hit .118 the rest of the way.
Jake played just two more years of pro ball. He spent 1968 in the minors with an Indians farm team, and played with the Tiger’s’ Class-AA club in Montgomery in 1969 before calling it quits.
Jake was a fan favorite around Detroit. Later in life he attended autograph shows and Tiger fantasy camps. In 2010, the Tigers honored Jake with an African American Legacy Award. He lives in Pensacola, Florida now and still plays second base in a senior softball league.