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02/09/11 6:25 PM EST

Wood's path to big leagues a first for Tigers

DETROIT -- Jake Wood's legend with the Tigers did not include breaking the team's color barrier, a mark that goes to Ozzie Virgil. Nor was Wood the first African-American on the big club, a credit that goes to American League pioneer Larry Doby in his final year of his historic career.

But as the first African-American player to come through the Tigers' system and make it to Detroit, Wood had a challenge far different. While Virgil and Doby went through their challenges in other cities before joining the Tigers, Wood climbed the organizational ladder for four years before he cracked the Tigers' roster to open the 1961 season.

But Wood doesn't talk about himself as a pioneer. He talks about his gratitude for the players who paved the way, starting with Jackie Robinson's feat 10 years before Wood joined the Tigers' system as a 20-year-old.

"I think about Jackie Robinson, what he did and what he had to go through to open the door for guys like me, being a competitor and not being able to unleash some things. And I benefited from that," Wood said last summer, when the Tigers honored him as part of their Negro Leagues Tribute weekend. "I just appreciate all those guys before me -- Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Dan Bankhead, [Roy] Campanella, Sam Jethroe. I look at Bruton and [Wes] Covington, Minny Minoso, Al Smith. The list goes on and on. The guys, they talk to you, just being helpful, and you really appreciate that."

Wood benefited from their courage as well as their insight on his way up, even though he played in a different organization than the vast majority of them. But he also appreciates the opportunity he had in the Tigers' system in particular.

From his start at Erie, then in the New York-Penn League, Wood went from one level to another and hit everywhere he went. He had underrated power, but his game had an abundance of speed. His numbers from Triple-A Denver in 1960 stand out even today -- a .305 average, 24 doubles, 18 triples, 12 home runs and 76 RBIs, according to baseball-reference.com.

He was a natural athlete from an athletic family. His younger brother, Richard Wood, later became an All-American linebacker at USC and spent 10 years in the NFL. Once Jake Wood's numbers became evident, one step shy of the big leagues, the Tigers opened a spot for him by trading former Gold Glove winner Frank Bolling to Milwaukee.

It wasn't simply about race. It was about putting the best player on the field and giving him a fair chance to prove himself. Wood has never forgotten that.

"When I played in the Minor Leagues, I ran across many, many ballplayers who for whatever reason [didn't get the chance]," Wood said. "Because in the American League at that time and the National League, there were only eight teams. I remember guys in the Dodgers organization who had been in Triple-A for six or seven years, and where were they going with Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox? There was no place for these guys to go.

"I was the second baseman in Denver and went to Spring Training, had a good year and the door was open. So it's not great ability, but opportunity. And if you look at anybody today, I believe in my heart that people, given the opportunity, you don't know what somebody may do. And I know human nature dictates to give this one a chance and not [another]. I believe if you get a chance, you can achieve anything. Just give them a chance. And that's what happened to me, just being in the position at that particular time to be a part of a Major League Baseball team."

Wood enjoyed a standout rookie season, producing 17 doubles, 14 triples, 11 home runs, 69 RBIs and 30 stolen bases despite a .258 average and a league-leading total of 141 strikeouts. Tigers Hall of Famer Willie Horton still argues that Wood deserved more consideration for AL Rookie of the Year than he received on a Tigers team that won 101 games and finished eight games behind the Yankees for the AL pennant.

He made his Major League debut on April 11 that year, Opening Day at Tiger Stadium. Among those in attendance was a gifted high school slugger from Detroit -- Horton.

"I remember my dad let me out of school to see him play on April 11," Horton said last week. "That was the only day he let me out of school."

A couple months later, Horton signed his first pro contract with the hometown Tigers. There was no Draft at the time, and Horton could've signed with the Yankees or another organization with another history. Wood's arrival helped sway Horton's father to tell his son to sign with the hometown team.

"That was probably the main reason I signed with the Tigers," Horton said. "I might've signed with the Yankees."

Wood was around to watch Horton make his debut two years later. He played six seasons in Detroit and part of a seventh before finishing the Major League portion of his career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1957.

Nearly 50 years after Wood's rookie season, Horton helped bring him back to the ballpark, inviting him to Spring Training last year and later to Comerica Park for the festivities last summer. Horton said he'll be back in town this spring, when the Tigers celebrate their 75th Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla.

"It's a thrill to look out on that field," Wood said last summer. "I mean, how could you not love the game?"

He still loves it, and still plays it. At 73, he's still a second baseman, now playing in a senior softball league near his home in Pensacola, Fla.

"I've been fortunate to come full cycle," Wood said. "Playing as a little boy, I look back at being the beneficiary of so much. Because there's only like 10 short years after Jackie Robinson integrated the Expos in 1947 that I got the opportunity in 1957. And to be able to play senior softball, it's just a joy. You have your aches and pains, but just being out there feels good."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.