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Doctor for the Dodgers

Originally published in the Mayo Alumnus magazine, October 1973.

Profile of Bob Woods, senior team physician in the National Baseball League


It may never happen, but if Robert M. Woods, M.D., decides to deactivate his hurry-scurry workaday pace and retire, chances are good he’ll go see a ball game.

It won’t matter what kind of ball game, for he likes all team sports; but it probably will matter where the game is played. Los Angeles, preferably. Near the home he loves (pacific Palisades) and where the Los Angeles Dodgers win more than they lose in the Western Division of the National Baseball League.

Doctor Woods (Internal Medicine 1938-41) is not only one of the Dodgers’ most loyal rooters, he’s their team physician. As such,

— he devotes 81 days each year (Dodger ‘home dates’) at Dodger Stadium counseling, treating, examining Dodger and visiting team players, coaches and umpires;

— he is administratively responsible for total planning and directing the Dodger organization medical program;

— he provides year-around primary medical care to Dodger management, employees and players’ families;

— when everyone’s healthy, he even helps out in the press box by doing such things as operating the stadium scoreboard.

All this represents a part-time career for Bob Woods, an ebullient 61-year-old with more energy than a 19-year-old Dodger rookie.

“Doc” Woods, as National League players fondly call him, is the senior team physician in the league, joining the Dodgers 15 years ago.

“One of the first things I did out here,” Chairman of the Dodger Board Walter O’Malley said recently, “is to hire Bob Woods. He’s done a remarkably fine job for us over the years.”

O’Malley’s accolade makes Donald C. Balfour, M.D. prophetic. It was Doctor Balfour in 1945, as director of Mayo Foundation for medical Education and Research, referring to Doctor Woods’ credentials, who said: “Doctor Woods made a splendid record here and all with whom he worked would recommend him most highly in regard to his personal and professional qualifications.”

Most observers nearly 30 years later would still agree: Bob Woods is a professional in every sense of the word.

After moving to Santa Monica in 1946, where he has a flourishing solo practice and is affiliated with two nearby hospitals, he began a baseball romance with the minor league Los Angeles Angels’ club in the early 1950s.

One night an injured Angels’ player was in need of medical care. Doctor Woods was called by the Angels’ announcer, himself a patient.

Soon thereafter, the Angels’ management was sending all its players to Bob Woods’ office for treatment, and his official designation as a “team physician” came after the Angels asked him ‘to come on out and see some of the games.’

“I just started seeing the players at the ball park then.” Doctor Woods says.

His part-time career with the Dodgers (he admits that it’s full-time fun) isn’t as simple today as it was with the minor league club. His responsibilities are diversified, his challenges are unique.

For example, after their move from Brooklyn, the Dodgers temporarily played in football-designed Los Angeles Coliseum. While Chavez Ravine was hollowed out to build Dodger Stadium, O’Malley asked Doctor Woods to advise architects on construction from a medical standpoint for fans visiting the ball park.

Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park in San Francisco were two of the first new stadiums to be built in the United States in years. Candlestick was operating during Dodger Stadium construction, so “Mr. O’Malley sent a group of us up to see if we could learn anything before out ball park opened,” Woods recalls.

“Oddly enough, a relatively large number of people had had coronary occlusions while attending games at Candlestick. No one knew why. In consulting with San Francisco physicians, we determined that an inconsistent long-and-short aisle step pattern in the stadium precipitated the coronaries.

“The short-stride, long-stride pattern in step climbing is unnatural to most people. So, while the fans actually had more walking room at Candlestick, we didn’t incorporate this feature in Dodger Stadium. In fact, after the medical studies were in, Candlestick’s aisle steps were rebuilt in favor of a more consistent pattern.”

When he’s at Dodger Stadium — one of the most beautiful of all baseball arenas — Bob Woods calmly sees to it that his house is in order.

To start, he oversees activities in the ball park’s First Aid Station, where dozens of victims of overeating, overdrinking and overexcitedness and sometimes violence, are brought each day.

“When you have 50,000 people or so for a double-header,” he says, “It’s like taking care of a city of that size for six-to-eight hours.”

After checking First Aid, he routinely confers with the trainers and managers of visiting and home teams — roughly two hours before game time ¾ for injuries or illnesses.

Normally, in both training rooms, he gets to diagnose and treat a spectrum of common maladies. Flu, ulcers, bruises, burns (unusual types, caused by artificial playing surfaces) . . . the “same sort of thing you run into in general internal medicine practice.”

Doctor Woods, an acknowledged expert, credits baseball owners and the Physicians Association of Professional Major League Baseball Players with creating an “identity” for sports medicine in the past decade.

“Any amount of money an owner spends on an athlete from a medical standpoint is peanuts when you compare the money he’s got invested in the player’s’ salary and drawing power.

“We physicians finally impressed upon the owners that, if they are going to pay a man $150,000 to $200,000 a year, it behooves them to keep that man in good shape.

“A great example of this involved retired Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax. When he was in his glory, he had a very bad arthritic elbow, which we treated with intensive therapy. Because of the treatment, Sandy was able to pitch in regular rotation. Whether it was in Los Angeles or in any other city, it meant that there would be an additional 10,000 people in the stands. One appearance by Sandy Koufax more than covered all the money that was spent for all the medical care he received over the course of a year.”

The essential quality of Bob Woods, physician, friend and adviser, emerges in the frequent one-to-one relationships he has with his many “publics:”

— an amiable reference to his nine-year-old grandson (“If he wants to impress somebody, he’ll say ‘my grandfather will take us to the ball game.’ They go down in the training room, meet all the ballplayers, and think this is the greatest thing in the world”); or

— listening to Dodger clubhouse attendant Nobe Kawano relate a family medical concern; or

— having an impromptu chat with Stan Musial, former St. Louis Cardinal superstar, now a team vice-president traveling with the Cardinals; or

— going on training room “rounds,” Stopping here to apply drops to Dodger shortstop Chris Cannizaro’s eyes, Stopping there to check a massive leg scrape on Don Newcombe, retired Dodger pitcher — one of Roger Kahn’s original Boys of Summer — now an executive in the Dodger organization.

Doctor Woods describes his relationship with players as one of friendly professionalism.

“But Every now and then a player will come up to us and say ‘I’ve got to get off tonight . . . I’ve got a date’ or some excuse like that.

“I will not go to a manager and say you’ve got to let so-and-so out of the lineup tonight for a phony reason. Out whole system of credibility would be lost once they’d discover I’d lied to them. Most players know I’m rigid on this point, and they know that if they are hurt, I’m not going to let them play. And nobody can make me let them play.”

Woods admits that his job with the Dodgers “is great relaxation. We all have a little bit of this ‘hero worship’ in us, you know, and a wonderful part of it is that you get to know all the players on every club so that they’re you’re friends.”

To illustrate, Doc Woods recalled a recent Atlanta Brave visited to Dodger Stadium.

“Henry Aaron (who is closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record) had a bad back which kept him out of the lineup for a few days. Then he developed an infection in the abdominal wall which was extremely painful.

“He’s been out three or four days before arriving in L.A., and I couldn’t let him play for the first two days of the Braves’ four-day stay here. In the meantime, I was getting it from all sides, because everybody wanted to see Hank Aaron play in pursuit of Ruth’s record. Finally he responded to treatment, got immediate relief, and I said he could play.”

Aaron, pleased because he could play and ‘get this thing over with,’ asked Doctor Woods if there was anything he could do for him.

“I had him autograph a ball to my grandson. He made it personal, you know — ‘to Keith,’ etc.”

There are many players like Hank Aaron, Doctor Woods says. “You want to beat them on the field, but you go out and have a beer and a good time with them afterwards.”

His relationship with the Dodger players is close knit. He sees them regularly, from spring training physicals in Vero Beach, Florida, to caring for players and families during the off season.

Bob Woods, in directing the careers of some of the finest athletes in professional sports, sometimes makes decisions that are painful especially when players are on the trading block.

“Medical opinions are important in trades,” he says. “If we have access to a player, we will examine him for an opinion as to whether a certain joint is going to give him trouble or a certain illness that he has or has had will be a problem. We give management a straight answer, which they weigh with scouting reports and other information, and trades usually develop or fizzle a short time later.”

Of Mayo, Bob Woods has extremely fond memories. “I learned so much at Mayo,” he says. “So many people were such a tremendous help to me . . . Arlie Barnes in medicine; Henry Woltman in neurology . . . marvelous, marvelous men.”

He continued, “the greatest lesson I ever had came from Harold Robertson in pathology. I was scheduled to do a post-mortem, and my wife had just come home from Saint Marys Hospital with our first-born son. I was to include the spinal cord in the post. I asked ‘what did the patient die of?’ The answer was ‘polio.’

“I was afraid to do it and it was obvious to Harold Robertson. He said ‘Fine, I understand your situation completely.’

“He did the autopsy, including the spinal cord, without wearing gloves to show me how ill-founded my fears were. I never questioned anything he told me to do after that.”

Expanding his thoughts, he said, “If I had my life to live over, I guess next to choosing Mayo Clinic for a residency,” his voice serious, “I would marry the same woman and I would come to Santa Monica to practice — just as I’ve done, and I would hire the same girls in my office — two of whom have been with me for 17 and 25 years.”

Bob Woods’ interests cut a wide swath. He’s been to Europe twice and is planning a third departure. “My big love is Michelangelo . . . I like the European culture . . . They have a marvelous attitude toward life. I like America first and foremost, But I think we have a lot we can learn from the Europeans.”

There is really no “off season” from team sports for Bob Woods. Two things prevent it.

First, the marvelous Southern California climate, which encourages people like Bob Woods to flock to appreciate a variety of outdoor recreational activities. Second — and probably most important in Doctor Woods’ case — is that after the World Series is over, football season is in full swing.

With such a vested interest in the Dodgers, one might think such a statement would contain little or no impact for Doctor Woods. Generally, that’s true. When asked if he preferred baseball or football he replied, “That’s a difficult question. It’s like asking me which of my two children do I like most.”

NBC television sports producers think highly of Doctor Woods’ football expertise. For the past five years — each New Year’s Day — he has been Curt Gowdy’s statistician for the Rose Bowl Game.

“I’ll keep doing it,” Bob Woods says characteristically, “as long as they’ll have me.”


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