FLORENCE, S.C. – One of baseball’s legendary pitchers celebrates his 79th birthday on July 26. Hoyt Wilhelm, a native of Huntersville, N.C., was the first relief pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
John Britton, a professor of history at Francis Marion University, wrote an essay on Wilhelm’s career for the sports encyclopedia, Great Athletes, Revised, edited by Olympic champion Rafer Johnson and published by Salem Press earlier this year.
In many ways Wilhelm was typical of baseball a generation or two ago with his perseverance and hard work in spite of a modest salary and limited success early in his career. Wilhelm’s election to the Hall of Fame was due mainly to his mastery of the knuckleball, a pitch that seems a bit out of style today when power hitters such as Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds blast their towering home runs over outfield fences and power pitchers such as Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling fire their high-velocity fastballs by flailing hitters at home plate. By contrast, Wilhelm’s knuckleball was the product of patience and finesse.
Leo Durocher, the manager of the New York Giants, decided to give Wilhelm a chance to pitch in the major leagues in 1952, and the right-handed knuckleballer responded with an impressive season. He won 15 games, lost only 3, and saved 11. His winning percentage (83.3 percent) and earned run average (2.43) were the best in the National League.
Wilhelm and his unpredictable knuckleball relied on the skills and guidance of the Giants’ veteran catcher, Wes Westrum. Like all catchers of knuckleball pitchers, Westrum was as uncertain where the ball would go as was the hitter. His combination of experience, coordination, agility, and stamina enabled Wilhelm to enjoy five impressive years in the Polo Grounds, including a 12-4 won-loss record and a 2.11 earned run average in 1954 when the Giants defeated Cleveland to win the World Series.
Wilhelm had an off season in 1956, and the Giants traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals. Many pitchers enter their declining years in their mid-30s, but Wilhelm was an exception. Because the low velocity knuckleball makes for little wear and tear on the pitching arm, Wilhelm enjoyed two more periods of outstanding work.
His first comeback was in the uniform of the Baltimore Orioles under the astute tutelage of Manager Paul Richards. Transplanted from St. Louis in 1954, the Orioles had known only losing seasons before Richards arrived.
He emphasized platooning of batters to maximize their hitting talents and also acquired several veteran players after other clubs had given up on them. Wilhelm was the best example of a revived and retooled veteran in 1959. Richards converted him to a starting pitcher and the results were remarkable. The king of the flutterball won 15 games and lost 11 for a team with an overall 48 percent winning record. The 36-year-old pitched 226 innings, allowed only 178 hits and had the American League’s lowest earned run average at 2.19.
After four years in Baltimore, Wilhelm moved on to the Chicago White Sox for whom he had another remarkable run of six seasons with earned runs averages as low as 1.31 and no higher than 2.64. He retired in 1972 after brief stints with several clubs including the Atlanta Braves.
#8 / 7-16-02