COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The lack of a blazing fastball kept Hoyt Wilhelm from breaking into the major leagues until age 29, but it was his fluttering knuckleball that cemented his place among the all-time greats.
The Los Angeles Dodgers released the then 49-year-old Wilhelm on July 21, 1972 – 38 years ago this week – ending the future Hall of Famer’s record-setting and age-defying career.
Known as one of the game’s first great relief pitchers, Wilhelm’s success and longevity relied heavily on his specialty pitch. The knuckler befuddled hitters and sometimes even puzzled his catchers.
“If I had to pick myself one guy that I wouldn’t want to hit against when he was right, it would be Hoyt Wilhelm,” said longtime Boston Red Sox infielder Billy Goodman. “It was a battle just to get the bat on that knuckleball. You know good and well, how is a man going to hit a ball that the catcher can’t even catch?”
The 1959 Baltimore Orioles allowed 49 passed balls with Wilhelm on their staff, which is still a modern day record. In an effort to corral the elusive pitch, his catchers began using oversized mitts — a practice continued by knuckleball catchers today.
“How they caught it was never my problem,” Wilhelm said of his best pitch. “After I turned it loose, it was up to them.”
A Purple Heart award winner for injuries sustained during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Wilhelm broke into the majors with the New York Giants in 1952. He appeared in 71 games as a rookie, posted a 15-3 record and had a National League-leading 2.43 ERA.
Wilhelm smashed a home run at the Polo Grounds in his first major league at bat. He would not hit another for the rest of his career.
During his 21 seasons in the majors, Wilhelm pitched for the Giants, Indians, Cardinals, Orioles, White Sox, Braves, Angels, Cubs and Dodgers. He garnered All-Star honors five times and tallied double-digit win totals in 1954, 1959, 1960 and 1964.
In a start for the Orioles in 1958, Wilhelm no-hit the New York Yankees. An individual pitcher has not no-hit the Yankees since.
Wilhelm played in 1,070 games as a pitcher, a record at his retirement since surpassed by four others. Of his appearances, 1,018 came out of the bullpen. He finished his career with a lifetime record of 143-122 and an ERA of 2.52. His 124 victories earned in relief is still a record.
He was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.
Wilhelm died on Aug. 23, 2002.
Cody Eding is the public relations intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program Class of 2010 at the Baseball Hall of Fame