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Sports Then and Now

Hoyt Wilhem: Knuckleball Workhorse

Posted on April 07, 2014 by Dean Hybl

The April Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was 29-years-old when he made his major league debut, but still managed to pitch for 21 years and become the first pitcher in MLB history to appear in more than 1,000 games.

Hoyt Wilhelm made his professional baseball debut as a 19-year-old in 1942, but after serving in World War II (earning a Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge) and then spending five years in the minor leagues it wasn’t until 10 years later that he would make his major league debut.

It proved to be worth the wait as the knuckleball throwing Wilhelm posted a 15-3 record with a National League best 2.43 ERA and 11 saves in 71 relief appearances. He finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting to Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers and fourth in the MVP voting.

Two years later, Wilhelm was 12-4 with a 2.10 ERA and seven saves in 57 games as the New York Giants won the World Series title.

After registering a 42-25 record with a 2.98 ERA and 41 saves in five seasons with the Giants, Wilhelm was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957, but after less than a season was placed on waivers and signed by the Cleveland Indians.

Less than a year later he was again waived as the Cleveland catchers were unable to regularly handle his knuckleball and at the age of 35 was signed by the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles looked to utilize him as a starter and on September 20, 1958 tossed a no-hitter against the New York Yankees.

The next season he was made a full-time starter and responded with a 15-11 record and American League leading 2.19 ERA.

In 1960 Wilhelm made 11 starts, but spent most of the season back in the bullpen and stayed in that role for the remainder of his career.

During five seasons in Baltimore, Wilhelm was 43-39 with a 2.42 ERA, 19 complete games and 40 saves.

Following the 1962 season, at the age of 40, he was part of a trade that sent Future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio to the Orioles and Wilhelm to the Chicago White Sox.

During six seasons with the White Sox, Wilhelm posted a sub-2.00 ERA five times, including an amazing 1.31 ERA in 49 games at age 44 in 1967. He was 41-33 with a 1.92 ERA and 98 saves in 361 games.

Wilhelm made the National League All-Star team at the age of 47 for the Atlanta Braves in 1970 and ultimately finished his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972.

Over the course of his 21 major league seasons, Wilhelm pitched for nine teams and made 1,070 appearances (1,018 in relief) with a 143-122 record, 2.52 ERA and 227 saves.

In 1985 Wilhelm became the first relief pitcher elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He passed away in 2002 at the age of 80.

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