Hoyt WilhelmJames Hoyt Wilhelm
Inducted to the Hall of Fame in: 1985
Primary team: Chicago White Sox
Primary position: Pitcher
"I got to messing with the (knuckleball) in high school," Hoyt Wilhelm said. "I started to see that the ball was doing something. I figured it was my only ticket to the big leagues, 'cause I couldn’t throw hard, and I knew if I was going to play ball, I'd have to make it some other way."
There was nothing usual about Hoyt Wilhelm's path to the Hall of Fame. For one, he spent most of his big league career coming out of the bullpen, becoming the first reliever ever enshrined. For another, he didn't make his major league debut until he was 29 years old, and he pitched until he was nearly 50. Finally, he didn't blaze his way to Cooperstown with overpowering fastballs or knee-bending curveballs, instead relying almost exclusively on his darting, unpredictable knuckleball.
Wilhelm's big league career nearly ended before it began. While serving in the Army during World War II, shrapnel from a German artillery blast struck Wilhelm in the back and right hand. He received the Purple Heart for his actions, but he would pitch his entire career with that piece of metal still lodged in his back.
Wilhelm spent seven seasons in the minors before getting to the majors with the New York Giants in 1952. He'd been a starter throughout his minor league career, but Giants manager Leo Durocher moved him to the bullpen. All Wilhelm did was lead the National League in ERA and appearances as a rookie.
A few years later, Orioles manager Paul Richards gave Wilhelm the chance to be starter again after he came over from the Indians in August 1958. In just his third start for Baltimore, Wilhelm threw a no-hitter against the Yankees on Sept. 20, striking out eight. He remained in the Orioles rotation in 1959 and won the AL's ERA title, though he moved back to the bullpen again the following season. Richards helped make this success possible by devising a larger catcher's mitt that was 41 inches in diameter--later reduced to 38 by rule--for Wilhelm's receivers to use, cutting down the passed balls that plagued him and so many other knuckleballers.
Wilhelm settled in as the premier relief pitcher in an era dominated by pitching. He posted ERAs under 2.00 in five consecutive seasons from 1964-68 with the White Sox, doing all of it after his 40th birthday. While some marveled at Wilhelm's longevity--he was the majors' oldest player from 1966 through the end of his career in 1972--he himself was quite pragmatic about it. He took care of himself, and he recognized that the knuckleball wasn't as taxing on his arm as conventional pitches would be.
Wilhelm also believed that the knuckleball wasn't a pitch that could be taught. A pitcher either had a knack for it or he didn’t. Wilhelm certainly did, perhaps better than anyone ever has.
"He had the best knuckleball you'd ever want to see," said Brooks Robinson. "He knew where it was going when he threw it, but when he got two strikes on you, he'd break out one that even he didn't know where it was going."
Year Inducted: 1985
Primary Team: Chicago White Sox
Position Played: Pitcher
Birth place: Huntersville, North Carolina
Birth year: 1922
Died: 2002, Sarasota, Florida
New York Giants (1952-1956)
St. Louis Cardinals (1957)
Cleveland Indians (1957-1958)
Chicago White Sox (1963-1968)
LA/California Angels (1969)
Atlanta Braves (1969-1970)
Atlanta Braves (1971)
Chicago Cubs (1970)
Los Angeles Dodgers (1971-1972)
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