At age 34, Wilhelm was just getting started

Written by: Craig Muder

He was an aging pitcher, coming off two seasons with earned-run averages that topped 3.80 and nearing his 35th birthday.

But Hoyt Wilhelm’s career was only beginning. And for the Giants, their decision to deal the knuckleball wizard meant they missed out on 16 more seasons by one of the greatest relievers of his generation.

The Giants traded Wilhelm to the Cardinals on Feb. 26, 1957, just before Spring Training. In return, New York received first baseman Whitey Lockman – a hero of the 1951 and 1954 National League pennant winners who was dealt to St. Louis in 1956 in the trade that brought Red Schoendienst to the Giants.

Wilhelm had thrived in his first three years in the big leagues with the Giants, going 34-15 with 33 saves in 196 appearances. But Wilhelm struggled in 1955 and 1956, leading to the trade.

In 1957, Wilhelm went 1-4 with 11 saves and a 4.25 ERA in 40 games before the Cardinals waived him in September. He was picked up by the Indians in the season’s final weeks, then went 2-7 with Cleveland in 1958 before again being waived. This time, the Orioles claimed Wilhelm.

But beginning in 1959, Wilhelm tried starting – and went 15-11 with a league-best 2.19 ERA – earning his first All-Star Game berth since 1953. He returned to his familiar bullpen role over the next two years, however, and by the mid-1960s had established himself as the game’s most consistent relief pitcher.

“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 1950 AL batting champion Billy Goodman.

“It was a battle just to get the bat on that knuckleball. How…is a man going to hit a ball that the catcher can’t even catch?”

From 1964-68, Wilhelm’s ERA never rose above 2.00 for any full season.

By the time he retired following the 1972 campaign – after pitching as a 49-year-old – Wilhelm had posted a record of 143-122 and 227 saves, a standard that would last until Rollie Fingers eclipsed it in 1980.

“There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball,” said legendary hitting coach Charley Lau. “Unfortunately, neither of them works.”

Wilhelm became the first true reliever to be elected to the Hall of Fame when he was honored in 1985.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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