There was nothing conventional about Hoyt Wilhelm's path to the Hall of Fame.
He spent most of his big league career coming out of the bullpen, becoming the first reliever ever enshrined. He didn't make his major league debut until he was 29 years old, then pitched until he was nearly 50. And his arsenal featured not overpowering fastballs or knee-bending curveballs, but instead relied almost exclusively on a darting, unpredictable knuckleball.
"I got to messing with the (knuckleball) in high school," 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."
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, and 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 big leagues 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. As a rookie, Wilhelm went 15-3 with a league-high 71 appearances and an NL-low 2.43 ERA.
After helping the Giants win the 1954 World Series title, Wilhelm bounced to the Cardinals, Indians and then the Orioles. In Baltimore, manager Paul Richards gave Wilhelm the chance to be a starter again. In just his third start, 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 with a 2.19 mark before moving back to the bullpen the following season.
Richards helped increase Wilhelm's success by devising a larger catcher's mitt that was 41 inches in circumference – 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. From 1964-68 with the Chicago White Sox, Wilhelm went 41-33 with 99 saves and a 1.92 ERA in 361 games – all coming after his 40th birthday. While some marveled at Wilhelm's longevity – he was the big league's 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.
"He had the best knuckleball you'd ever want to see," Brooks Robinson said. "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."
An eight-time All-Star, Wilhelm finished his career with a record of 143-122, 228 saves and a 2.52 ERA in 1,070 games.
Wilhelm was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985. He passed away on Aug. 23, 2002.