James Hoyt Wilhelm
- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 6' 0", Weight 195 lb.
- High School Cornelius (NC) High School
- Debut April 19, 1952
- Final Game July 10, 1972
- Born July 26, 1922 in Huntersville, NC USA
- Died August 23, 2002 in Sarasota, FL USA
One of the greatest knuckleballers of all time, Hoyt Wilhelm was the first relief pitcher to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. He qualified for the ERA title only twice and won both times. He was selected an All-Star in five different seasons. Overall, he played 21 seasons in the majors, pitching until he was nearly 50 years old.
The son of a North Carolina farmer, Wilhelm learned the knuckleball as a boy by emulating big leaguer Dutch Leonard. After high school, he signed with the Mooresville Moors of the North Carolina State League in 1942 and went 10-3 with a 4.25 ERA for the club that year. He was then drafted into the U.S. Army and missed the next three seasons while serving in World War II. During the war, he fought and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Purple Heart.
Following the war, Wilhelm returned to Mooresville in 1946, winning 41 games for the team over the next two seasons. Acquired by the New York Giants after the 1947 campaign, he spent the next four summers toiling in the minors in their organization. As a 29-year-old, he finally made his big league debut for New York on April 18, 1952. Less than a week later, on April 23rd, he earned his first big league win against the Boston Braves. In that game, facing Braves pitcher Dick Hoover, he also hit his only career home run in his first big league at-bat; he is one of just three players to homer in his first at-bat then win the game as a pitcher. That homer would prove to be the only four-base hit of his entire big league career, spanning 432 at-bats. Overall that summer, he went 15-3 with 11 saves while leading the National League with a 2.43 ERA and 71 appearances (all in relief). Despite the stellar campaign, he finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting to Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers, another relief pitcher who put up very similar stats, but with the pennant winner. In a strange coincidence, a third rookie reliever, Eddie Yuhas, put up nearly identical stats for the St. Louis Cardinals that year.
In 1953, Wilhelm again paced the NL with 68 appearances and earned the first All-Star selection of his career. The next year, he pitched in his only World Series, allowing no runs over two appearances and earning a save as the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians. Following two sub-par seasons the next two years, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Whitey Lockman prior to the 1957 campaign. After spending most of that year with the Cardinals, he was acquired by the Cleveland Indians late that summer. Cleveland skipper Bobby Bragan tried him as a starter in 1958, but the club ended up waiving him late in the season. Now 36 years old, he was picked up by the Baltimore Orioles shortly afterwards and hurled a no-hitter against the New York Yankees on September 20th in just his third start for the team.
Wilhelm was primarily a starter for the first and only time in his career with Baltimore in 1959. He won his first 9 decisions and made the All-Star team again. Despite trailing off to a 15-11 record, he paced the American League with a 2.19 ERA that summer. However, he was moved back to the bullpen early the next year. Between 1960 and 1962, he saved 40 games for the Orioles and made the All-Star team two more times. Hoyt wasn't the only Wilhelm in the Orioles system in 1959 & 1960; they had signed his brother Gary to a minor league contract.
Dealt to the Chicago White Sox prior to the 1963 season, Wilhelm saved 21 games for the club that year. He notched a career-high 27 saves in 1964 and recorded an ERA below 2.00 for the Sox in each season from 1964 to 1968.
Left exposed in the 1968 Expansion Draft, Wilhelm was selected by the Kansas City Royals, who soon traded him to the California Angels. About a year later, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves, and about a year after that, he was acquired by the Chicago Cubs. Back in Atlanta in 1971, he pitched sparingly for the team that year and was released in late June. At nearly 49 years old, he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers and returned to the minors for the first time in twenty years. He was soon back in the majors, appearing in 25 games for L.A. over the next year before being released in 1972, less than a month before his 50th birthday.
Wilhelm pitched in 1,070 games, which was a major league career record until Dennis Eckersley broke it in 1998 (Jesse Orosco has since passed Eckersley). Although he never led the league in saves, he was second three times. His 2.52 career ERA is better than any pitcher to come after him with the exception of Mariano Rivera. He was chosen as one of the ten best relievers ever according to The Relief Pitcher for being the most dominant reliever of his era.
After his playing days, Wilhelm managed for two seasons in the minors in the Braves organization with the Greenwood Braves and was also a pitching coach in the New York Yankees organization (Syracuse Chiefs in 1977, Tacoma Yankees in 1978, West Haven Yankees in 1979, Nashville Sounds in 1982, 1983 and 1984, and the GCL Yankees for several years before he retired). He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 7, 1985 by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He died of heart failure at age 80.
- 5-time All-Star (1953, 1959, 1961, 1962 & 1970)
- 2-time League ERA Leader (1952/NL & 1959/AL)
- NL Winning Percentage Leader (1954)
- 2-time NL Games Pitched Leader (1952 & 1953)
- 15 Wins Seasons: 2 (1952 & 1959)
- 200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 1 (1959)
- Won a World Series with the New York Giants in 1954
- Baseball Hall of Fame: Class of 1985
- Wins in relief, career, 124
- Innings pitched in relief, career, 1871