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Knuckleballer Tom Candiotti reflects on the life and career of HOFer Hoyt Wilhelm.
Thursday, August 29, 2002
Wilhelm first reliever elected to Hall of Fame
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, the first reliever elected to the Hall of Fame and the last pitcher to throw a no-hitter against the New York Yankees, has died.
Wilhelm played from 1952 and 1972 and when he retired, he held the major league record for games pitched at 1,070. Jesse Orosco and Dennis Eckersley have since passed that mark.
"He had the best knuckleball you'd ever want to see," recalled former Baltimore teammate Brooks Robinson, a fellow Hall of Famer. "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."
While known for his fluttering pitch -- it was because of him that catchers began using an oversized mitt -- Wilhelm had a smashing debut as a big leaguer.
On April 23, 1952, Wilhelm hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, connecting for the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. That turned out to be Wilhelm's only career homer.
Wilhelm was 143-122 with 227 saves and a 2.52 ERA for nine teams. A five-time All-Star, he played mostly for the Giants, Baltimore and the Chicago White Sox.
Wilhelm was elected to the Hall in 1985. Rollie Fingers is the only other reliever in the Hall.
"My husband always thought it was the greatest thing in the world that he could make a living at doing what he loved best, playing baseball," Peggy Wilhelm told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Saturday.
The White Sox held a moment of silence for Wilhelm at Comiskey Park before Saturday night's game against Tampa Bay.
"He had the best damn knuckleball I've ever seen," said Montreal coach Tom McCraw, a former White Sox teammate. "When he got a lead, he made it stand up. He made us a lot of money."
Though he made his mark as a reliever, his best game came as a starter. On Sept. 20, 1958, while with the Baltimore Orioles, he pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees at old Memorial Stadium.
"I came into that game in the seventh or eighth inning for defense," Robinson said. "I remember Hank Bauer tried to bunt for a hit in the ninth inning and it went foul."
Robinson said the Wilhelms helped his family feel welcome, on and off the field.
"Hoyt and Peggy lived about a half-block from us in Baltimore. My children and his children were real close," he said.
Born as James Hoyt Wilhelm, he is the third Hall of Famer to die in the last two months. Ted Williams and Enos Slaughter also died.
"We called him 'Tilt' because he walked around with his head tilted," recalled infielder Ron Hansen, who was traded with Wilhelm from Baltimore to the White Sox.
"We used to kid him about his age, because he never told anybody," he said. "We'd kid him, saying we'd find out how old he is when he went to collect his pension or Social Security check."
Wilhelm began experimenting with his unorthodox pitch after reading a story about knuckleballer Dutch Leonard while playing high school ball in his hometown of Huntersville, N.C.
Wilhelm, who won a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge, got a late start to his major league career. He was in his late 20s when the Giants decided to give him a chance in their bullpen in 1952.
The Giants were glad they did, as the rookie went 15-3 with 11 saves and a league-leading 2.43 ERA in 71 relief appearances.
A year after his no-hitter, the Orioles kept Wilhelm in the starting rotation. He went 15-11 and led the AL with a 2.19 ERA -- it was the last year in his career in which Wilhelm did not record a save.
Orioles catchers, however, had a tough time handling Wilhelm's dancing knuckler that year. They set a modern record with 49 passed balls in 1959.
The next year, on May 27, 1960, Baltimore catcher Clint Courtney broke out an oversized mitt designed by Orioles manager Paul Richards.
"It was tough to have success against him," said Montreal manager Frank Robinson, also a Hall of Famer. "He was just a down-to-earth guy with a dry sense of humor. He'd get you laughing and he wouldn't crack a smile."
Wilhelm also pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland, California, Atlanta, the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles. He pitched for the final time on July 21, 1972, for the Dodgers.
"He was a great teammate and obviously an outstanding pitcher. He had humor, work ethic, and camaraderie that I will always remember," said Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who played with Wilhelm on the Dodgers. "He was good to the young guys. We really liked that."
Wilhelm later coached in the minors for the New York Yankees.
"He was my Double-A pitching coach at West Haven. He was a great guy and he didn't try to teach me the knuckler. He just told me, 'Just throw that ball, boy,' " San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti said.
Wilhelm is survived by a son, two daughters, two brothers and six sisters. Funeral services will be 11 a.m. Tuesday at Wiegand Brothers Funeral Home in Sarasota.
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