Saturday, August 11, 2007


Most baseball pitchers are proud of their fastballs, and their ability to throw it past the hitters. One of my favorites was Hoyt Wilhelm, who also threw the ball past the hitters but in slow motion. Often described as the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time, Hoyt Wilhelm was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1985. While he didn't throw the ball hard enough to break a pane of glass, as announcer Harry Caray used to say, he was an outstanding pitcher for 21 years before retiring in 1972.

Born in 1922, the son of a North Carolina tobacco farmer with 10 kids in the family, Wilhelm, when in high school, read an article about a knuckleball pitcher named Emil "Dutch" Leonard and began to experiment with the pitch. Eventually, he got to be quite good in throwing it. After graduation, he signed a professional minor league contract, but shortly thereafter, World War II broke out, and Wilhelm went into the Army. He was awarded the Purple Heart for heroism in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945.

After the war and his recovery, he pitched two more seasons for Mooresville, NC, winning more than 20 games in each season, but didn't attract much attention from Major League scouts because the knuckleball was considered a trick pitch used by fading major leaguers to prolong their careers when they couldn't throw hard anymore.
The New York Giants signed him in 1948 and kept him in the minors for 4 more years until they called him up to the majors in 1952, as a relatively old 29 year old rookie.

He was a big hit with the Giants in his rookie season. A notoriously poor hitter, he hit a home run in his first time at bat, and never hit another in the next 21 years. (see KENSUSKINREPORT, May 27, 2007). But more importantly, he led the National League in pitching appearances, earned run average and winning percentage (15 wins, 3 losses). He followed that up with 12 wins and 4 losses in 1953. His poor catchers, meanwhile, had great difficulty in catching his knuckleball and set many records for passed balls. Giants catcher, Ray Katt, for example, entered the record books with 4 passed balls in one inning.

The knuckleball is a pitch whereby the baseball is thrown off the knuckles or fingertips with little or no spin, which causes it to float or flutter in the air. The ball changes direction with the air currents, making it difficult for the pitcher to control, and of course, for the batters to hit and catchers to catch. Wilhelm mastered the pitch, but even he couldn't tell where the pitch would go, although it was generally in or near the strike zone. Of course, the key here is that the hitters couldn't tell where the pitch was going either.

The advantage to a pitcher is that he doesn't have to throw very hard, creating very little stress on his arm, so he can pitch virtually every day and still get batters out. Knuckleball pitchers often pitch well into middle age and are still effective.

Some other noteworthy knuckleball pitchers over the years included Eddie Fisher (who was not the singer who married Elizabeth Taylor, but could do a good imitation of Donald Duck); Wilbur Wood of the Chicago White Sox, the last pitcher to win 20 games and lose 20 games in the same season and also the last to start both games of a doubleheader; Hector "Skinny" Brown, who, in 1963, walked only 8 batters in 144 innings, and the next year, pitched 36 consecutive scoreless innings; Jim Davis, who in his short stint with the Chicago Cubs, struck out 4 men in one inning (including a passed ball third strike); and Phil Niekro, of the Braves, who won over 300 games and pitched until he was about 48.

After a couple of lean years with the Giants, Wilhelm was traded to St. Louis and then to Baltimore where he came under the influence of Manager Paul Richards who was known for his creativity. Frustrated by the numerous passed balls getting by his catchers, Richards invented an oversized catcher's mitt so that his catchers could finally catch Wilhelm's pitches. He also made Wilhelm a starting pitcher.

In one of his first starts, in 1958, Wilhelm pitched a no-hitter against the World Champion New York Yankees. Yankees' superstar Mickey Mantle grew so frustrated trying to hit against Wilhelm that he switched over and batted righthanded instead of the lefthanded he would normally bat. It didn't help.

In August, 1959, against the Chicago White Sox, Wilhelm entered a game in the 9th inning and pitched 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball before giving up a hit in the 17th inning.

Wilhelm pitched 4 successful seasons for Baltimore and then was traded to the White Sox in a 6 player trade for future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio. As a relief pitcher for the Chisox, he compiled 6 outstanding seasons (1963-68). One season (1964) he saved 27 games. Another season (1967), his earned run average was a miniscule 1.31. In 1965, he pitched 144 innings and gave up only 68 hits and 32 walks, while striking out 106 batters, with an earned run average of only 1.81. Meanwhile, he pitched in 319 straight games without making an error, setting a record.

The White Sox left him unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft, figuring that nobody would want a 46 year old pitcher. But Kansas City did and claimed him. They later traded him to the Atlanta Braves in September, 1969, where, in 8 games down the stretch run, he won 2 and saved 4 in pitching the Braves to the National League West championship. Wilhelm was not eligible for the playoffs, and the Braves lost, because, without him, they couldn't hold the lead in the late innings.

Wilhelm even pitched a half season for the Chicago Cubs in 1971 before they traded him back to Atlanta for the immortal Hal Breeden (who, playing for the Expos, in 1973achieved a degree of fame by hitting 2 pinch hit homers in a doubleheader, but did little else in his 5 year career). Wilhelm's major league career ended in 1972, when the Los Angeles Dodgers released him, shortly before his 50th birthday.

The point I'm making is that, although many high school kids, and maybe even grade school kids could throw harder, nobody was a craftier pitcher than Hoyt Wilhelm. Watching him pitch was funny--he would lob the ball up to the plate and dare the hitters to hit it, and they couldn't. He was a 5 time All Star, but probably his most significant pitching achievement is the fact that since 1920, when the lively ball was introduced to Major League Baseball, Wilhelm has the lowest career earned run average of any pitcher--only 2.52 runs per game over 21 years.

Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek summed up the knuckleball well: "Catching the knuckleball is like trying to catch a fly with a chopstick."

Wilhelm died in 2002, and his gravestone in Sarasota, Florida reads: "JAMES H. WILHELM, U.S. ARMY, WORLD WAR II...PURPLE HEART" The irony there is his final resting place gives no indication that he ever played baseball.




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