Hoyt Calls It Quits
July 21, 1972
Over his twenty-one-year career, Hoyt Wilhelm pitched in 1,070 games — a major-league record that stood for nearly three decades. On this date in 1972, he finally called it quits.
Incredibly enough, Wilhelm didn’t pitch his first game in the majors until the age of 28. After his first year in pro ball he went to fight in World War II (where he won a Purple Heart) and spent another six seasons in the minors until the New York Giants called him up in 1952.
The key to Wilhelm’s longevity was his knuckleball. Ironically, he later claimed that prejudice against pitchers using the fluttering pitch kept him in the minors for so long; whatever the case, the pitch — which requires little effort to throw — kept him in the majors well past his forty-fifth birthday.
Hoyt’s first major league games showed some but not all of his skills. In his first at-bat, he clouted his first and only career home run. In his next at-bat, he tripled.
But Wilhelm was most valuable out of the bullpen. Leo Durocher used him in seventy-one games that season — setting a National League record — and Wilhelm responded with fifteen wins. He also led the league in ERA and winning percentage, becoming the only rookie to ever lead the league in both of those categories.
Playing often became the theme of Hoyt’s career. He finished off with over 2,500 innings pitched — an amazing total for a man who started less than five percent of his games.
Hoyt was shipped from New York to St. Louis in 1957, but the Cardinals soon sold him to the Indians, who tried to use him as a starter. After less than a year of ineffective pitching he was waived and signed by Baltimore, where he started three games and lost them all. Struggling to keep his roster spot at the age of thirty-five, Wilhelm took the mound against the Yankees on a wet night during the fall of 1958.
Pitching against Don Larsen in a nationally televised game, Wilhelm revived his sagging career with a magnificent no-hitter against the eventual World Champions. Larsen only allowed one hit in six innings, but Orioles catcher Gus Triandos knocked what turned out to be the game winning home run off of Yanks reliever Bobby Shantz.
Hoyt didn’t win another game for the Orioles in 1958, but 1959 turned out to be a career year for the knuckleballer, who started the year 9-1. He led the American League with a 2.19 ERA, becoming the first pitcher to win ERA titles in both leagues. After four years with the O’s he was traded again, this time to the White Sox in the deal that brought lightning-fast shortstop Luis Aparicio to Baltimore.
In Chicago, Wilhelm showed he had a lot left in his tank. In four out of his six years with the White Sox, Hoyt finished with an ERA below 2.00. But he was pushing forty and many people expected his retirement when the White Sox left him unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft. But Wilhelm kept going. He was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the draft, then traded to the California Angels. Towards the end of the 1969 season he was sent to the Braves, where he won two games in eight appearances.
In 1970 he led the Braves in games pitched and saves before he was again traded, this time to the Cubs. He pitched briefly for the Dodgers in 1972, but his career ended when LA gave him his walking papers. On July 21, 1972 — two days before his forty-ninth birthday — Hoyt Wilhelm was done playing major league baseball. His career spanned 1,070 games, a record broken in 1999 by Jesse Orosco; he had thrown 2,254 innings for nine different teams.