At the time of his retirement in 1972, knuckleballing master reliever Hoyt Wilhelm had appeared in more games (1,070) than any pitcher in major league history, with a late-starting ML career that still spanned 21 years. He established records for relief wins (123), games pitched in relief (1,018), games finished by a pitcher (651), and innings pitched in relief (1,870). His 227 saves place him among the all-time leaders. Fittingly, he was the first relief pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame, and the first pitcher inducted with fewer than 150 career wins.
Wilhelm was a high school pitcher in North Carolina when he read an article about knuckeballer Emil “Dutch” Leonard and began experimenting with the pitch. After a year in the minors, his progress was interrupted by WWII, in which he won the Purple Heart for heroic duty during the Battle of the Bulge. He then spent two seasons in the North Carolina State League, winning 21 and 20. Drafted by the Giants in 1948, he remained in their farm system for four years. He was 28 when New York decided to try him in their bullpen in 1952.
Wilhelm hit the only home run of his lengthy career in his first ML at-bat on April 23, 1952. That season, he set a then-record with a NL-high 71 appearances, all in relief, and recorded league bests with a 2.43 ERA, an .833 winning percentage (15-3), and 15 relief wins. He led the league in appearances again in 1953 (68), and in 1954 won a league-high 12 in relief, with only 4 losses.
Wilhelm struggled in 1955-56; in 1955 he did not record a save. He was traded to St. Louis and sold to Cleveland in 1957. In 1958, after 363 consecutive relief appearances, he was given six starts by Indians manager Bobby Bragan before being waived to Baltimore in August. In his ninth ML start, on September 20, 1958, pitching through a drizzle on a day with little wind, he no-hit the Yankees on national television. Don Larsen allowed just one hit through six innings, but Wilhelm’s batterymate Gus Triandos homered off reliever Bobby Shantz to give Baltimore the 1-0 victory. It was Wilhelm’s only win for the Orioles that year.
Kept in the starting rotation in 1959, Wilhelm won his first nine games, finished at 15-11, and won the AL ERA title (2.19). He did not record a relief win or save. His knuckler was largely responsible as Orioles catchers set a modern record with 49 passed balls (28 by Triandos, 21 by Joe Ginsberg). The following year, manager Paul Richards introduced the oversized catcher’s mitt that became standard equipment for catching the knuckler. With the emergence of the Orioles’ good young pitchers (the “Baby Birds”) in 1960, Wilhelm, age thirty-seven, was returned to the bullpen.
After four full seasons in Baltimore, Wilhelm was sent to the White Sox in the January 14, 1963 deal that brought Luis Aparicio to the Orioles. From 1964 to 1968, he rattled off five consecutive seasons with ERA below 2.00, including 1.31 in 1967. He got his career-high 27 saves in 1964. Always one of baseball’s most frequently used pitchers, he worked in 361 games in six seasons with Chicago. He set a ML record for pitchers in 1968 when he worked in his 319th straight game without an error. With the knuckleball putting little strain on his arm, he appeared in a career-high 72 games in 1968 at the age of forty-five.
The White Sox lost Wilhelm to the Royals in the 1968 expansion draft, but he was traded to California that same winter. He was reunited with Paul Richards, by then a vice-president of the Braves, when Atlanta purchased the reliever on September 8, 1969. In eight games, Wilhelm went 2-0 with two saves to help Atlanta capture the NL West title. In 1970 he led the Braves in games pitched and saves before his late-season trade to the Cubs. He pitched briefly for the Braves and Dodgers before retiring in 1972. He was voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 1985.