We would not be confident in making the same sweeping judgment. But the Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler (or whoever who wrote his headline), is happy to conclude that “Huntersville’s Hoyt Wilhelm was history’s best knuckleball pitcher.” Huntersville being a suburb near the paper’s base of Charlotte, North Carolina, the coincidence is perhaps a little too lucky. Certainly a good case can be made that Wilhelm was one of the very top knuckleballers.
Like others of the breed, he was slow to reach the top of his game—but faster than most getting started with the signature pitch.
Wilhelm pitched for Cornelius High—where he first learned how to throw the knuckler that would make him famous. He would say many times that he learned it in high school after looking at a newspaper photo of a player from the Washington Senators named Dutch Leonard demonstrating a knuckleball grip.
Rather than go to college…Wilhelm began a minor-league career with the Mooresville Moors of the Class D North Carolina State League….
Most pitchers who were knuckleball specialists then tried the knuckler at the end of their career when their arm was mostly shot. Wilhelm was unique—he threw it 90 percent of the time, even in high school.
As a Charlotte newspaper reporter once supposedly wrote while Wilhelm slogged along in the minors (the quote may be apocryphal, but it shows up in lots of Wilhelm biographies): “Wilhelm is never going any place. He throws like a washer-woman.”
His career was interrupted by World War II and he “ended up kicking around in the minors until 1952, when the New York Giants finally allowed him to make his major-league debut at age 29.”
From there, Wilhelm was extraordinary. One of the best relief pitchers ever, he would pitch in the majors until age 49….
In 1985, Wilhelm made the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first relief pitcher to do so. He died in Sarasota at age 80 in 2002….
Let’s leave the final word to the late and legendary sportswriter Jim Murray. He once wrote of the difficulty of hitting Wilhelm’s knuckler: “Part of the trouble is, the ball comes to the plate like a kid on the way to a bath.”
Another simile for our list.
Wilhelm is remembered for throwing sidearm, but, according to knuckler49, benefited from modifying it.
Wilhelm later speculated about why he didn’t escape the minors until 1952. “[The] only thing I can say is maybe [it was] because I was a knuckleball pitcher. Nobody thought too much of me.”…
Leo Durocher, the Giants manager, thought all knuckleballers should be relievers. “I really liked Durocher,” said Wilhelm decades afterward. “He was the guy who gave me my first chance to play in the big leagues.”
But part of the credit for Wilhelm’s success in the bullpen goes to former knuckleballer [Freddie] Fitzsimmons, who was a Giants coach then. He suggested that Wilhelm stop throwing sidearm and adopt a three-quarter delivery.
We posted more about Wilhelm—“arguably the first Relief Ace,” as Ezra Wise puts it—back in January.
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The sixth annual Knuckle Ball…a Pitch for Life, co-sponsored by the Joe Niekro Foundation, is coming up.
On October 17th, 2015, athletes from all over the country will come together, in association with The Joe Niekro Foundation and The Society of Neuro-Interventional Surgery Foundation, to support brain aneurysm, AVM and hemorrhagic stroke research and awareness, for the 6th Annual Knuckle Ball…A Pitch for Life at the JW Marriott Resort in Phoenix, AZ.
The black-tie evening, hosted by actress and brain aneurysm survivor, Tamala Jones, will feature a festive reception, silent auction, formal dinner, event program and LIVE auction (plus a few surprises in between). The gala is the foundation’s largest event of the year and pays tribute to those that have lost their lives to these fatal conditions, while honoring the survivors who are fighting everyday to recover.