Remembering Late-Starting, Long-Playing Knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm

Hoyt Wilhelm GiantsJeff Mays of HalosDaily.com finds it “mind-blowing” that Hoyt Wilhelm (“The First Angel Hall of Famer”), who pitched until several days shy of his 50th birthday, didn’t even get started in the major leagues until he was 29. A war and a war injury had delayed him.

The first relief pitcher ever to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame was a one-time Angel named Hoyt Wilhelm.

Wilhelm pitched for 21 seasons, from 1952 to 1972, becoming the first pitcher in Major League history to appear in 1,000 games, which, in part, led to him being the first reliever to reach 200 saves—most recorded in the old-school, multi-inning variety.  During all of these appearances, he won a record 124 games in relief, and in one of his ten spot-starts in 1958, he threw a no-hitter against the mighty New York Yankees.  And as far as fielding his position goes, when he retired, he held the record for the most consecutive games by a pitcher without an error at 319…

Hoyt was drafted into the army when he was 20 and spent the next three years in the service of Uncle Sam.  In December of 1944 Wilhelm was injured in the Battle of the Bulge, an offensive started by the Germans as they tried to recapture the harbor of Antwerp…. Wilhelm was one of many awarded the Purple Heart.

When he returned to the states, he needed a few years of seasoning in the minors until he was ready, at the ripe old age of 29, for the major leagues.

Wilhelm did not always pitch in relief, but after 1964 he “was used exclusively as a relief pitcher.”

We’re not quite as surprised by the phenomenon of a late-starting knuckleballer (nor, of course, by any skilled knuckleballer’s longevity). Many pitchers who find their second wind by switching to the knuckleball as their main pitch do so whether or not they began their pro career right out of school.

In an important respect, though, Hoyt Wilhelm was also an early-starter (as Mays also reports), having been inspired by Dutch Leonard’s knuckleball to begin grappling with his own while still in high school. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to have been any hiatus between Wilhelm’s early “fooling around” with the pitch and his eventual professional reliance on it. It was his first wind, so to speak.

In our post pointing to video of his 1950s appearance on “The Inside Pitch with Bob Wolff,” we noted that the story is mostly about Wilhelm’s idea of what the knuckleball is and how it is thrown. But when Wolff asks him how old he was when he first started with the knuckleball, he replies: “Oh, I started throwing it way back when I was in high school. I’ve thrown a knuckleball just about all the time, I’d say.”

He then disputes Wolff’s suggestion that you need to start as early as he did to master the pitch. “Well, I don’t know about that, Bob. Some guys have come up with it in their later years as pitchers…. I don’t guess it is necessary to start that far back.”

He’s quoted by BaseballHall.org on the question of why he took up the knuckleball to begin with:

“I got to messing with the [knuckleball] in high school. I started to see that the ball was doing something. I figured it was my only ticket to the big leagues, ’cause I couldn’t throw hard, and I knew if I was going to play ball, I’d have to make it some other way.”

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