Hoyt Wilhelm

Hoyt Wilhelm
Wilhelm in 1953
Born: (1922-07-26)July 26, 1922
Huntersville, North Carolina
Died: August 23, 2002(2002-08-23) (aged 80)
Sarasota, Florida
Batted: RightThrew: Right
MLB debut
April 18, 1952, for the New York Giants
Last MLB appearance
July 10, 1972, for the Los Angeles Dodgers
MLB statistics
Win–loss record143–122
Earned run average2.52
Career highlights and awards
Member of the National
Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg Baseball Hall of Fame Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg
Vote83.8% (eighth ballot)

James Hoyt Wilhelm (July 26, 1922 – August 23, 2002), nicknamed "Old Sarge", was an American Major League Baseball pitcher with the New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, California Angels, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers between 1952 and 1972. Wilhelm was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, and is one of 78 pitchers enshrined in the Hall.

Wilhelm grew up in North Carolina, fought in World War II, and then spent several years in the minor leagues before starting his major league career at the age of 29. He was best known for his knuckleball, which enabled him to have great longevity. He appeared occasionally as a starting pitcher, but pitched mainly as a reliever. Wilhelm won 124 games, still the record for relief pitchers. He was the first pitcher to reach 200 saves, and the first to appear in 1,000 games.

Wilhelm was nearly 30 years old when he entered the major leagues, and pitched until he was nearly 50. He retired with one of the lowest career earned run averages, 2.52, in baseball history. After retiring as a player in 1972 Wilhelm held longtime coaching jobs with the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves. He lived in Sarasota, Florida for many years, and died there in 2002.

Early life

Wilhelm was born in 1922, long thought to have been 1923.[a] He was one of eleven children born to poor tenant farmers John and Ethel (née Stanley) Wilhelm in Huntersville, North Carolina.[1][2] He played baseball at Cornelius High School in Cornelius, North Carolina.[3] Knowing he could not throw fast, he began experimenting with a knuckleball after reading about pitcher Dutch Leonard.[4] He practiced honing it with a tennis ball,[5] hoping it was his best shot at Big League success.[6]

James Hoyt Wilhelm Commemorative Statue outside Huntersville Athletic Park in Huntersville, NC

Wilhelm made his professional debut with the Mooresville Moors of the Class-D North Carolina State League in 1942. He served in the United States Army in the European Theater during World War II. Wilhelm participated in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded, earning the Purple Heart for his actions.[4][7] He played his entire career with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his back as a result of this injury.[6] He rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Wilhem was nicknamed "Old Sarge" because of his service in the military.[5]

He returned to the Moors in 1946, following his military service. Over the 1946 and 1947 seasons, Wilhelm earned 41 wins with Mooresville.[2] He later recalled being dropped from a Class D minor league team and having the manager tell him to forget about the knuckleball, but he persisted with it.[8] The Boston Braves purchased Wilhelm from Mooresville in 1947.[3] On November 20, 1947, Wilhelm was drafted by the New York Giants from the Braves in the 1947 minor league draft.[3]

Wilhelm's first assignment in the Giants organization was in Class B with the 1948 Knoxville Smokies, for whom he registered 13 wins and 9 losses. He spent a few games that season with the Class A Jacksonville Tars of the South Atlantic League. Wilhelm returned to Jacksonville in 1949, earning a 17–12 win-loss record and a 2.66 earned run average (ERA). With the Class AAA Minneapolis Millers in 1950, Wilhelm was the starting pitcher in 25 of his 35 games pitched, registering a 15–11 record with a 4.95 ERA. His ERA came down to 3.94 in 1951 with Minneapolis, but his record finished at 11–14. Wilhelm had been used in a similar role that season, mostly starting games but also making eleven relief appearances.[3]

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