Hoyt Wilhelm, N.Y. Giants
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.
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. He played his entire career with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his back as a result of this injury. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Wilhelm was nicknamed “Old Sarge” because of his service in the military.
He returned to the Moors in 1946, following his military service. Over the 1946 and 1947 seasons, Wilhelm earned 41 wins with Mooresville. 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. The Boston Braves purchased Wilhelm from Mooresville in 1947. On November 20, 1947, Wilhelm was drafted by the New York Giants from the Braves in the 1947 minor league draft.
From Baseball in Wartime:
James H “Hoyt” Wilhelm was born on July 26, 1923 in Huntersville, North Carolina.
He became interested in the knuckleball while he was playing for Cornelius High School in North Carolina. He had read a story about knuckleball pitcher Dutch Leonard and started to experiment with the pitch. “As a kid in high school I just didn’t have a fast one,” he told The Sporting News on June 10, 1953, “and I picked up the knuckler. Nobody taught me. I just found out about throwing it.”
He was signed out of high school in 1942 by Mooresville of the North Carolina State League. “When the manager saw my knuckler,” Wilhelm recalled, “he sent me home. But I was back for another look in two weeks, and when I used the knuckler to win a game, and then go on to nine straight, nobody objected again to the pitch.”
But Wilhelm’s baseball career was put on hold when he entered military service with the Army at Camp Croft, South Carolina on November 23, 1942.
Wilhelm was in combat in Europe with the 395th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division and was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received during the Battle of the Bulge.
Wilhelm returned to the Mooresville club in 1946 and won 21 games. The following year he won a further 20, and the North Carolina State League all-star was purchased by the Boston Braves in October 1947.
The following month he was drafted by the New York Giants and played in their farm system until making his major league debut on April 19, 1952. In his first major league season, at the age of 29, Wilhelm made 71 relief appearances for an incredible 15-3 won-loss record and 2.43 ERA. Furthermore, in his debut at the Polo Grounds on April 23, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. It was to be the only home run of his career.
In a career that lasted from 1952 to 1972, Wilhelm compiled a 143-122 record with 227 saves and a 2.52 ERA for nine different teams. He was an All-Star in 1953, 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1970. On September 20, 1958, he started a game for Baltimore at old Memorial Stadium and pitched a no-hitter against New York. In 1959, the year after pitching a no-hitter, he was kept in the starting rotation and finished the season with a 15-11 record and a league-leading 2.19 ERA. While his pitch baffled opponents, it terrorized Baltimore’s catchers. The team set a record with 49 passed balls.
He pitched for the last time on July 21, 1972, for the Dodgers, retiring a week before his 49th birthday.
When he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, he was the first relief pitcher to receive that honor.
Hoyt Wilhelm passed away on August 23, 2002 in Sarasota, Florida. He was 79 years old.