Past Time: The Unconventional Career of Hoyt Wilhelm

Maybe you’ve heard of Hoyt Wilhelm.   If not, we’ve got your back.  And even if you have, maybe you don’t know his story, one which does not follow the beaten path from his first plate appearance to his final season.

James Hoyt Wilhelm was a knuckleball pitcher who came to the big leagues in 1952 at the age of 29.  Wilhelm started messing with a knuckler in high school, and stuck to it because he could not throw hard enough to make the big leagues.  The strategy worked.  In his rookie season with the New York Giants, when manager Leo Durocher decided he was best suited for the bullpen, Wilhelm pitched to a 15-3 record out of ‘pen.  He led the league in ERA that season and finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting.

Later in his career, he was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Baltimore Orioles mid-season. In Baltimore, Wilhelm was given a chance to start again. In September of 1958, in just his third start with the O’s, he no-hit a Yankees lineup that included Bobby Richardson, Elston Howard, and Mickey Mantle.  Wilhelm would eventually move back to the bullpen.

Because his knuckleball put less strain on his arm, Hoyt Wilhelm — nicknamed Old Sarge — just kept pitching long after other hurlers would have to call it quits. In 1965, at 42 years of age, he threw 144 innings with an ERA of 1.81, saving 21 games for the White Sox.  With Chicago, he put together an especially impressive stretch of five consecutive seasons in which he pitched to an ERA under 2.00.

When it was time to hang ’em up, Hoyt had played for nine different teams. He finally walked away from the game after the 1972 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers when he pitched 25.1 innings at the age of 49 years young.

The knuckler finished his long career with a stellar 2.52 ERA, 143 Wins, and an impressive 228 saves. And in 1985, James Hoyt Wilhelm made history when he became the first reliever ever to get the call to Cooperstown.

As if these facts about the man weren’t fun enough, here are two more that make hist story especially intriguing.  First, the Hall of Famer served his country in World War II, where an artillery blast placed a piece of metal shrapnel in his back.  The metal never left his body, and he pitched his entire career with it still lodged in his back.  He also received a Purple Heart in his service.

You can take all this about Wilhelm and be impressed.  But there’s still one fact left that just boggles the mind.  It’s not about his Hall of Fame pitching numbers.  It’s not about his historic career as a reliever, or his no-hitter, or his dancing, darting knuckleball.  It’s also not about his heroic service to his country or the piece of metal in his back that he pitched with.

No.  Let’s talk about Hoyt Wilhelm’s hitting for one moment.

Surely, it can’t be that impressive, right? Absolutely not. He batted a paltry .088 and got on base 13.9% of his plate appearances. He knocked in 21 runs and slugged a fabulous .106.

But get this.

29-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm stepped to the plate against the Boston Braves’ Dick Hoover in the 4th inning of a game on April 23, 1952.  It was Wilhelm’s first plate appearance in the big leagues.

On the first pitch he ever saw in the Major Leagues, Wilhelm homered.

A 29-year-old rookie pitcher homered on his first pitch in the box.  But here’s the best part. Wilhelm never homered again.  He used up all his power in that first pitch.  He did hit a triple, and doubled three times in 493 career plate appearances.

The story of Hoyt Wilhelm has many fascinating turns, but none more odd than his first at-bat homer as the only one of his career.

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