James Hoyt Wilhelm (July 26, 1922 in Huntersville, North Carolina - August 23, 2002 in Sarasota, Florida) was an American pitcher in Major League Baseball. Wilhelm was best known for his knuckleball, which enabled him to have great longevity – occasionally as a starting pitcher, but mainly as a specialist relief man (in which role he won 124 games, still the record for relief pitchers). He is recognized as the first pitcher to have saved 200 games in his career and the first pitcher to appear in 1000 games. He is also one of the oldest players to have pitched; his final appearance was 16 days short of his 50th birthday. (During his entire playing career, he was believed to be one year younger, but he straighted out the discrepancy late in life.)
Much travelled, his clubs included the New York Giants (1952-56), Baltimore Orioles (1958-62), Chicago White Sox (1963-68), and spells with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, California Angels, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom he was playing when he eventually retired after the 1972 season.
His success as a reliever helped the gradual change in usage patterns of pitchers, and the popularity of the concept of a "relief ace". Along with Phil Niekro, Wilhelm is considered by many as one of the greatest knuckleballers to have played the game, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985. He was the 1st relief pitcher chosen for the Hall.
The high point of Wilhelm’s career came at a time when his role as a pitcher was in flux. During his first six years in the majors, Wilhelm appeared in 361 games, all in relief. But in 1958, Cleveland manager Bobby Bragan used him occasionally as a starter, and Wilhelm continued in that dual role after a mid-season trade to Baltimore. On September 20, sporting a 2-10 won-lost record, he got his first start against the New York Yankees, who had already clinched the American League pennant. The opposing pitcher was Don Larsen, who two years earlier had thrown a perfect game in the World Series. On this drizzly evening, Wilhelm fashioned his own gem, striking out eight and throwing the only no-hitter of his career against the soon-to-be World Series champs. The next time the Yankees were no-hit in a 9-inning game was on June 11, 2003 by six pitchers of the Houston Astros. No pitcher has pitched a complete 9-inning no-hitter against the Yankees since Wilhelm.
On August 6, 1959, Wilhelm nearly pitched a rare "no-hitter in relief." Relieving Billy O'Dell at the start of the ninth inning, Wilhelm held the White Sox hitless for 8⅔ innings before finally surrendering a hit in the 17th. Only Ernie Shore ever fashioned a longer spell of no-hit relief.
Although his accomplishments as a pitcher are well known, Wilhelm also holds an interesting record as a batter. On April 23, 1952, in his second game with the New York Giants, Wilhelm came to the plate for the first time in the majors. Facing rookie Dick Hoover of the Boston Braves, Wilhelm swung and sliced a home run over the short right-field fence at the Polo Grounds. Although he played 21 seasons and went to bat a total of 432 times in his career, he never hit another home run. He had one triple, in his 2nd major league season of 1953.
In 1961 the Baltimore Orioles deliberately brought Wilhelm into a losing game, despite Wilhelm being their closer, in order to face a single batter: Roger Maris, who was on the verge of hitting his 60th home run and tying Babe Ruth's record in 154 games. The Orioles were widely decried in the press for what was called a "Bush League play".
- List of Major League Baseball ERA champions
- List of Major League Baseball all-time saves leaders
- Games finished
- List of Major League Baseball no-hitters
- baseballhalloffame.org – Hall of Fame biography page
- Career statistics and player information from Baseball-Reference, or Fangraphs, or The Baseball Cube
- Baseball Library
|National League ERA Champion|
|American League ERA Champion|
1953, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1970