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WSI News - Season Features


Hoyt Wilhelm Remembered


White Sox Interactive looks back at "Old Tilt" # 31, 1923 - 2002

By Mark Liptak

Ex-Sox and hall-of-famer Hoyt Wilhelm past away last Friday, August 23 at age 79.  Though he played for several teams, perhaps his most memorable stint was with the Chicago White Sox of the 1960's, and thus this hall-of-famer is especially well-remembered and respected by Sox Fans.  White Sox Interactive is proud to offer Sox Fans this special tribute to the knuckleball ace, "Old Tilt."

Hoyt Wilhelm was a large part of the "golden age" of White Sox baseball. During the early and mid 60's when the Sox were in contention every year and always won more games then they lost, the Sox were anchored by a pitching staff second to none. Sox fans of a certain generation can automatically roll off the names of the best starting staff in the American League..Peters, Horlen, John, Pizarro, Buzhardt, Herbert but what many fans forget is that the Sox usually had one of the best bullpens as well.

Hoyt's 1964 Topps baseball card.

That’s where Hoyt Wilhelm came in. Hoyt along with outstanding pitchers like Eddie Fisher, Bob Locker, Wilbur Wood, Don McMahon and Don Mossi consistently closed the door on late opposition rallies. It was no accident why the Sox usually won the one run and extra inning games in this time frame.

Wilhelm was to the 60's, what "Goose" Gossage was to the 70's, Dan Quisenberry to the 80's and Mariano Rivera to the 90's. He was unhittable. The only difference between Hoyt and those other relief pitchers was, that he didn’t throw hard enough to break a pain of glass.

Wilhelm threw the knuckleball and it was hell on hitters and his own catchers to boot!

Hoyt had already established himself as a star pitcher with the New York Giants and the Baltimore Orioles when he was acquired by the Sox in one of the most lop sided trades in team history. Wilhelm, shortstop Ron Hansen, 3rd baseman Pete Ward and outfielder Dave Nicholson were acquired by the Sox on January 14, 1963 from the Orioles in exchange for shortstop Luis Aparicio and the late outfielder Al Smith.

Ward would become co- rookie of the year and a serious power threat. Nicholson who struck out at lot, still averaged in double figures in home runs. Hansen would become one of the top glove men in the league and also held the team record for home runs by a shortstop until broken by Jose Valentin. Wilhelm though was amazing.

How good was he?

Despite being in his 40's when the Sox acquired him, Wilhelm racked up 41 wins and 98 saves during the years 1963 through 1968.

Hoyt shows off his knuckleball grip!

He was great right from the start, allowing one run in his first eighteen innings of work in 1963. He’d finish that season saving 21 games, throwing 137 innings and having an ERA of 2.64. 1964 saw him collect twelve wins, save 27 games, throw 131 innings and have an ERA of 1.99. Things didn’t stop in 1965. Hoyt saved 20 games, pitched 144 innings and finished the year with an ERA of 1.66.

In 1966, Wilhelm suffered his only serious injury when an errant ball struck him in the batting cage in Spring training. The index finger was broken and he missed half the year. Hoyt still threw 81 innings and had an ERA of 1.66 The heartbreaking 1967 season had Wilhelm winning eight, saving twelve and having an incredible ERA of 1.31! This throwing nothing but the knuckleball. Even in 1968 when the Sox were terrible, Wilhelm still had four wins, twelve saves and an ERA of 1.73.

Simply put the man was the best relief pitcher in baseball at that time.

Tall, quiet, angular, a "Jimmy Stewart" type, Hoyt was well liked and respected by his teammates and players on the other teams.

Former Sox great Billy Pierce saw Wilhelm pitch for a long time. "I watched him for many years. He had the best knuckleball that I’ve ever seen. He was one of the few knuckleballers who had complete confidence in the pitch. Hoyt could and would throw it anytime. He had control of it, which is why you’d see it on a 2-0 count."

Wilhelm, a converted starter, who had already pitched a no hitter, wasn’t your average relief guy. He could throw a lot of innings if needed. "We were in Baltimore. I wound up throwing 16 innings that night. Hoyt came in and relieved for nine innings or so for them. We might have gotten one hit off him in that time.,"recalled Pierce. "Minnie Minoso just had the hardest time against Hoyt. He could not hit him. We used to kid him a lot about that, Minnie wanted no part of that knuckleball!"

That knuckleball could be absolute torture on his catchers though.

In 1966, because of injuries to two other Sox catchers, John "Honey" Romano, an experienced receiver had to try to catch the "dancing medicine show." It was quite a scene. Wilhelm’s first two throws got past Romano and went to the backstop. After the third pitch floated by him, Romano started walking towards the Sox dugout, ripping off his mask and gear and throwing them into the dugout. Sox manager Eddie Stanky had to push him back on to the playing field.

Hoyt's nickname was "Old Tilt" for the way he began his delivery, as his 1966 Topps baseball card illustrates.

Or consider J.C. Martin, whom former Sox coach Charlie Metro said in his book, "Safe By A Mile," was the only guy he ever saw who could consistently catch Wilhelm.

On June 9, 1964 the Sox were leading the Orioles comfortably 6-1 in a game at Comiskey Park.

Baltimore strung together three hits of Juan Pizarro in the 8th inning, bringing Al Lopez out of the dugout and bringing in Wilhelm. Martin was called in to replace Camilo Carreon behind the plate.

In two innings of work, Wilhelm’s ball was breaking so much, that Martin was charged with three passed balls and a throwing error in the Sox eventual 9-5 win. The Baltimore Sun’s sidebar story on the game in the June 10th edition had this headline..."Hoyt’s Butterflies Provide Martin Nightmarish Night.".

Any wonder Martin led the league in passed balls almost every season?

"It was exciting because you never knew where the ball was going, "according to J.C. "Seriously it could do a ninety degree break and then double back. If you didn’t wait, you just couldn’t see it. You’d have to snatch it when it was right on top of you. It’s the best pitch I’ve ever seen a relief guy throw. Hoyt’s always worked."

Wilhelm also influenced and helped other Sox pitchers who dabbled in that ancient art of the knuckleball. He helped Eddie Fisher as well as a young left hander named Wilbur Wood. According to the Chicago Tribune, Wood had this to say about his mentor. "I always had the knuckleball, but when I came to the ballclub in 1967, he gave me the best advice. The thing he told me was that you had to go with it 100 percent of the time. To win or lose a ballgame, you have to use the knuckleball since it’s your biggest pitch."

When Jim Bouton was with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, thanks to him learning to throw the knuckleball, he immediately sought out Wilhelm when the Pilots visited Los Angeles. Wilhelm was with the Angels by then and according to Bouton in "Ball Four," told him the same thing that he told Wood, you have to throw the ball all the time.

Wilhelm was very popular with the Sox faithful and was always a big draw on "White Sox Celebrity Night"at the "Free Fair" held in the "back of the yards" area of Chicago every Summer.

Former teammate Tommy McCraw summed it up best about Wilhelm’s value to the White Sox when he told the Associated Press, "He had the best damn knuckleball I've ever seen. When he got a lead, he made it stand up. He made us a lot of money."

Wilhelm is survived by his wife Peggy, a son, two daughters, two brothers and six sisters.

Hoyt Wilhelm’s White Sox Stats:

                W    L    ERA    G      IP        SV     K

1963          5     8    2.64    55   136.1     21    111

1964        12     9    1.99    73   131.1     27      95 

1965          7     7    1.81    66   144       20     106

1966          5     2    1.66    46    81.1       6       61

1967          8     3    1.31    49    89        12       76

1968          4     4    1.73    72    93.2      12      72  

For a complete review of Hoyt Wilhelm's accomplishments with our Chicago White Sox, visit White Sox Interactive's Sox Fans' Hall of Fame, where "Old Tilt" was honored amongst WSI readers in 1999 as their choice all-time best Sox relief pitcher.  Visit his page by clicking this link.

Editor's Note:  Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work.  He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years.  "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.  

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