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WSI News - News Watch

Sox mourn death of former reliever Hoyt Wilhelm

Hoyt Wilhelm, whose fluttering knuckleball made him the first relief pitcher elected to baseball's Hall of Fame, died Friday in Sarasota, Fla. The former White Sox star was 79.

Known for his longevity—he pitched for nine teams over 21 seasons, including the White Sox and Cubs—Wilhelm also brought the knuckleball out of obscurity for a renaissance in the 1960s and '70s. His trademark pitch befuddled hitters and catchers alike, prompting Baltimore Orioles manager Paul Richards to develop an oversized mitt for his catchers.

"Wilhelm's knuckleball did more than anyone else's," said longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, now an adviser to White Sox GM Ken Williams. "No one could predict what it was going to do. There was so much action on it."

When Wilhelm retired in 1972, he had pitched in a major-league-record 1,070 games, a total since surpassed by Jesse Orosco and Dennis Eckersley. Over his career he was 143-122 with 227 saves and a 2.52 ERA.

Though best known as a reliever, Wilhelm pitched a no-hitter for the Orioles on Sept. 20, 1958, against the Yankees at Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium. It was the last no-hitter pitched against the Yankees.

James Hoyt Wilhelm began experimenting with the knuckler after reading a story about knuckleballer Dutch Leonard while playing high school ball in his hometown of Huntersville, N.C. But Wilhelm went off to war, winning a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge, and spent eight years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors.

"I was released in Class D," he once recalled. "The manager suggested I quit the knuckleball. I just went home and kept throwing it. Nobody wanted me, probably because I was a knuckleball pitcher."

He was 28 when the New York Giants decided to give him a chance in their bullpen in 1952. In his first at-bat in the major leagues, he hit his only home run. In his next at-bat, he tripled.

It was an auspicious beginning to his rookie season. Wilhelm went 15-3 with 11 saves and a league-leading 2.43 ERA in 71 relief appearances. But he never achieved much more success at the plate, finishing with a lifetime batting average of .088.

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