James Hoyt Wilhelm was born on July 26, 1922 in Huntersville, North Carolina. In high school he read an article about the knuckleball pitcher Emil Dutch Leonard. He then learned to throw the pitch & master it.
The six foot right hander, was signed by the Boston Braves but after one season in the minors, he was drafted into World War II.
Wilhelm was a hero at the Battle of the Bulge, winning the Purple Heart for heroic duty. He rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant & became known as “Ol’ Sarge”. After the War, at the age of 28, he was signed by the New York Giants.
He was given a chance getting put into the bullpen, making his pitching debut on April 18th against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
On April 23, 1952, in his first career at the Polo Grounds he hit a HR off Boston Braves’ pitcher Dick Hoover. It would be the only HR he would ever hit in his long career. That same day he earned his first career victory, pitching five innings of relief.
He won his first four decisions & was 7-2 going into July. From there he went on to save seven games & earn three more victories until finally taking a loss at the end of August.
Overall in his rookie season, he was incredible; leading the league in ERA (2.42) and winning percentage (.833). Out of the bullpen he went 15-3 with eleven saves (3rd in the league) setting a record (at that time) with 71 appearances. He had 108 strikeouts, in 159 innings pitched, averaging 6.1 strikeouts per innings, third best in the league.
He made the All Star team, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and fourth in the MVP voting. He became one of the first star relievers of the game, winning 124 career games in relief, still an MLB record.
He was by far the first reliever to save over 200 games and make 1000 appearances. He developed his knuckleball into one of the best the game has ever seen. The pitch put less strain on his arm and it helped him prolonged his career for 21 seasons.
In his sophomore 1953 season, he led the league in appearances again with 68, & games finished with 39. He was 7-8 with 15 saves (second in the league) posting a 3.04 ERA. In the Giants 1954 Championship season Wilhelm started out the season just 2-2 by the end of May. In June he went a roll going 4-0 with four saves, ending the month with an ERA of 2.19.
From August 22nd through the end of the season he saved two games & won four without any losses. He was the Giants best weapon for late inning pitching.
Overall out of the bullpen he won 12 games going 12-4, leading the league in winning percentage (.750%). He saved seven games and posted a 2.10 ERA in 57 appearances.
Post Season- 1954 World Series: Wilhelm made two appearances in the 1954 World Series. In Game #3 he got the save pitching a hitless 1.2 innings at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. He also pitched a scoreless seventh inning in the fourth & final game of the Series. Amazingly enough in his twenty year career he would never pitch in another post season series.
The next season he appeared in 59 games for the Giants, but didn’t record any saves going 4-1 with a 3.93 ERA. In 1956 he struggled just like the Giants did as they finished in sixth place & attendance plummeted. He was 4-9 posting a 3.83 ERA.
In February of 1957 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a former Giant who returned to New York, Whitey Lockman. He saved 11 games in St. Louis going 1-4, but was placed on waivers in September getting picked up by the Cleveland Indians.
In Cleveland he was given the chance to start as well as pitch in relief. In 1958 he was 2-7 with five saves before being sent to the Baltimore Orioles in late August.
On a rainy September 28th afternoon in a nationally televised game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, he threw a no hitter against the AL New York team. He won the game 1-0 beating Don Larsen & Bobby Shantz.
He struck out eight batters, walking only two along the way. In his next outing he pitched nine innings in New York, allowing just one run but did not earn a victory in the Orioles 3-2 extra inning victory.
He stayed in Baltimore for five seasons winning another ERA title in 1959. That season he won his first nine decisions, but had a rougher time as the season went on, finishing up at 15-11 being used mostly as a starter.
On August 6th he came in relief in the 9th inning in a game against that seasons A.L. Champion Chicago White Sox. Wilhelm would throw no hit baseball for the next 8 2/3 innings, allowing a single in the top of the 17th inning. He would earn no decision as the game ended in 1-1 tie after 18 innings.
His knuckle ball was hard to handle for the catchers. The Orioles back stops set a
record with 49 passed balls. The following year, manager Paul Richards introduced the oversized catcher's mitt that became standard equipment for catching the knuckler.
In 1961 he was an All Star, as he saved 18 games (second in the league) going 9-7 with a 2.30 ERA. He followed up with 15 saves in 1962 (fourth in the league) while making the All Star team once again.
In 1963 he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for another future Hall of Famer, short stop Luis Aparacio. Wilhelm pitched with the White Sox from 1963 thru 1968. He would have five consecutive seasons with ERA’s below 2.00.
In 1964 he saved a career high 27 games (second in the AL) while going 12-9 with a 1.99 ERA. From the 1966 season through the 1972 seasons he would be the oldest player in the major leagues.
In 1967 he posted a 1.31 ERA, going 8-3 with 12 saves (7th in the AL) in 49 appearances, as the White Sox finished second, to the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the season.
In 1968 he set another record, pitching his 319th game without an error, while appearing in a personal career high 72 games, at age 45.
The next season he was sent to the Atlanta Braves as he helped them capture the first NL West title, in the first year of divisional play. He did not appear in the 1969 NLCS against the New York Mets.
In 1970 he was 6-4 with 13 saves in 50 appearances for the Braves, before getting traded to the Chicago Cubs for Hal Breeden. He would pitch just three games as a Cub. In 1971 he returned to Atlanta, pitching in three games, but was soon released, then getting picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On April 17th he earned his only save that year, it being the final save of his career. It came in Atlanta in a 8-3 win over the Braves. He would pitch in 16 games that year for the Dodgers, going 0-1 with a 4.62 ERA. Wilhelm pitched until the age of 49 and retired just two weeks shy of his 50th birthday.
In his long 21 year career he pitched in 1070 games (6th all time) finishing up 651 games (11th all time). He posted a 143-122 record, with 227 saves (41st all time) with 1610 strike outs (174th all time) in 2254 innings pitched posting a 2.52 ERA.(46th all time). He saved twenty or more games three times, with ten or more saves ten times.
He was a 15 game winner twice, made five All Star teams and was considered for the MVP award four times. He was also a fine fielding pitcher, finishing with a perfect .1000% five times.
Honors: Wilhelm was the first relief pitcher to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, getting enshrined at Cooperstown in 1985.
He passed away on August 22, 2002 in Sarasota Florida at age 79.