Scott Fowler

Huntersville’s Hoyt Wilhelm was history’s best knuckleball pitcher

In this 1970 file photo from the Associated Press, knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm showed how he grips the ball before he threw his signature pitch (he didn’t actually use his knuckles at all). Wilhelm, who grew up in Huntersville, was the first reliever elected to baseball’s hall of fame. He died in 2002 at age 80.
In this 1970 file photo from the Associated Press, knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm showed how he grips the ball before he threw his signature pitch (he didn’t actually use his knuckles at all). Wilhelm, who grew up in Huntersville, was the first reliever elected to baseball’s hall of fame. He died in 2002 at age 80. AP

When I was doing this “Scott Says” full page for the very first time, in early April, the first subject for my flashback series was future NFL hall of fame general manager Bill Polian and the 1995 Carolina Panthers’ draft he led.

While we were talking, I asked Polian, who still lives in the Lake Norman area, if he had any ideas for me for future flashback subjects.

“How about Hoyt Wilhelm?” Polian said. “I didn’t know he was from around here until very recently.”

It was a fine suggestion. And so today we take a look at the career of Wilhelm, who died in 2002 at age 80 after a hall of fame career as baseball’s best knuckleball pitcher ever.

James Hoyt Wilhelm had connections all over greater Charlotte and still has family in the area. He was one of 11 children born to a farming family in Huntersville, where he was raised.

Wilhelm pitched for Cornelius High – where he first learned how to throw the knuckler that would make him famous. He would say many times that he learned it in high school after looking at a newspaper photo of a player from the Washington Senators named Dutch Leonard demonstrating a knuckleball grip.

Rather than go to college – and he could have gone to Davidson – Wilhelm began a minor-league career with the Mooresville Moors of the Class D North Carolina State League.

A Purple Heart and a no-hitter

Wilhelm won big in Mooresville for several years, but big-league scouts yawned. Like today, the scouts wanted young men who could throw the heat. Most pitchers who were knuckleball specialists then tried the knuckler at the end of their career when their arm was mostly shot. Wilhelm was unique – he threw it 90 percent of the time, even in high school.

As a Charlotte newspaper reporter once supposedly wrote while Wilhelm slogged along in the minors (the quote may be apocryphal, but it shows up in lots of Wilhelm biographies): “Wilhelm is never going any place. He throws like a washer-woman.”

Wilhelm’s baseball career was interrupted by World War II when he was drafted into the Army. Wilhelm served for three years and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded by shrapnel. He would pitch for the rest of his career with a piece of metal lodged in his back. He returned to the Mooresville Moors in 1946. He ended up kicking around in the minors until 1952, when the New York Giants finally allowed him to make his major-league debut at age 29.

From there, Wilhelm was extraordinary. One of the best relief pitchers ever, he would pitch in the majors until age 49. He also hit a home run in his first-ever plate appearance – and would never hit another one.

Although primarily a closer, Wilhelm also got an occasional start. In 1958, he threw a no-hitter and won a 1-0 game over Don Larsen against a New York Yankees lineup that included Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowron, Bobby Richardson and Yogi Berra.

Not only was hitting Wilhelm a challenge, but catching his knuckler was very difficult. No one knew where it was going – including Wilhelm.

“Some days it doesn’t do much, and some days it does too much,” Wilhelm once said.

100 mph? More like 50

The new book “Knuckleball” by Lew Freedman includes a quote from one of Wilhelm’s teammates saying Wilhelm sometimes threw the pitch at about 50 mph.

But, as the ball got closer to the plate, it randomly dipped and darted like a bat in search of an insect in the summer twilight. No less a batter than Ted Williams said Wilhelm’s knuckler was the best in history.

It was murder on catchers, too. In Wilhelm’s first 16 seasons in the majors, his team led the league in passed balls 15 times.

Wilhelm and his wife, Peggy, lived in the offseason in the Huntersville area for a number of years. After he retired from playing in 1972 – he would coach in the minor leagues for another quarter-century – they lived in Sarasota, Fla.

In 1985, Wilhelm made the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first relief pitcher to do so. He died in Sarasota at age 80 in 2002. The baseball fields at Huntersville Athletic Park have been named Hoyt Wilhelm Fields since 2008, and a plaque listing Wilhelm’s accomplishments has a prominent place there.

Let’s leave the final word to the late and legendary sportswriter Jim Murray. He once wrote of the difficulty of hitting Wilhelm’s knuckler: “Part of the trouble is, the ball comes to the plate like a kid on the way to a bath.”

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