Where Have You Gone, Hoyt Wilhelm?

Hey kids! Want to make millions of dollars when you grow up without having to work every day? Well of course you do! Plus, you can do it without exploiting slave labor or totally trashing the environment! Here’s how—learn to throw the knuckleball! It’s not easy, but it’s fun and, if you start today, you could have more cash at your disposal than Donald Trump before long. Act now!

Not only could a few fortunate young people help themselves to a fortune, but a persistent problem frustrating baseball managers and owners these days could be solved if we could just develop some knuckleballers.

It used to be that the best way to make yourself valuable to any baseball organization was to become a competent catcher. That was mostly because many of us who otherwise loved playing ball were not really attracted to the idea of squatting behind the guys swinging clubs while trying to call pitches, direct infielders, coddle temperamental pitchers, watch base runners and chase foul popups as we also incurred numerous injuries to all parts of our body from foul tips to places left unprotected by all that cumbersome gear we had to wear. Catching is an honorable and valuable occupation, but by the time you are 45 years old it becomes difficult to hold a fork and you need a golf cart to take out the trash. It seems to me that today the biggest need for all major league teams is for reliable, durable, and effective starting pitchers and relievers. Capable knuckleball throwers are the obvious answer. There are only two around that I know of, R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays and Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox and, while they have never been plentiful, pitchers who have used the knuckler have thrived in the past. I do not know how to pitch the knuckleball. I never got past the fastball and sort of a faux changeup. However, if I did know how, I would be busy teaching it. Sunday I watched Giants manager Bruce Bochy make four pitching changes in the seventh inning of a game that San Francisco eventually won, 2-1, over the Dodgers. Bochy has an interesting walk, but this is not why I tuned in. So let’s discuss knuckleball pitchers.

One hears baseball pundits talk a lot about “innings eaters”. Today, a pitcher that completes 200 innings in a season is considered an “iron man” or a “horse”. Well, how about Hoyt Wilhelm? This guy pitched in the major leagues from the time he was a 28 year old rookie in 1952 for the Giants until he was 49 years old pitching for the Dodgers in 1972. The flutter ball fluttered for a long time and he is in the Hall of Fame. He started 52 games, mainly during his tenure with the Baltimore Orioles, whose manager, Paul Richards designed an over sized catcher’s mitt to help the guys behind the plate avoid passed balls and wild pitches. Mostly, though, he relieved. Think of it:you’ve got one of those ubiquitous flame throwers like Max Scherzer or Noah Syndergaard and they hit their requisite 100 pitches after five and two thirds innings. Then you bring on a Hoyt Wilhelm type knuckleballer. Turn off the radar gun, fellas, and watch a Joc Peterson type twist himself into a corkscrew trying to hit a 70 miles per hour butterfly. Beautiful. And arm injuries? Not happening. Wilhelm pitched in 1070 games during his 21 years in the majors for a total of 2,254 and a third innings. His career earned run average was 2.52 and he won 143 games and lost 122. Old Sarge, as he was called, would be making big dough with those kind of numbers today, and he wouldn’t be on the disabled list half the time.

Then there was Wilbur Wood. Wilbur featured the knuckle ball and pitched 2,684 innings during his 17 year career with a lifetime ERA of 3.24. From 1971 through 1975 he put up some mind boggling numbers as a starter for the Chicago White Sox. Chuck Tanner managed the Sox in those days and Wilbur was his ace. The team finished in third place in the American League West in ’71, four games under .500, but Wood made 42 starts and two relief appearances, winning 22 and losing 13 with an ERA of 1.91 in 334 innings pitched. Chicago made a good pennant run the next season behind Dick Allen and his MVP season,winning 87 games to finish just behind the powerful Oakland A’s. Wood was 24-17 in 49 starts with 20 complete games and a 2.51 ERA while fellow knuckler Stan Bahnsen also was a twenty game winner. He pitched 376 and two thirds innings in 1972, a career for a lot of fireballers. In ’73 the White Sox faded back to fifth place,8 games under .500 but there was Wilbur with 24 more wins (and 20 losses)in 48 starts and 359 innings. He slipped a bit the next two years, going 20-19 in 320 and a third innings in ’74 and then 16-20 in ’75 in 291 and a third innings, but can you imagine what it would be like for a team today to get that kind of workload?

Charlie Hough used his knuckle ball in 858 major league games between 1970 and 1994, a 25 year career that produced a 216-216 record an a 3.75 ERA. He was 46 years old when he pitched his last game. Hough started out as a reliever for the Dodgers, but ended up making 440 starts. His big year was 1987 when he started 40 games for the Texas Rangers and was 18-13 with 285 and a third innings pitched.

Probably the most famous knuckler was Phil Niekro, who is also in the Hall of Fame after 24 seasons during which he won 318 games with a 3.35 ERA. He made 716 starts in his 864 appearances and lasted to age 48 when he hung up his spikes after toiling 5404 innings from 1964 to 1987. Niekro had 245 complete games, which would take entire teams about a decade to accomplish now.

Lastly, let’s not forget Jim Bouton. Bouton was out of the majors after 1970. He had become a pariah because he knew how to write, but in 1978 he made it back to the big leagues with the Braves. He had a less than spectacular season, going 1-3 with a 4.97 ERA, but after enjoying just two good years with the Yankees, 1963 and ’64,he was in a major league uniform again after a long absence. Still, he made it back, and the knuckleball was how he did it.

Let’s see, maybe if someone just showed me the grip….

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