Transaction of Today…November 20, 1947: The New York Giants drafted Hoyt Wilhelm from the Boston Braves in the 1947 minor league draft.
For about a month, the Boston Braves had the rights to a prospect who was going against the grain by living and dying with a knuckleball. The prevailing wisdom was that only old pitchers trying to extend their career a few years tinkered with a knuckleball as a little something extra. Hoyt Wilhelm not only bucked that trend, but he made a Hall of Fame career throwing the pitch. As a teenager, Wilhelm was a fan of Emil Leonard, otherwise known as “Dutch.” He followed the former Washington Senator and learned how to throw the knuckler just like Leonard. Not only was he successful, but he gave hope to a lot of pitchers who would try to mimic him as he had done with Leonard.
A veteran of The Battle of the Bulge who received a Purple Heart, Wilhelm returned to the states to rejoin Mooresville, then a team in the Class-D North Carolina State League. He was 25-years-old and coming off a 20-win season when the Boston Braves purchased his contract.
However, what happened next – I just don’t know. The minor league draft was apparently a thing and less than a month after having his contract purchased by the Braves, Wilhelm would head to the Giants via that draft. He wasn’t alone as three other players who also played in the majors exchanged teams that day. If anyone has more information about the particulars, please share them in the comment section because this is one of those odd transactions that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Regardless of all that, it was the end of a short and thoroughly unproductive relationship between Boston and the man who would later earn the moniker, Old Sarge.
After a few more years in the minors, Wilhelm impressed Giants manager, Leo Durocher, who kept the then-29-year-old on the roster to begin the 1952 season. Immediately, he became one of the first relief specialists. In 71 games, Wilhelm picked up eleven saves (later retroactively awarded to him). He also pitched 159.1 innings – a staggering total in modern-day figures considering he never started a game. He even took home an ERA title.
His career was off-and-running. After another four years with the Giants, he made stops with the Cardinals, Indians, and Orioles. It was with the O’s that he received his first significant run as a starter and claimed a second ERA title in 1959. He would be shifted back to the bullpen and later helped to expand the idea of a relief specialist with three consecutive 20-save seasons. Again, the save wasn’t adopted as an official statistic before 1969, but boxscore data has allowed us the opportunity to go back and award saves to pitchers long after their career was over.
Wilhelm became the career saves leader in 1964 and five years later, became the first pitcher to save 200 games. It was that season, 1969, that he finally wore a Braves hat in a game after beginning the year with the Angels. The Braves had moved twice since purchasing Wilhelm’s contract and were now a contender in the first year of divisions, which placed Atlanta in the NL West. Wilhelm was acquired in a four-player deal that included young Mickey Rivers, who later became an All-Star for the Yankees. The trade came after the September roster deadline so Wilhelm would be ineligible for the playoffs. That was unfortunate because Wilhelm only pitched in the playoffs once during his career – 1954 for the champion Giants. Nevertheless, his play in September helped the Braves win the division by three games before falling to the Miracle Mets in the NLCS.
Wilhelm would be an All-Star for the Braves in 1970 and pitched in his 1000th career game before being sold to the Cubs shortly before the season ended. He would be traded back to the Braves after the season, but didn’t last very long in 1971. He would retire at the age of 49 in 1972. He had appeared in just 16 games for the Dodgers and recorded only one save – the 228th of his career. His claim as the game’s best relief pitcher (based on most saves) would last seven more seasons before 1980 when Rollie Fingers‘ passed him.
Nearly 70 years ago, Wilhelm’s first stint with the Braves franchise ended rather quickly. He would become the first relief pitcher ever voted into the Hall of Fame and was a knuckleballer pioneer. Atlanta would later have great success with Phil Niekro and will look to reconnect to the curious pitch in 2017 with R.A. Dickey.