Remembering a Huntersville Legend
by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
The baseball announcer piqued my curiosity.
He was rambling something about the Baseball Hall of Fame during a televised game, and I wondered how many inductees were from North Carolina.
I searched that list.
Whoa! Huntersville has one – pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm.
I immediately thought that the city should do something to honor such a rare talent. There are many stretches of interstate highway I’ve seen named after senators I’ve never heard of.
Surely, Wilhelm, king of the knuckleball pitch, deserved something.
Well, after a bit of digging, I learned I was three years too late. There’s a splendid statue and plaque honoring Wilhelm at the entrance to the baseball complex at Huntersville Athletic Park, which is named after him.
Been there since 2008.
Great idea, Huntersville.
Wilhelm touched most corners in this area. He grew up on a farm in Huntersville, pitched for Cornelius High School and began his minor-league career with the Mooresville Moors of the Class D North Carolina State League.
His Major League Baseball career began in 1952 and stretched 21 seasons. He debuted at age 28, and because knuckleballs don’t strain your arm as much as fastballs and curves do, pitched until age 49.
Wilhelm died in 2002 at the age of 80.
That timeframe means he likely doesn’t register with most young baseball fans these days. Which makes the statue and plaque such a teaching moment.
“Hey Dad, who was Hoyt Wilhelm?”
Parents and children can share the history lesson en route to their games.
“It’s a cool thing,” said Michael Jaycocks, the director of the Huntersville Parks and Recreation Department. “When the park is busy, you’ll see a lot of people walk up to the statue and read about Hoyt.
“It’s not like he had the most God-given talent, but he developed a knuckleball that eventually led to the big leagues and the Hall of Fame. (The statue) means a lot to this location.”
Jaycocks said Charles Thomas, a local citizen who didn’t know Wilhelm, was the driving force behind getting the project completed. Thomas grew up reading newspaper exploits about Wilhelm’s career and realized that many folks in Huntersville didn’t know about the famous knuckleballer.
He lobbied, and the Huntersville town board approved the idea.
Wilhelm’s story is one of determination and perseverance. By nearly all accounts, he did it with an understated manner.
I remember having Wilhelm baseball cards during the latter years of his career (late 1960s and early 70s). Back then, there weren’t wall-to-wall television highlights of baseball, so dry statistics told much of a player’s story.
But there was so much more to Wilhelm.
He grew up among 11 children. He learned how to throw the knuckleball in high school after reading about major leaguer Dutch Leonard, who also threw the fluttery pitch.
After debuting in the minors in 1942 at age 19 with the Mooresville Moors, World War II interrupted.
Wilhelm missed the next three baseball seasons and won the Purple Heart for heroic duty during the Battle of the Bulge. He returned to the minors with two strong seasons at Mooresville (21-8 record in 1946 and 20-7 in 1947).
He steadily rose during the next four seasons and earned a shot in the big leagues in 1952 with the New York Giants.
The rookie Wilhelm set a then-National League record with 71 appearances, all in relief, and had a league-best ERA of 2.43. His record was 15-3, with 11 saves.
Cool Wilhelm note: He hit a home run in his first big-league at-bat and a triple in his second trip to the plate. They were the lone home run and triple in his career.
In 1953, Wilhelm led the National League again in appearances (68) and earned his first All-Star Game selection.
In 1954, he was 12-4 with a 2.10 ERA and a key ingredient in the Giants team that swept the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
Wilhelm’s 21-year stint in the big leagues encompassed eight teams and included five All-Star Games, two ERA titles, two 15-win seasons (that’s a lot for a reliever), a 200-inning season and career records for victories by a reliever (124) and innings by a reliever (1,871).
Several teams used Wilhelm as a spot starter. In 1958, he was acquired in midseason by the Baltimore Orioles. The Cleveland Indians traded Wilhelm that year because management was concerned that its catchers couldn’t handle Wilhelm’s darting knuckeball.
Orioles manager Paul Richards left Wilhelm in the rotation and devised a larger catcher’s mitt to help snare knuckleballs. It culminated when Wilhelm pitched a no-hitter against the New York Yankees (with eight strikeouts) in September 1958.
It would be another 45 years until the Yankees were ho-hit again.
Wilhelm and his rare, tricky pitch appeared in more games (1,070) than any pitcher in major league history when he retired, a record that has since been passed by four pitchers.
His career ERA of 2.52 is better than any pitcher to come after him, other than Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera.
In 1985, Wilhelm became the first relief pitcher elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His standout career is etched in history at Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the hall.
It’s also permanently etched in Huntersville, which was smart enough and proud enough to honor one of its talented own.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, North Carolina’s other hall of famers are Luke Appling (High Point), Rick Ferrell (Durham), Jim “Catfish” Hunter (Hertford), Buck Leonard (Rocky Mount) and Enos Slaughter (Roxboro).