Hoyt Wilhelm's Lost Years

ALSO: HANK AARON MERITS UPCOMING ALL-STAR GAME TRIBUTE

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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

Today is the 55th anniversary of the day pitcher Tony Cloninger became the first player in National League history to hit two grand-slams in one game (he also had an RBI single in Atlanta’s 17-3 win over San Francisco) . . .

Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente are the only perennial posthumous honorees of MLB, which created special tribute days in their memory . . .

Things Lou Gehrig did that Babe Ruth didn’t: four-homer game, Triple Crown, 23 grand slams, 500+ RBI over three-year span, and 2,130 consecutive games played . . .

Shohei Ohtani set a Nippon Professional Baseball mark by hitting 102 mph on the radar gun . . .

Ohtani later became the first Japanese import to hit for the cycle in the U.S.

Leading Off

The Lost Baseball Years of Hoyt Wilhelm

By Brett Honeycutt

On a dusty baseball field about nine miles north of Paris, TX, Hoyt Wilhelm won his first baseball title after turning pro.

Names like Wicker, Eppensteiner, Ankenbrandt, Frabotta, Ogden, Dougherty, Knox and Reese dotted the lineup.

Mays, Thomson, Irvin, Mueller, Westrum, Dark, Lockman and Rhodes, wouldn’t surface in a lineup with Wilhelm until years later. And playing in a World Series was only a dream at this time, so far out of reach it seemed crazy, maybe even distracting, to even entertain such an idea.

That dusty field had a rudimentary, wood-framed, backstop. But it would do. And, it allowed fellow North Carolinian, Zeb Wicker, to dazzle others with his pitching and Wilhelm to show off his almost equally dazzling skills at the plate, while playing first base. 

What it really did, though, was offer a distraction to their team so they could get their minds off what they were really preparing to do. 

That first title came on Sept 2, 1944, and that simple, dusty field was located at barely two-year-old Camp Maxey, where the U.S. Army trained infantry soldiers for war. That’s why they were there in humid northeast Texas, 20 minutes south of the Oklahoma border and 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

Wilhelm and his teammates were part of the 395th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division. They weren’t famous yet, but they would come to be known for their resilient spirit.

CHAMPIONSHIP SPIRIT FORGED

That spirit was built through their upbringing in the Great Depression, their training at Camp Maxey (and the year prior at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi), and on simple camp baseball fields, where, in a two-year span, Wilhelm’s 395th Infantry Regiment compiled a 28-6 record and won the 99th Infantry Division League championship in 1944 after finishing runner-up in 1943.

Although Wilhelm went 0-for-4 at the plate in the 1944 championship game, which his team won 5-2 over the previous year’s winner, the 393rd Infantry, the 395th was playing in the title game because of what he did at the plate just 10 days prior, on Aug. 23. 

In that semifinal game against the 394th Infantry, with the score tied 3-3 and one out in the top of the 10th, Wilhelm hit a two-run homer and the 395th won, 6-3, advancing to the championship.

Wilhelm led with his bat as a first baseman that season, not with his arm as a pitcher, which he had done with the Mooresville Moors in 1942 when he went 10-3 (the 395th’s pitching duties were handled, primarily, by Wicker, who had spent two years in the minors prior to enlisting and would spend eight more years in the minors after the war, winning 85 games). 

In fact, Wilhelm was a staple at first base and rarely pitched, earning Honorable Mention All-Star for the league at first base in 1944, when he hit .306 and had two homers (nicknamed “Wee Willie”, he also hit .423 in 1943).

THE BATTLE BEGINS

That same month, in late September, their scenery changed drastically. The 99th Infantry Division, made up of the 395th, 394th and 393rd regiments, shipped off for England in late September, arriving in October. From there they traveled to France and then Belgium in November. 

Wilhelm and his regiment played a little baseball in France, but nothing as organized as what he had at Camp Van Dorn and Camp Maxey. They couldn’t, because things were about to change. The realities of war made sure of that.

The 99th Infantry Division saw battle in early November and early December before their biggest task arrived during the winter, on Dec. 16, in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge in the forested Ardennes region, which encompassed Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. The battle resulted in an Allied victory on Jan. 25, 1945, but not before the Americans suffered the highest casualties (89,500, including almost 3,000 from the 99th Infantry) than any other U.S. campaign during the war.

Although that battle ended, Wilhelm’s 395th Infantry Regiment continued to fight, moving toward Cologne, Germany. On March 3, one day after they engaged the Germans again, Wilhelm, a staff sergeant in charge of a heavy machine gun section, and three of his men were wounded by shrapnel when a shell hit a tree. 

He suffered wounds in his back and right hand, earning a Purple Heart for his injuries.

“The tree wasn’t too far from me,” Wilhelm told writer George Vass in 1969. “When the shell hit it, fragments sprayed all over the place. I thought I was a goner.”

AN EVENTUAL HALL OF FAME CAREER

The shrapnel from that German artillery barrage remained in his back the rest of his life. It was never removed. 

It didn’t, however, hinder him from accomplishing great things in the minors, including winning 20 games in two consecutive seasons with the Mooresville Moors in 1946 and 1947, when he also won two straight North Carolina State League titles; helping the Minneapolis Millers to the 1950 American Association regular-season title; winning an ERA title with Havana in 1951 and league titles in the Cuban Winter League in 1951 and 1952; and even hitting three homers and carrying a .234 batting average in the minors.

Those great accomplishments weren’t relegated to the minors, though. 

The success continued in the majors, starting with Wilhelm hitting a homer in his first major league at-bat with the NY Giants (1952); earning an All-Star nod (1953); winning a World Series with the Giants (1954); earning ERA titles in the NL (1952) and AL (1959); pitching a no-hitter for the Baltimore Orioles (1958); getting three all-star nods with Baltimore (1959, 1961, 1962); stringing together five straight sub 2.00 ERA seasons (1964-68) with the Chicago White Sox; breaking Cy Young’s games-pitched mark (1968); reaching the before unheard of milestone of 1,000 games pitched with the Atlanta Braves (1970), as well as earning another All-Star selection that year, giving him All-Star selections in three decades.

And, finally, being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (1985), which was bookended by Wilhelm being a mentor and coach to future pitching stars – he revived the career of Wilbur Wood (Chicago White Sox, 1967), mentored fellow knuckler Charlie Hough (Spokane Indians, 1971), and coached eventual Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera (Gulf Coast League Yankees, 1990).

The dusty fields in humid, northeast Texas, were far from the manicured fields he ended his career on as a coach in the New York Yankees organization in 1995, but the Texas heat was part of what molded Wilhelm to win championships and achieve other monumental things, in battle and on the diamond.

Brett Honeycutt spent 25 years as a journalist - first as a freelance writer for seven years, then on staff at a daily newspaper for 10 years. He then managed a national magazine for nearly nine years. He is freelancing again, working on various projects, including directing a high school hall of fame and coaching high school track and cross country and managing the Hoyt Wilhelm Fan Page on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/wilhelm_hoyt

Cleaning Up

Hank Aaron Deserves Upcoming All-Star Game Tribute

By Dan Schlossberg

With the All-Star Game just 10 days away, it’s time to review the record of the greatest All-Star. Not the player whose performance in All-Star play outranked everyone else, mind you, but the player whose performance in general stood head and shoulders above the competition.

That would be Henry Louis Aaron, who passed away in January just days short of his 87th birthday and took a myriad of records with him to the grave.

There will be a special tribute to Aaron at this year’s All-Star Game, which was moved from Atlanta to Denver because Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred worried that some participants would protest new voting laws enacted by the Georgia legislature.

No matter where the game is played, however, nothing can diminish the achievements of Hammerin’ Hank, many collected from Baseball-Reference.com by my clever press box colleague Jayson Stark of The Athletic. For example:

  • Aaron was an All-Star a record 25 times — once more than the combined total of the three active players (Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander) who were All-Stars most often (8 times each)

  • Aaron had 1,063 more total bases than Babe Ruth, 1,000 more hits than Chipper Jones, and more home runs than anybody not named Barry Bonds

  • Aaron had 722 more total bases than Stan Musial, who ranks second on the career list in that department with 6,134

  • He had more hits than Johnny Bench and Hank Greenberg combined

  • Take away his 755 home runs and he would still have 3,000 hits

  • He got more hits for the Braves than Pete Rose got for the Reds, Derek Jeter got for the Yankees, or Carl Yastrzemski got for the Red Sox

  • Aaron’s OPS (on-base plus slugging) from 1955-74 was 161 — better than Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rendon, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, or Josh Donaldson ever produced in any one season (Mike Trout did it once)

  • Consistent much? Aaron’s OPS was .947 in his 20s and .948 in his 30s

  • He was the first member of the 40/30 club (that many homers and steals in the same season)

  • Aaron never fanned 100 times in a season and, at age 40, had a 20-homer season while striking out 29 times

  • He shares the records for home runs by brothers (with Tommie Aaron) and home runs by teammates (with Eddie Mathews)

  • When he topped Babe Ruth on April 8, 1974, he shared the #44 of pitcher Al Downing, and hit the historic shot in the fourth inning of the fourth game in the fourth month in a year that ended in the number 4 and a day that was 4 x 2

  • He also hit 44 home runs four times and led the National League in home runs and runs batted in four times each

    HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has been a Hank Aaron fan since 1957, the only year No. 44 won an MVP award. He later wrote a biography called Hammerin’ Hank: the Henry Aaron Story. Dan’s outlets include forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Ball Nine, and others. He’s at ballauthor@gmail.com.


Timeless Trivia

When Washington won a 13-12 game from Philadelphia on June 23, it was the first time both teams had a grand slam and a three-run homer in the same game . . .

Diehard Yankees fan Billy Crystal realized a lifelong dream by going to bat in an exhibition game but came away with a strikeout . . .

Bad defense and a bad bullpen are keeping the Phillies under .500 again . . .

After fanning five times, Mike Tauchman warmed the hearts of Giants fans with a three-run homer in the 13th that helped beat the Angels, 9-3 . . .

Super rookie Wander Franco (Rays) homered with two men on in his debut . . .

The leading home run hitter at CitiField, home of the Mets, is the now-retired Lucas Duda.


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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