Hoyt Wilhelm Just Missed Pitching At 50

ALSO: PINCH-HITTING RETURNS TO PROMINENCE

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

J.D. Martinez, just off the COVID IL, missed a chance at a four-homer game Sunday when he fanned in his last at-bat at Baltimore . . .

After newly-acquired Rougned Odor delivered the game-winning hit in his first game for the Yankees, The New York Post came up with a classic headline that read, “Odor Smells Like a Rose” . . .

Joe Girardi’s son Dante plays third base for Florida International . . .

In their first four games this season, the pathetic Pirates fanned 44 times – 12 more than Pittsburgh shortstop Dick Groat had in 151 games during the 1958 campaign . . .

Neither Maikel Franco nor Gary Sanchez will ever be accused of hustling down the line . . .

Wilson Ramos, a supposed “contact hitter,” already fanned four times in a game for Detroit.


Leading Off

Wilhelm’s Last Save Marred With Passed Balls — But Numbers Still Signaled Hall Of Fame Path

By Brett Honeycutt 

Nearly 50 years ago today, April 17, 1972, Hoyt Wilhelm earned the last save of his Hall of Fame career while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

The save was fitting because it came in an 8-3 victory against the Atlanta Braves, the last team to release him and a team that had released or traded him twice (in 1970 and 1971) and thought his career was finished. 

Even though his career was close to being over, he showed them he still had a little left.  

The save, though, seemed inconsequential at the time. Wilhelm was making his first appearance of the season, and he was coming off a short but solid 1971 season with the Dodgers. He had appeared in nine games for Los Angeles and recorded three saves and a 1.02 ERA in 1971 after his release from Atlanta and after a stint with the Dodgers AAA Pacific Coast League team, the Spokane Indians (2-3, one save, 3.89 ERA, six starts, eight games). 

Wilhelm had worked his way back up to the majors and proven – once again – he was good enough to pitch at the highest level. 

Things seemed good in that 1972 debut, even though he was 49 years old. 

Wilhelm pitched two innings, allowed two hits and one run (unearned), while striking out two. The unearned run? It came as a result of Dodgers’ catcher Chris Cannizzaro not being able to handle Wilhelm’s knuckleball. Cannizzaro was charged with three passed balls.  

The passed balls seemed like old news, though. Getting dirty and chasing the ball was just part of catching the knuckler, but it left notable marks along the way: from Wes Westrum (Wilhelm’s first catcher in 1952 when Wilhelm debuted on April 18 for the Giants) and Ray Katt (another Giants teammate who set a major-league record with four passed balls in one inning in 1954) to Baltimore Orioles catcher Gus Triandos (who caught Wilhelm’s no-hitter in 1958), Baltimore’s catching unit (which set a major- league record of 49 passed balls in 1959) and Chicago White Sox catcher J.C. Martin (who, in 1965, allowed a major-league record 33 passed balls in one season). 

Cannizzaro now shared their pain – but not much longer.  

Wilhelm would pitch in 15 more games that year to total a major-league-record 1,070 for his career before being released on July 21, just five days before his 50th birthday.  

But Wilhelm thought he still had something to offer teams. 

“If I don’t play again this year, it’ll probably mean my baseball is through,” he told The Associated Press the day of his release. “But I plan to contact some teams. I want to pitch again.” 

The release was understandable. Wilhelm was 0-1 with one save, 15 walks, and 9 strikeouts in 25.1 innings with a 4.62 ERA. Teammate Bill Russell was returning from a two-week military stint and Russell’s replacement, Lee Lacy, had done well enough in Russell’s absence to stay with the Dodgers. 

But Wilhelm, who exuded a love for the game seen by his seven-year labor in the minors over a 10-year period (1942, 1946-1951) and his 21-year major-league career, had no bitter feelings. 

“I have no hard feeling toward the Dodgers,” Wilhelm told the AP. “They gave me a chance when I didn’t think I’d get another one. They’ve treated me right. They have a great organization and a great manager. He pitched me every chance he got. I’m sure of that.”  

He even backed up his sentiments when he pitched batting practice the day after his release (Saturday, July 22) and planned on working out with the Dodgers after the All-Star break on the following Wednesday – his 50th birthday. 

The chance with another team never materialized but Wilhelm’s numbers signaled a future in the Hall of Fame: 143-122, 2.52 ERA, while setting major-league records for wins in relief (124) and innings pitched as a reliever (1,871), both still MLB records according to Baseball Almanac

He wasn’t only a Hall of Fame-worthy player, he was a Hall of Fame-worthy person as well. 

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 also managed a national magazine for nearly nine years. He is freelancing again, working on various projects, including directing a high school hall of fame, coaching high school track and cross country, and managing the Hoyt Wilhelm Fan Page on Twitter at https://twitter.com/wilhelm_hoyt.


Cleaning Up

Without DH This Year, NL Banks Heavily On Pinch-Hitters

By Dan Schlossberg

Now that pinch-hitting is back in vogue, Pablo Sandoval’s three pinch-homers in the first two weeks of the new season sent researchers back to the record books.

They found that Dave Hansen and Craig Wilson share the record of seven pinch-hit home runs in a single season, that Matt Stairs had the most pinch-homers (23) in a career, and that Ed Kranepool once batted .486 as a pinch-hitter in a single season (1974).

With the universal DH a distant memory for National League teams, who used it only during the virus-shortened 2020 campaign, managers need to deploy pinch-hitters for pitchers at least once a game – and sometimes more.

Because teams routinely carry a dozen or more pitchers, bench players who can pinch-hit and do the job well are few and far between. The Braves chose wisely with their roster selections, keeping the portly Sandoval, a one-time World Series MVP, and fellow infielder Ehire Adrianza, who also pounded a pinch-homer during the opening week.

Sandoval, who hit .400 during spring training, could challenge the records for most home runs in the pinch or even the most pinch-hits. John Vander Wal of the 1995 Colorado Rockies holds the latter mark with 28.

He might even threaten the single-season mark of future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, who batted 100 times in the pinch for the 2017 Miami Marlins.

Because he’s now 34 and not an agile base-runner (he was thrown out going from second to third on a sacrifice fly April 12), Sandoval is unlikely to overtake Lenny Harris, who had a record 212 pinch-hits, or Gordy Coleman, whose .333 average in the pinch tops the lifetime charts.

Pinch-hitting history is full of quirks and oddities.

For example, Babe Ruth was lifted for pinch-hitters often during his early days as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. Even on Opening Day of the 1927 season, the year he hit his then-record 60 homers, Ruth was removed for Ben Paschal, whose run-scoring single helped the Yankees beat the Philadelphia A’s, 8-3. Before he was lifted, Ruth had struck out twice and popped up against A’s ace Lefty Grove.

Early baseball discouraged the use of pinch-hitters. National League clubs were not even allowed to make any substitutions before the fourth inning in 1876, that circuit’s first season.

Dode Criss of the 1908 St. Louis Browns was the first heavy-duty pinch-hitter, with 12 hits in 41 at-bats, but New York Giants manager John McGraw certainly noticed. A year later, he started using Moose McCormick and good-hitting pitcher Otis (Doc) Crandall as regular pinch-hitters.

Another pitcher with pop, Ray Caldwell of the Yankees, hit pinch-homers in consecutive games in 1915.

Red Lucas, also a pitcher, collected 114 hits in pinch-hitting roles to secure a spot on the all-time list, while Wes Ferrell, Don Newcombe, Don Drysdale, and Ken Brett also proved adept at pinch-hitting for their fellow pitchers.

And let’s not forget rotund reliever Terry Forster, whose .397 lifetime batting average is the best for anyone who played in at least 500 games. Forster pinch-hit too – even for position players.

Tommy Davis, a two-time batting king, became an accomplished pinch-hitter, finishing with a .320 lifetime mark in the pinch. And the appropriately-named Dave Philley once collected nine straight pinch-hits for the Phillies.

Other pinch-hitters who deserve their niche in baseball history were Gates Brown, Smoky Burgess, Vic Davalillo, Tito Francona, Cliff Johnson, Manny Mota, Johnny Mize, Red Schoendienst, Eno Slaughter, and Elmer Valo.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has often been asked to deliver in the pinch. He’s done that for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Latino Sports, forbes.com, and HERE’S THE PITCH, for whom he is Weekend Editor. E.mail him at ballauthor@gmail.com.


Timeless Trivia

The 1993 Colorado Rockies, an expansion team that began play that year, drew a record 4,483,350 fans – a milestone later approached by the Toronto Blue Jays and the two New York teams, the only other members of the Four Million Club . . .

The biggest regular-season crowd in baseball history (86,563) came to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on Sept. 12, 1954, for a Yankees-Indians doubleheader . . .

Because they played their early years in a converted football stadium called the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Dodgers drew a record 92,706 fans to Game 5 of the World Series on Oct. 6, 1959, and an all-time record of 115,301 to a Red Sox-Dodgers exhibition game on March 29, 2008 . . .

The 1935 Detroit Tigers drew a Depression-era attendance of 80,922, the worst in baseball history.


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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