Hoyt Wilhelm Set a Record in 1952 That Will Never Be Broken

Harold FriendChief Writer ISeptember 27, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees reacts as he walks back to the dugout after pitching the top of the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox on September 25, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

As Mariano Rivera approached and then broke the all-time saves record, there was much speculation with respect to which records were the most unlikely to be broken. One record that could be broken but never will belongs to Hoyt Wilhelm.

In 1952, Wilhelm appeared in 71 games, all in relief. He set a record when he led the National League with a 2.43 ERA. No pitcher who worked exclusively in relief in a season had ever led in ERA. None have since Wilhelm did it.

Stu Miller, Diego Segui, Danny Darwin and Steve Ontiveros are relief pitchers who have led their league in ERA, but all started some games during the season they led in ERA.

The way the game is managed today prevents relief pitchers, even those such as Pedro Feliciano (92 appearances in 2010), Peter Moylan (87 appearances in 2009)  and Johnny Venters (at least 84 appearances in 2011 so far) from working the necessary 162 innings to qualify for the ERA title.

Wilhelm pitched 159 innings, which qualified him for the ERA title since teams played 154 games. He was 15-3, which led the league in winning percentage (.833) with 11 saves, although in 1952, there was no such thing as a save.

The New York Giants decided to give the 29-year-old Wilhelm a chance as a relief pitcher. He became the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time, better than even Phil Niekro. He appeared in 1,070 games, all but 52 of them in relief.

When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985, Wilhelm became the first relief pitcher to become a Hall of Famer. When a baseball writer asked him about his success, he responded "I never went into a game and got all flustered up."

Catching Wilhelm's knuckler was always a problem. When he was at the Baltimore Orioles, Gus Triandos was the team's regular catcher, but backup Joe Ginsberg was behind the plate when Wilhelm pitched. Ginsberg explained that neither the catcher nor the hitter knew how the knuckleball would break.

Orioles manager Paul Richards invented an oversized mitt for Ginsberg to catch Wilhelm.

"We called it the elephant glove," said Ginsberg, "because it was shaped like an elephant`s ear. Paul Richards was very astute, very thorough. He took advantage of the fact that, at that time, there was nothing in the rule book restricting the size of a catcher`s glove."

New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel was upset when Wilhelm beat the Yankees, when the glove was used. Stengel claimed the glove was illegal. The Baseball Rules Committee agreed and changed the rule.

The catcher's glove could be no more than 38 inches in circumference or 15 inches from top to bottom. Richards` glove was 42 inches around and 18 inches long.

Wilhelm retired in 1972 at the age of 49. The most games he ever appeared in was 73 in 1964 with the Chicago White Sox.  For his career, Wilhelm won 143 games, including a no-hitter against the Yankees,

He had 227 saves, 71 blown saves and according to Baseball Reference, in only three seasons was the ninth inning the most common inning in which Wilhelm entered a game.

No one will eclipse Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, no one will win more than 41 games in a season as did Jack Chesbro in 1904, no one will break Mariano Rivera's saves record and no relief pitcher will win the ERA title.

Reference:

Lueck, William. "Hoyt Wilhelm First Reliever Elected to the Hall of Fame. New York Times. 26 Aug. 2002. p. B7.

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