30. Hoyt Wilhelm, RHP (1958-1962)
All-Star: 1959, 1961, 1962
Hoyt Wilhelm's career started in 1952, a couple months before he turned 30. He would pitch his final game in the big leagues 16 days before he turned 50.
Wilhelm was drafted from the Boston Braves by the New York Giants in the 1947 minor league draft, when he was already 25. He spent some years with the Giants, winning the ERA title in his rookie season, 1952, pitching 71 games (159 1/3 IP) of relief with a 2.43 ERA.
Wilhelm was traded to St. Louis for 1957, then wound up in Cleveland. Cleveland waived him, and the Orioles picked him up in 1958. Wilhelm was excellent right away. In 1959, the Orioles made Wilhelm a starter, and despite the 49 passed balls (a modern record) due to his knuckler, Wilhelm started 27 of his 32 appearances and won another ERA title, with a 2.19 mark in 226 innings. It was, by park-adjusted ERA+, the best season any Oriole starter has ever had, but Jim Palmer's 1975 is truly the best, since he threw 323 innings with a 169 ERA+ compared to Wilhelm's 173 in '59.
In 1960, Orioles manager Paul Richards introduced the huge catcher's mitt for catching the knuckleball, and Wilhelm returned mostly to the bullpen. He pitched 41 games, 30 of them in relief, and had a 3.31 ERA. The next two seasons he was closer to what we consider a closer now, saving 18 and 15 games with ERAs of 2.30 and 1.94.
On January 14, 1963, the Orioles sent Wilhelm, Ron Hansen, Dave Nicholson and Pete Ward to the White Sox for Luis Aparicio and Al Smith. Wilhelm was tremendous in Chicago for six seasons, with ERAs of 2.64, 1.99, 1.81, 1.66, 1.31 and 1.73. He was drafted by the Royals in the '68 expansion draft, then traded to the Angels two months later. He was later with the Braves, Cubs, Braves again, and he finished his career with the Dodgers.
Wilhelm's knuckler may have been the best of the modern era. He learned the pitch in high school after reading an article about Dutch Leonard. Wilhelm also fought in World War II, earning a Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge. Also of note, he hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, and would never hit another one in his next 492 plate appearances.
Had we kept Wilhelm longer than we did, he would likely rate much higher, because he was lights out in Chicago. But since when is trading a 40-year old knuckler for a 28-year old shortstop a bad idea? The Orioles hardly suffered as a result of the deal, so despite that Wilhelm was great, it's hard to consider it a bad trade. And who was to know, anyway, that he had ten more years left in the tank?
Hoyt Wilhelm was born in Huntsville, North Carolina, on July 26, 1922. He died on August 23, 2002, in Sarasota, Florida. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.