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Wilhelm not retiring type, as pitcher or instructor


He's not pitching any longer, not throwing that devilishly fluttering knuckleball, but as he nears his 72nd birthday, Hoyt Wilhelm still is in baseball.

Wilhelm didn't reach the major leagues until he was 28, but lasted 21 years, until he was 49, and wound up in the Hall of Fame in 1985 based primarily on his relief record of 124-103 and 227 saves. To put his longevity into perspective, he made the National League All-Star team in 1953 with the New York Giants and a final time 17 years later with the Atlanta Braves at 47.

You see, the knuckleball, which he threw 90 percent of the time, doesn't take as much out of an arm as fastballs and curves.

Today, Wilhelm is a minor-league pitching instructor in the New York Yankees' system, based in Tampa, Fla., where the Yankees have a rookie club. He has been with the organization since 1976. Why should a man retire when he works only six months a year and is an hour's drive from his home in Sarasota?

"We're finished the end of August, then I've got six months to do what I want -- hunt, fish, whatever," said Wilhelm, who does an occasional autograph show. "I hit fungoes, throw batting practice and interact with the kids. I enjoy working with these kids.

"These people who come to Florida at 50 go crazy because they thought they could retire and play golf and fish every day. Well, that gets old, too."

Wilhelm pitched for the Orioles from 1958 to 1962, starting as well as relieving. On Sept. 20, 1958, he spun the first no-hitter in Orioles history, beating the Yankees, 1-0, on Gus Triandos' 30th home run, which tied Yogi Berra's AL record for catchers.

The following season, Wilhelm won his first nine decisions as a starter and went on to win the AL ERA title (2.19) before returning to the bullpen the next season.

All the while, his dancing knuckleball took its toll on Orioles catchers in the form of broken and sprained thumbs and fingers. On May 27, 1960, the Orioles introduced a custom-made catcher's glove 50 percent larger than the standard model. Clint Courtney, the Orioles' stubby catcher, didn't let a pitch get by him in Wilhelm's route-going victory over the Yankees.

"With that big glove, old Clint looked like a monkey holding a coconut," chortled manager Paul Richards, who had designed it.

Wilhelm read about the knuckleball when he was in high school and taught himself. He had little else in his pitching arsenal, one reason he languished in the minors for nine years.

He says he never threw two knucklers alike, since the ball always did something different after it left his hand. Does he teach the pitch to Yankees prospects?

"No, you can't teach it," Wilhelm said. "What all organizations are looking for now is the kid who can throw the fastball for strikes. Now and then a kid with a knuckler comes along, and I work with him, but mostly I just teach the basics."

Next: He pitched only 14 1/3 innings in the majors but helped develop a string of Orioles 20-game winners.

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