Text of the December 21, 2015 podcast:
Good day, members of the Cornelius Board of Commissioners and to Chuck Travis, the Mayor of Cornelius, North Carolina.
My name is Paul Francis Sullivan. I am a TV producer, comedian, filmmaker and baseball enthusiast also seen on HBO and ESPN2. I am the host and creator of the Sully Baseball Daily Podcast where I create a new episode about baseball and express my love for baseball every single day 365 days a year, unless there is a leap year, then I do another one.
I am recording this to make my plea to save the baseball diamond at Cornelius Elementary School and to create a complex of athletic fields and facilities to honor of Hoyt Wilhelm.
The value of this complex is greater than honoring a favorite son of Cornelius, whose Hall of Fame legacy has actually been underrated in baseball history. The positivity these fields bring to this community goes beyond the value of a venue for our young men and women and men to play outside and learn teamwork.
I would like to think of a hypothetical girl or boy on those diamonds or on the field or in the adjacent basketball court. Most will never notice the name of the field or if they do, the name “Hoyt Wilhelm” would just be another name to remember, like Lake Norman or Davidson, North Carolina. But imagine that one kid who took the time to look up the name. Imagine what they would find if they would try to answer the question, “Who was Hoyt Wilhelm?”
They would see that Wilhelm was a major league pitcher, an All Star several times over, a World Series winner, and a Hall of Famer. That is certainly enough to get the respect of anyone at any age. But a deeper dive into his the facts of his life shows he embodies the values, lessons and hopes our young should aspire to.
Hoyt Wilhelm’s baseball life began on the very spot where the proposed fields would be. He was not blessed with a 100 mile an hour fastball or the kind of stuff that would attract scouts from across the country. He learned how to throw a knuckleball and perfected the strange pitch to the point where he earned a spot with the Mooresville minor league team.
In fact his baseball life stalled before the majors were even a factor. He was released from Class D ball. He was not good enough to play at the lowest rung of the professional ladder. His manager told him to stop throwing the knuckleball and that his future in baseball over.
Instead of quitting, he persevered. Playing in several different organizations and bouncing around the country, Hoyt finally made the major leagues in 1952 as a member of the New York Giants. He was 29. That is the age most people retire from baseball. He was probably only going to last a year or two.
While with the Giants, manager Leo Durocher sent him to the bullpen. At the the time, the bullpen was a demotion. It was where pitchers who were not good enough to start toiled. With very few exceptions, relief pitchers were anonymous and easily disposable.
Hoyt did not treat it like a demotion. He made it an opportunity. Despite not starting a game all season, Hoyt led the National League in earned run average and his 15 wins against 3 defeats was the best winning percentage in the league.
In 1953, he was selected to the All Star Game. By 1954, he was pitching in the World Series, using that knuckle ball he was told to abandon, and helped form a dominant relief corps that pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Series history. The Giants swept the mighty Cleveland Indians, who had won a then record 111 games that season. Wilhelm earned the save in Game 3 and pitched in the Game 4 clincher.
But, as expected, as he reached his mid thirties, his career began to wind down and by 1958, Hoyt had bounced around between the Giants, Cardinals and Cleveland. But at age 36, he found new life in Baltimore. There he pitched as a starter and a reliever, threw a no hitter against the invincible Yankees, led the league in ERA, and made his second All Star team.
Between aged 36 and 47, Hoyt Wilhelm not only used the knuckleball to become the most durable reliever in the game, but rewrote the record book, becoming a pioneer in the process: He was a relief pitcher superstar while pitching in the 1960’s and 1970’s for the Orioles, White Sox, Cubs, Braves, Angels and Dodgers.
He became the first pitcher to appear in 1,000 games and set records in relief innings and victories out of the bullpen.
And while the careers of most pitchers are over in their late 20’s, Hoyt made the All Star team at age 47 in 1970, earning the All Star honor in three different decades.
In 1985, after 8 tries, Wilhelm was elected to the Hall of Fame. Many resisted voting for him because nobody who was primarily a reliever had ever been elected to Cooperstown. But as with everything in his life, he persevered, paving the way for Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersely, and eventually Mariano Rivera in election.
In his acceptance speech, he mentioned his high school coaches and his time playing in Cornelius.
Imagine that child I mentioned looking up these facts about Hoyt Wilhelm. They would learn that he showed strength and courage in a much more tangible way than on the baseball field. Hoyt left his minor league team to fight in World War II. He saw active duty, fought at the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded. He played his entire big league career with a piece of shrapnel in his back. It takes quite a life to have a World Series ring and Hall of Fame plaque NOT be their greatest award. But that is the case for this Purple Heart awardee.
After learning about this great life and answering “Who is Hoyt Wilhelm?” another question could be asked: Where did a man lime Hoyt Wilhelm start his journey? The answer is the very field where the kids of Cornelius will be playing.
Chances are they will not make it to the majors or play in the World Series or be elected to the Hall of Fame or earn the Purple Heart. But they CAN learn the lessons of hard work, dealing with adversity, silencing the naysayers with accomplishments, making the most of opportunities and fighting for a greater good. These traits that Hoyt Wilhelm embodied would be an inspiration on the field where he played.
Cornelius North Carolina should not let one of their greatest sons fade into obscurity when his name on the field can carry the spirit of his great life to another generation.
I am also extending this plea to the San Francisco Giants organization to consider retiring his number 49. The team does a wonderful job honoring their Hall of Fame members, including the ones who played for the New York Giant club. Having the pitcher known as Old Sarge be honored along with New York Giants legends John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, and Carl Hubbell would be a great moment at AT&T Park.
I would like to thank my friend Bob Deaton for including me in this discussion and giving me the chance to express my thoughts on Hoyt Wilhelm.
The game of baseball exists in the past, present, and future simultaneously. We love the game today while honoring what has happened before and anticipating what great events haven’t happened yet. Saluting the past of Hoyt Wilhelm for today’s kids to aspire to be great adults is the perfect way to carry on his memory.
For my regular listeners, visit SullyBaseball.com and enjoy the podcast on all of its platforms.
For the people of Cornelius North Carolina, I wish you all the best and play ball!
Images – Getty, Baseball Hall of Fame, Topps, Sporting News