Year Inducted: 1985 (BBWAA, ballot #8, 331/395)
The bullpen, historically, was a place to put pitchers that could still get hitters out, but not at a high enough rate to be a starter. Some would view it as an insult, others would view it as a demotion, but some would do whatever it took to make it in the Major Leagues. Most of the time, especially in more recent years, when a pitcher comes out of the bullpen he looks like he is throwing with more velocity than if he were to start. This makes some intuitive sense since the pitcher doesn’t need to worry about pacing himself and can just “let it fly” as the kids say. But, the first successful reliever was not a hard thrower at all. No the first successful reliever relied upon a knuckleball that he would perfect and throw until he was nearly 50. That man was Hoyt Wilhelm.
Wilhelm’s major league debut almost never happened. While serving in WWII, he took some shrapnel in his right hand and his back, which took some time to heal. In fact, during his career, the shrapnel remained in his back. The wounds complicated his baseball career, and he languished in the minors for seven years before being called up to the New York Giants. That first year he showed his promise by leading the NL rookies in ERA and appearances. After a brief (yet somewhat decent) interlude as a starter, Wilhelm shifted permanently to the bullpen and became dominant.
In his career, Wilhelm pitched over 2000 innings, won 143 games (against 122 losses) and had an ERA of 2.52. He set career records for relievers in most categories for relievers that lasted until players like Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter changed the way that bullpens were looked at. However, Wilhelm did something that none of those pitchers did. With the help of Wilhelm (and some of his contemporaries like Roy Face and Lindy McDaniel), the perception of the bullpen changed. No longer was it a place to just toss an under-performing starter; now it was a place that a true game changing player could emerge from and help win a lot of ballgames.
Wilhelm was clearly the best reliever of his time, and until modern bullpens became the norm he was easily the best reliever of all-time. It took the BBWAA a while to finally recognize the value of relief pitchers, and as such it took Wilhelm 8 ballots to gain induction. Wilhelm was a true pioneer for relievers, and all of the highly paid closers today can thank him for paving the way.
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On deck 11/4/16:
#93- This centerfielder was once considered the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time. Then Ty Cobb appeared and everyone literally forgot who he was.
#92- This shortstop from the Brooklyn Dodgers was a famous teammate of Jackie Robinson.