Monday, December 8, 2014


Major League Baseball has entered a new era. What had been an offense-driven league has turned into one dominated by pitchers. And it's not necessarily the starting pitchers who are thriving.

Sure, you have your Kershaw's and King Felix's, but most starters are not allowed to go deep into the games. The result? Hitters are now routinely facing relief pitchers who are throwing in the mid-to-high nineties. Most teams employ multiple cheese-throwing specialists, further suppressing offenses. And yet, the position is still often under-appreciated by fans and card manufacturers and the closer role often bastardized by writers and 'stat-heads.'

1971 O-Pee-Chee #248 Hoyt Wilhelm

The save wasn't an official MLB stat until 1969, but was developed ten years earlier when sportswriter Jerome Holtzman introduced it as a way to better recognize the effectiveness of relievers such as Hoyt Wilhelm- men who would come into the game to relieve tiring starters, often going multiple innings on the backend of the game.

The same year that the stat was introduced (1960), The Sporting News (for whom Holtzman was a columnist) began recognizing relievers with their own award. The Fireman of the Year, given to the top reliever in each league, lasted until the year 2000, when it was renamed the Sporting News Reliever of the Year Award. This newly renamed award would continue until 2010, ending a fifty year run only one year after naming a closer (Mariano Rivera) as its "Pro Athlete of the Year."

From the years 1976 to 2012, Major League baseball issued a similar annual award to the top relievers in the game. Unlike the Cy Young or MVP awards, which are determined by votes, the Rolaids Relief Award was based on a points system: each save was worth three points, wins netted two points, and each loss worth negative two points. "Tough Saves" (defined as a save earned by a pitcher who entered the game with the tying run on base) eventually earned the reliever 1 point while a blown saves subtracted two points from his total.

While the two previously mentioned awards are no longer given, a third body of writers has now recognized the important role of the relief pitcher: beginning in 2010, the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA) began voting on the the top relievers in each league. The IBWAA established the Hoyt Wilhelm Relief Pitcher of the Year for the National League and the Rollie Fingers Relief Pitcher of the Year for the American League. This year's winners were Kansas City's Greg Holland and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel, who won for the second and fourth consecutive years, respectively.

My first thought when looking at this card is of some crime syndicate. I in no way want to insinuate that Wilhelm was involved in criminal activity. In fact, from what I've read, he was an upstanding individual. It's just the photo used by Topps reminds me of one you would see of some mobster. In other words, Topps could have picked a more flattering photo to use of the future Hall of Famer.

Hoyt's professional career began with the Braves organization, although he would never pitch for them at any level until they were in Atlanta. Hoyt was drafted by the New York Giants in the minor league draft less than a month after he had been purchased by the Braves from Mooresville of the North Carolina State League.

The knuckleballer would return to the organization when the Braves traded for him during the stretch run in September of 1969. Atlanta was in need of bullpen help, and Hoyt provided it, helping the team win the NL West by three games. In eight games that September, Wilhelm picked up two wins, four saves and an 0.73 ERA. Unfortunately, he wasn't eligible for the playoffs because we wasn't on the roster at the end of August.

Wilhelm pitched for the Braves for most of the 1970 season, going 6-4 with a 3.10 ERA and 13 saves in 50 games. Having dropped out of the race, and with only days left in the regular season,  the Braves sold Wilhelm to the Cubs, who were still in the race and in need of an arm out of the 'pen. Hoyt only appeared in three games for the Cubs, pitching a total of 3.2 innings while going 0-1 and allowing four runs and 3 walks- good for a 9.82 ERA and a 1.909 WHIP.

Following the 1970 season, the Cubs sent Wilhelm back to Atlanta for 1B/PH Hal Breeden. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn found the late season rental and subsequent trade suspicious, and ordered an investigation of the dealings. Nothing ever came of it, and Wilhelm was allowed to return to the Braves. His final go-around with the Braves would be almost as short as the time he spent on the North Side: 2.1 innings pitched over three games, while allowing 5 runs (4 earned) on 6 hits and 1 walk. The righty was released on June 29th and found employment two weeks later with the Dodgers.


Looking at the back of Hoyt's 1970 baseball card, you would have never guessed that he would eventually wind up in Cooperstown.

After being passed over eight times following his retirement, Wilhelm was finally voted in in 1985, becoming the first reliever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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