An Intense Manager Saw What Others Couldn't

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Leo Durocher saw something in the raw rookie knuckleballer, Hoyt Wilhelm.Unknown

By Brett Honeycutt

He was pulled from Havana to go to Phoenix because a fiery manager was anxious to see the rookie pitch. The 29-year-old rookie. 

The rookie who threw a knuckleball and wasn't necessarily impressive that Cuban Winter League season with the Havana Lions or the previous minor league season with the AAA Minneapolis Millers. 

The whole situation seemed unconventional, especially when looking at the numbers. 

In Minneapolis he posted an 11-14 record and 3.94 ERA (in 40 games and 29 starts), but he struck out 148 (second best in the American Association) in 210 innings pitched (tied for best in the league). Also, seven of the 14 losses were by one run. Although not necessarily successful, it appeared he could handle a heavy workload, get batters out and was resilient. Maybe that's what the manager saw.

Following his last game with Minneapolis on Sept. 6, an 8-3 win, he headed to Cuba, where he went 2-5, with a 3.52 ERA (17 games), striking out 27 in 64 innings and helping Havana to the league title with a 41-30 record. Again, not very impressive and not the All-Star season he had with Havana in the 1950-51 Cuban Winter League, where he finished 8-6 and led the league in ERA (2.36), strikeouts (72), shutouts (three) and complete games (10), while also helping Havana to the league title with a 40-32 record.

The numbers suggested a player who was on his way down and near the end of his career, rather than a player looking to make a major league roster.

Especially the roster for a World Series contender.

But Leo Durocher, entering his fifth season as the New York Giants manager, wasn't a conventional manager and he saw something in Hoyt Wilhelm others might not have seen. Durocher had already proved he didn't care what others thought. He was the manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and had famously advocated for Jackie Robinson to be there, when Brooklyn players were gathering a petition against Robinson. 

Evidence of how smitten Durocher was with Wilhelm, Durocher wrote in a piece for the Associated Press: "Our best newcomers appear to be Davey Williams, Roger Bowman, Hoyt Wilhelm, Vince DiLorenzo, and Ray Katt. I think our pitching will be even stronger than last year."

Durocher saw something impressive enough to help a Giants team that was 96-58 the previous season, won a hotly contested, 3-game playoff with their rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, on Bobby Thomson's walk-off homer, and made the World Series before losing in six games to another cross-town rival, the New York Yankees. 

Impressive enough that Durocher would summon Wilhelm to spring training and have him skip the Caribbean Series, slated for Feb. 20-26, even though Wilhelm wouldn't arrive in Phoenix until Feb. 26 and wouldn't pitch until Feb. 29 in a seemingly meaningless intersquad game.

Impressive enough that Durocher wasn't affected negatively by Wilhelm's first outing, a one-inning stint that saw him give up homers to Whitey Lockman and Davey Williams - the only runs, and two of the five hits, allowed in a 2-0 loss. 

And impressive enough that Durocher would tell reporters this about Wilhelm days after allowing those two homers: "He would be great to send in there to follow a fast ball thrower. His slow, butterfly stuff would get the batters crazy. I want to see if Wilhelm can control that pitch. If he can, he's my boy."

Wilhelm must have controlled it enough, because he was definitely Durocher's "boy" that 1952 season. 

Though Wilhelm's debut on April 18 was barely noticeable (one-third of an inning, one hit, two walks, no runs), he followed a day later with one inning of work and only one walk before he made his presence memorable on April 23 against the Boston Braves, the team that drafted him in 1948. Wilhelm pitched 5.1 innings of relief, hit a homer in his first at-bat (and famously never hit another), and won the game, 9-5. 

He would go on to set a National League record with 71 relief appearances, go 15-3 and win the NL ERA title (2.43), barely losing Rookie of the Year honors to Brooklyn's Joe Black. Two years later, Wilhelm helped the New York Giants sweep the vaunted, 111-game winning Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series. He earned a save in Game 3 and was later credited with a hold in the decisive Game 4.

Wilhelm continued to handle the workload and would retire 20 seasons later in 1972 with major league pitching records for appearances (1,070), relief wins (123), games in relief (1,018), games finished (651), and innings in relief (1,870). He also had eight All-Star game selections in three different decades (1950s, 1960s, 1970s), and another ERA title (1959, AL).

He would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985 and spend 22 years (1973-1974, 1976-1995) in the minors helping young pitchers forge their way to the majors. 

Durocher's hunch was right. Had he not given Wilhelm a chance, Wilhelm would have been remembered for a solid minor league career (two 20-win seasons, five team championships, two All-Star selections), but likely not much else in the baseball world.

We would have missed a Hall of Fame career.

Brett Honeycutt spent 25 years as a journalist - first as a free-lance writer for seven years, then on staff at a daily newspaper for 10 years, and then he managed a national magazine for nearly nine years. He is free-lancing again, working on various projects, including directing a high school hall of fame and coaching high school track and cross country and managing the Hoyt Wilhelm Fan Page on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/wilhelm_hoyt

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