Hoyt Wilhelm was talking about the knuckleball -- the pitch that kept him in the big leagues until he was nearly 50, and that now has made him the first reliever voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. ``Nobody ever really masters the knuckleball,'' he said. ``I started throwing it in high school, used it for seven or eight years in the minor leagues and 21 years in the majors, and still I never knew just what it was going to do. There's no way you can throw the pitch that it will do exactly the same thing twice in a row.''
Unlike a conventional pitcher, therefore, the man who brought new respectability to relief pitching during the 1950s and '60s never could tell while warming up whether he had his ``good stuff'' on that particular day.
``Sometimes I'd think I really had it and wind up getting hit,'' he recalled while being honored on the banquet circuit this winter for his election to Cooperstown. ``Other times it would be the other way around. With this pitch, I don't think anybody ever really knows.
``Wind conditions affect the way it breaks, of course, but I think people sometimes make too much of this factor. When you're on the mound you just take account of the wind and make whatever adjustments you have to in your release.''
Wilhelm wasn't the first pitcher to gain fame coming out of the bullpen (Joe Page, Hugh Casey, and Jim Konstanty are predecessors who come to mind), but Hoyt did it more frequently and successfully than anyone else -- setting records for most appearances (1,070), most wins in relief (123), and most saves (227). And this record combined with his longevity undoubtedly had a lot to do with the public's gradual realization of how important a strong bullpen is to any team.
Inexplicably, it took the nation's baseball writers a bit longer than it should have to figure it out. Despite his record, Wilhelm, who became eligible for the Hall of Fame five years after his 1972 retirement, was passed over in the voting seven times before finally making it.
``It could have been in some writers' minds,'' Wilhelm agreed when it was suggested that the voters had been slow catching up with the times, and that his relief status had worked against him for a while.
``But after 20 years in the majors, and with the record I had, I figured I had a chance,'' he said. ``Last year when I lost by just 13 votes, I felt I'd make it this time.''
Wilhelm, who grew up in Cornelius, N.C., and never saw a major league game until he came up to the old New York Giants in 1952, says he picked up the knuckleball on his own as a youngster.
``I saw pictures in the papers of guys like Dutch Leonard, and I just started messing around with it,'' he recalls. ``No coaches taught it to me or anything. I just seemed to have the knack of it.''
The pitch worked for him in the minors, but then as now the scouts leaned toward kids who threw hard rather than those who got people out with trick pitches. So Hoyt spent seven years working his way up, with three years out for military service in World War II, and was a 29-year-old rookie when he got his first major league chance.
The young right-hander had been a starter in the minors, and was less than enthusiastic when Manager Leo Durocher slated him for bullpen duty.
``In a different situation I might have said something,'' he recalled. But I wasn't going to rock any boats then. I was just happy to be in the big leagues.
Wilhelm finished that rookie season with a 15-3 record, leading the National League in appearances (71), winning percentage (.833), and earned run average (2.43). Durocher looked like a genius -- and Hoyt was typecast as a reliever for the next five years. In 1958, however, he wound up in Baltimore, where Manager Paul Richards offered him a choice. This time, with the confidence of a veteran, Hoyt allowed as how he'd really rather be a starter -- so Richards made him one.
Wilhelm was effective this way too -- pitching a no-hitter against the New York Yankees one year, and winning 15 games in another. But eventually he was needed in the bullpen again, so back he went in 1960 -- there to spend virtually the entire rest of his career.
All-in-all, Hoyt pitched for eight major league teams -- most prominently with the Giants, Orioles, and Chicago White Sox -- and had a lot of big moments.
``Pitching for a World Series winner [the 1954 Giants] was a big thrill,'' he said. ``And all the All-Star Games. Also the no-hitter, which is the last one that's been pitched against the Yankees, by the way.
``Another thrill came in 1969 with Atlanta, when I pitched the last three innings of the game that clinched the National League West title.''
And what makes a successful reliever? ``You have to have the right temperament,'' he said. ``When I came in with guys on base, I just wiped the bases out of my mind. I couldn't do anything about the runners. I just had to concentrate on the hitter, and keep the ball in the park.''
``You have to have confidence in your best pitch too. I believed in challenging the hitters. People tell you to keep the ball down, but sometimes you can make hitters chase bad pitches if you throw it up higher. So I just tried to throw it in there and let 'em go after it.''
Wilhelm had other pitches, but none that was going to fool many big league hitters. So despite the unpredictability of his ``money pitch,'' he stuck with it most of the time even when behind in the count.
``If I was getting it over, I used it like 95 to 98 percent of the time.'' he said. ``I figured if I went away from it in tight situations, I'd just be giving in to the hitter.''
As for the secret of his baseball longevity, Wilhelm said it was really no secret.
``The knuckleball isn't as hard on the arm as some pitches,'' he explained. ``You don't twist your arm, and you don't have to throw hard. On days when I was getting a good spin on the ball, I just lobbed it in there. It was just like playing catch.''
So why don't more pitchers use it? ``People ask me about teaching it to the kids I work with,'' said Hoyt, who has been an instructor in the Yankees' minor league system for several years. ``They don't understand that you can't really teach anybody to throw the knuckleball.
``You can show 'em how it's thrown, but the pitch is so unorthodox there's no way you can really teach somebody to do it. So I just stick to the basic pitches. I might play catch with them using knuckleballs, but we don't work on it seriously. I think a kid has to be born with the knack to throw this pitch.''