Hoyt Wilhelm, the first reliever elected to the Hall of Fame, the last man to throw a no-hitter against the Yankees and a pitcher of almost unequaled longevity in the major leagues, died Friday in Sarasota, Fla.
His wife, Peggy, told The Associated Press that the cause of death was heart failure. Although major league records indicated Wilhelm was 79 years old, the nursing home handling the funeral arrangements said he was 80.
Wilhelm pitched in 1,070 games before his last time on a major league mound in 1972. He was an early master of the knuckleball, a pitch he fluttered over the plate, sending the ball in twists and turns that left batters swinging helplessly and sometimes confounding his own catchers.
He said he learned the pitch as a 12-year-old, growing up in North Carolina, when he read a newspaper article about four Washington Senators who threw knuckleballs. He taught himself, using a tennis ball to practice.
Wilhelm retained a wry wit cultivated in the rural South, and was fond of recalling the difficulty some catchers had in laying their gloves on his knuckleball. When he was with the Chicago White Sox, he said, he was warmed up by a young catcher who insisted that he did not need a catcher's mask.
''The ball couldn't have caught him more cleanly in the eye if I'd been aiming it there,'' Wilhelm said in 1985, the year he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
As a specialist in the knuckleball, he also overcame fears from some teammates and fans that his pitches would be too slow and hard to catch to prevent runners from stealing second base.
''The trick,'' Wilhelm said, ''is not to let them get on in the first place.'' When runners did make it on base, they had to contend with something else -- his deceptive move to first.
James Hoyt Wilhelm grew up in Huntersville, N.C., where he experimented with his unorthodox pitching style while playing high school ball.
He got his break in the big leagues late. He played for seven years in the minor leagues, taking time out to serve in World War II; he was awarded a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
He was around 30 in 1952 when the New York Giants decided to give him a chance in their bullpen. That year, he put in 71 relief appearances, went 15-3 with 11 saves and recorded a league-leading 2.43 earned run average.
Wilhelm also started his major league career with a bang at the plate. In his first time at bat in the Polo Grounds for the Giants, on April 23, 1952, he connected for a home run. It was the only homer of his career.
In his 20 years on big league mounds, he played mainly for the Giants, the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox, but also had shorter stints with five other teams. He was an All-Star five times.
Although Wilhelm made his career mainly as a reliever, he started a game on Sept. 20, 1958, that was to become his most memorable. Pitching for the Orioles, he threw a no-hitter against the Yankees.
For his career, Wilhelm was 143-122 with 227 saves, and had a 2.52 E.R.A.
When he was elected in 1985, Wilhelm became the first relief pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame. Another reliever, Rollie Fingers, has since joined him.
Once, when asked by a reporter to explain his success, Wilhelm said, ''I never went into a game and got all flustered up.
''I try to take a close game and men on base in stride. I've always thought baseball was just a game, and I enjoy it. And ever since I was a boy and learned the knuckleball, I've thrown it with a lot of determination.''
Besides his wife, who is from Sarasota, Wilhelm is survived by a son, Jim Wilhelm of Sarasota, and two daughters, Patti Collins of Sarasota and Pam Pate of Cheraw, S.C.