“It was about time we beat ’em here.”1
That’s what 48-year-old2 future Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm told reporters after the Atlanta Braves defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-3, on September 2, 1970. The Dodgers were in Atlanta for a four-game midweek series, their final visit of the season to Atlanta Stadium. The fourth-place Braves were struggling, having lost four straight games before Los Angeles came to town.
Los Angeles, in second place in the National League West standings, had swept a doubleheader against the Braves the day before. This meant that Atlanta had dropped six straight and lost all seven of its home games against the Dodgers to this point in the season.3 Just a season after clinching the NL West title, the Braves were now 20 games behind Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Perhaps because of this, only 4,719 spectators turned out for the third game of the series.4
Right-hander Jim Nash got the starting nod for the Braves. The 1966 American League Rookie of the Year runner-up for the Kansas City Athletics,5 Nash was in his first season with the Braves.6 He was making his 29th start of the year, and he had been tagged with the loss in his three previous starts.
Don Sutton started for the visitors; he was in his fifth season in the majors, all with the Dodgers. The right-hander brought a 13-10 record and a 4.05 earned-run average into this game, his 32nd start of 1970. At age 25, Sutton’s lifetime won-lost record was just 64-70. His breakthrough in 1972, igniting his reign as one of the game’s premier starters of the 1970s and eventual induction in the Hall of Fame, was still a season away.
Nash retired the Dodgers in order to begin the game, capping off the inning by striking out Willie Davis. Sutton was not so fortunate. Mike Lum started the bottom of the first with a single to right. Félix Millan then laid down “one beauty of a bunt”7 for an infield single.
Atlanta’s potent heart of the lineup – Henry Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, and Rico Carty – was up with two on and no outs, but Sutton seemed up to the challenge. Aaron hit into a force at second, and Cepeda, who had homered in each game of the previous day’s doubleheader and was riding a 10-game hitting streak, popped out to first baseman Wes Parker.
Playing in his first season with the Braves, the left-handed-batting King platooned behind the plate with Bob Tillman and Bob Didier, starting 51 games. He often appeared as a late-inning replacement or as a pinch-hitter.8 In the Braves’ first eight games against the Dodgers, King had recorded only two hits, and both had come the previous day.9
King, who led the Class A Carolina League with 30 home runs in 1967, worked a full count before driving Sutton’s pitch to right field. According to the Atlanta Constitution, Dodgers right fielder Bill Russell “literally climbed the fence and appeared for an instant to have a chance to grab the ball,”10 but the ball reached the bleachers. Atlanta had a quick 4-0 lead on King’s 11th home run – and second grand slam – of the season.
Through three innings Nash held the lead, limiting the Dodgers to a single hit. Then everything changed. In the top of the fourth, Nash “pitched his way out of the game,”11 as the first five Los Angeles batters reached base.
Davis and Parker both singled to start the inning. Tom Haller then crushed his eighth homer of the year over the fence in right field, cutting the deficit to 4-3.
Jim Lefebvre and Willie Crawford each followed with singles. With no outs, three runs already in and two men still on base, Wilhelm, pitching for his seventh big-league club in the 20th season of a career that had begun in 1952, was called from the bullpen to relieve Nash.
It was the 1,034th appearance of Wilhelm’s career; he had eclipsed Cy Young’s major-league record of 906 appearances in 1968.12 Known as one of the greatest knuckleballers in baseball, Wilhelm threw almost nothing else. He would “just aim the ball right down the middle of the plate, knowing full well that it would end up somewhere else, but maximizing his chances of keeping it in the strike zone.”13
His first pitch was a knuckler in the dirt that “eluded catcher Hal King for a passed ball.”14 Wilhelm got two infield groundouts and a fly out, stranding both runners in scoring position. Of the passed ball, Wilhelm said afterward, “Hal had it right in his glove and it all of a sudden dipped right straight down.”15
Wilhelm came to bat with one out in the home half of the fourth inning. He lined the ball toward center field, where it dropped in front of Davis. Wilhelm thought the shortstop had caught the ball, so “I just quit running.”16 Then he had to sprint to the base, as Davis threw the ball to first, trying to get it there before Wilhelm. First-base umpire Dick Stello initially called Wilhelm out but reversed his call when Dodgers first baseman Parker could not control the throw from the outfield.17 It was just Wilhelm’s 10th official at-bat of the season, and the hit was his first since 1967.18
Lum singled to right, and Wilhelm made it to second without incident. Millan then grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.
Sutton “stiffened”19 and did not allow another run after the first frame. In fact, he allowed just one base hit after the fourth: a single in the sixth by Clete Boyer, who was erased on a double play.
Wilhelm was just as effective. He allowed two two-out singles in the sixth, to Crawford and Billy Grabarkewitz, but he stranded them both on the basepaths when Sutton flied out to end the inning. Parker doubled to lead off the top of the eighth, but Wilhelm retired the next three Dodgers batters, leaving Parker at second.
Wilhelm made the one-run lead stand up for six innings of four-hit ball, finishing the Dodgers off in the ninth by striking out Grabarkewitz and pinch-hitter Manny Mota and getting Russell to ground out.
The Braves snapped their losing streak. This was also their first victory of the season against the Dodgers at home. (They also won the next day, their final game hosting the Dodgers in 1970.) Every position player for Atlanta had at least one hit except for Cepeda, whose hitting streak stopped. King had just the one hit, but it was the game-winner.21
After Wilhelm’s six-inning outing, a reporter asked him if he would start in four days for Atlanta. Wilhelm replied, “Anybody can start. I don’t know about finishing.”22 Yet he did finish this game. It was his longest outing since he went six innings out of the bullpen for the Chicago White Sox on September 6, 1964, nearly six years to the day earlier.23
Wilhelm’s fourth-inning single turned out to be the final hit of his career. Even though he pitched parts of the next two seasons and had 28 at-bats, he finished his career with just 38 hits.24
After he made five more appearances with the Braves, Atlanta sold Wilhelm to the Chicago Cubs on September 21. He pitched in three games for the Cubs at the end of the season, giving him 53 total appearances, a 6-5 record, and a 3.40 ERA in 1970. Another deal sent Wilhelm back to the Braves for the 1971 season. Atlanta released him in June 1971, and he finished his career with the Dodgers, tossing his final major-league pitch on July 10, 1972, 16 days before his 49th birthday.
When he pitched for the final time in 1972, Wilhelm had appeared in 1,070 games.25 Only 52 were starts, which means he made more than 1,000 relief appearances in his 21 seasons. He finished his career with 143 victories against 122 losses, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
I spent a few days with Hoyt Wilhelm in 1996. I was an officer representative26 with the Army Baseball Team, and he was an assistant pitching coach for the Yankees during spring training. Each year, we spent spring break in Tampa, Florida, practicing every morning at the New York Yankees’ facilities before we traveled for games. As a major in the Army, I was always in uniform, and Hoyt came up to me early in the week and introduced himself. We spoke to each other every day after that, often watching intrasquad games together. As an Orioles fan, I wanted to ask him about his time with Baltimore, getting elected to the Hall of Fame, and especially about his 1958 no-hitter against the Yankees. All we seemed to talk about was the Army, though, including his service with the 1st Infantry Division during World War II. His respect for the Army was tremendous.
This article was fact-checked by Thomas Merrick and copy-edited by Len Levin.
Photo credit: Trading Card Database.
In addition to the sources mentioned in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, MLB.com, Retrosheet.org, and SABR.org.
1 Wilt Browning, “Logic and Legend Defeat L.A.,” Atlanta Journal, September 3, 1970: 74, 79.
2 At this time, Wilhelm was commonly believed to have been 47 years old, with a birthdate of July 26, 1923. After his death in 2002, it was discovered that he was born on July 26, 1922, making him one year older. See Mark Armour, “Hoyt Wilhelm,” SABR Biography Project. Wilhelm pitched for Mooresville in the Class D North Carolina State League in 1942 before being drafted into the Army. He spent three years serving in the Army and did not make the majors until 1952. “LA Can’t Laugh at Old Wilhelm,” Macon (Georgia) News, September 3, 1970: 25.
3 The Braves had more (a little more) success playing at Dodger Stadium, winning four of nine games in 1970.
4 This was the smallest crowd at home so far all season, broken the next day, when only 4,450 showed up to see Atlanta beat the Dodgers again, 11-4.
6 Nash spent four years in the American League (two with the Kansas City Athletics, where he won the Rookie Pitcher of the Year Award, and two with the A’s in Oakland). On December 3, 1969, he was traded by Oakland to Atlanta for Felipe Alou.
7 Wayne Minshew, “King’s Grand Slam Racks Dodgers, 4-3,” Atlanta Constitution, September 3, 1970: 53, 59.
8 King had appeared in 42 games in 1967-68 for the Houston Astros, but he spent the 1969 season playing for the Louisville Colonels (the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate) before joining the Braves organization prior to the 1970 season. King was traded from Houston to the Boston Red Sox on March 11, 1969, for Mark Schaeffer. The Red Sox never called him up to the majors. Then, on December 1, 1969, King was drafted by Atlanta from the Red Sox in the 1969 Rule 5 draft, and he got his chance to play more often.
9 For the season, King played in 10 games against Los Angeles, getting 4 hits in 18 at-bats (.222).
12 Cy Young set the previous record for most appearances by a pitcher with 906. On display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the glove Wilhelm used in the July 24, 1968, game against the Oakland Athletics (the second game of a doubleheader) when he broke Young’s record. Wilhelm faced only four batters (but took the loss) in that 2-1 contest.
16 “LA Can’t Laugh at Old Wilhelm.”
18 Wilhelm appeared in 50 games in 1970 for Atlanta, making 13 plate appearances. He had two walks and just the one hit. His previous hit came on August 1, 1967, against the Cleveland Indians’ Bob Allen, 58 at-bats before this hit.
21 King appeared in only nine more games (just three starts) in 1970, and although he raised his batting average to .260, he did not hit any more home runs.
22 “LA Can’t Laugh at Old Wilhelm.”
23 He pitched six innings against the Cleveland Indians in the second game of a doubleheader, allowing just two hits and also earning the victory. The longest relief outing of his career was 10 innings for the Baltimore Orioles against the White Sox on August 6, 1959. Prior to this game, his longest stint of the 1970 season was 3⅔ innings, which he pitched twice, including on August 6 against the Dodgers.
24 Wilhelm has the distinction of homering in his very first at-bat (on April 23, 1952), the only round-tripper of his career. Thirty-three of his hits were singles. Of Wilhelm’s five career extra-base hits, he had one home run, one triple, and three doubles. The triple and two of the doubles came in 1953, and his last extra-base hit (a double) came in 1966.
25 As of the beginning of the 2023 season, Wilhelm sat sixth on the list of career appearances by a pitcher. “Games Pitched All-Time Leaders,” Baseball-Almanac.com, accessed August 25, 2023, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/pitching/pigamp1.shtml.
26 Each varsity sport at the US Military Academy had several officer representatives (OR) – faculty or staff members who would sit in the dugout or on the sidelines as a representatives of the superintendent. We were not coaches, but we were fans of the sports, and we were supposed to act as role models to the players. My most important duty might have been getting the right type of chewing gum (Double Bubble or Bazooka, depending on the year) and sunflower seeds for the cadets before each game. While in Tampa, we stayed with New York’s minor leaguers at a hotel owned by the Yankees (just down the street from what is now George Steinbrenner Field).