The Orioles catcher who tried not to knuckle under

Baltimore ... or Less

September 01, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

True, the late Hoyt Wilhelm had a knuckleball that tied hitters in knots. But they weren't the only ones who hated seeing those things coming at them from the pitcher's mound.

After all, the knuckler is a pitch known for the unknowable; the key to its allure (and Wilhelm's success) lay in its unpredictability. You never knew where it was going -- that was true for the hitter, but it was just as true for the poor catcher.

"Yeah, it was tough," admits Gus Triandos, Wilhelm's battery mate for most of the pitcher's five-season stint with the Orioles, from 1958 to 1962. "The more you caught it, the worse you got. It wore you out."

It made quite the pair of Wilhelm and Triandos. Images of Wilhelm soft-tossing that erratic sphere toward the plate, and Triandos darting his catcher's mitt this way and that, trying to flag it down, are a part of team lore. The link between the two became even stronger earlier this year, when the knuckleballer joined his catcher in the Orioles Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony was held Aug. 18, just five days before Wilhelm died of heart failure at age 79.

Triandos, now 72 and running a mail-delivery business in San Jose, Calif., admits he never liked catching Wilhelm's floater. "No one can say they enjoyed catching something like that," he says. "Some people think every time he threw it, you ran back to the backstop to get it. It wasn't that bad. You'd catch most ... but the ones that you missed, always seemed to happen at bad times."

Things got so bad, in fact, that Orioles manager Paul Richards once turned equipment designer in his continuing effort to keep Wilhelm's pitches and Triandos' catcher's mitt acquainted. His solution: a bigger mitt, one that looked more like a waiter's serving tray than a piece of baseball equipment.

"It was very large," remembers Triandos. "It didn't solve the problem, it just helped it. I think it made a bigger newspaper story than it made a help."

And only a temporary help at that: By the next season, Triandos remembers, baseball had new rules governing the size of a catcher's mitt. The Richards special was decidedly too big. (A replica mitt is on display in the team's executive offices at Camden Yards.)

And so it was back to chasing those wayward knucklers for the Orioles' catchers; no way Wilhelm was going to stop throwing it. "I'd say he threw it 99 percent of the time," Triandos says. "With guys like Mantle, those big hitters, even with three balls, he'd throw a knuckleball."

Sometimes, that forced a man to take matters into his own hands. When Wilhelm threw his no-hitter against the Yankees in September 1958 (against a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Enos Slaughter), the final score was 1-0. The only run was a Triandos homer in the eighth inning -- his 30th of the season, tying an American League record for catchers.

Big Gus, who was such a popular player with the Orioles that he even had a street in Timonium named for him, recalls the no-hitter with a chuckle.

"The joke was," he says, "that I didn't want to catch the knuckleball anymore -- that's why I hit the home run."

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