Grave Story: Irvin “Kaiser” Wilhelm (1877-1936)

Here lies Kaiser Wilhelm – the pitcher, not the German emperor. This Wilhelm had stints in the major leagues between 1903 and 1921, and while he lost 20 games in a season three times, he never lost a World War. I believe his resting place is between the two graves belonging to Ida (left) and Celia (his mother, right) Wilhelm. Wilhelm pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1903), Boston Beaneaters (1904-05), Brooklyn Superbas (1908-10), Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League (1914-15) and Philadelphia Phillies (1921). He also managed the Phillies in 1921 and ’22.

Irvin Kay Wilhelm was born in Wooster, Ohio, on January 26, 1877. He got his start in baseball pitching for a team in Youngstown as early as 1898. In the 1900 Federal Census, he was already listed as a professional ballplayer, living at home with his parents. In 1901, he signed his first professional contract to play with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. That would be the first professional baseball team ever named the Birmingham Barons, incidentally. Except for a couple of interruptions in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Barons have played in Birmingham for more than a century.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s unmarked grave in Wooster Cemetery, Wooster, Ohio.

While there isn’t a wealth of minor-league statistics from that era, Wilhelm went 15-18 for the Barons in 1901 and then 14-9 in 1902. On August 23, Wilhelm pitched both ends of a doubleheader against Nashville and threw two 1-hitters, winning 5-0 and 5-1. After the 1902 Southern Association had concluded, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and joined the big-league squad. There were reports that manager Fred Clarke would let him pitch a game or two before the season ended, but he ended up making his debut in 1903 instead.

When he had a chance to play, Wilhelm did rather well. In 12 games, 9 of which were starts, he had a 5-3 record and a 3.24 ERA, with 7 complete games. He shut out the Boston Braves 5-0 on June 4 and blanked the Phillies 5-0 on August 25 – contradicting Baseball Reference, which lists him with 1 shutout in 1903. It would be the only season of his major-league career where he turned in an above .500 record.

The problem was that Clarke didn’t seem to trust him and ended up releasing him at the end of August. The pennant-winning 1903 Pirates leaned heavily on veteran pitchers Deacon Phillippe, Sam Leever and Ed Doheny. Reports stated that Wilhelm got discouraged too easily, and he would have been cut earlier except for the fact that Doheny left the team for a time due to mental health problems. Wilhelm did leave a good impression on other teams and soon had other offers from National League and Southern Association teams. Instead, he went back to Ohio to pitch for a semipro team, claiming that he could get better pay there.

Source: Library of Congress

It was rumored that Wilhelm would return to the Barons in 1903, but the Boston Beaneaters signed him instead. He had the misfortune of being a pretty fair pitcher on a weak team. Three Boston starters lost 20 or more games, and Wilhelm ended up with a 14-20 season and a 3.69 ERA. He contributed to some of his problems, as he led the NL with 118 earned runs allowed and gave up 316 hits in 288 innings pitched.

Things were even worse in 1904, as four Beaneater pitchers lost 20 or more games. Wilhelm made 34 pitching appearances with 28 starts, and he completed 23 of those games. However, he was lit up by NL hitters repeatedly and ended up with a 3-23 record and 4.53 ERA – that’s a .115 winning percentage, one of the worst-ever for a pitcher with more than 200 innings pitched in a season.

The Beaneaters finished with a 51-103 record. Part of the reason was that the team had four starting pitchers and essentially no relievers, so the starters would go out and get shelled day after day after day. Things got so bad that Jim Delahanty was used once as a starting pitcher, and he was an infielder by trade. Wilhelm gave up 287 hits, and he was the only one of the four starters to end the season with fewer than 300 hits allowed. On June 19, the Cardinals shelled him for 15 hits in a 10-6 complete game loss. On July 31, he allowed 14 hits in 6 innings to that same Cardinals time. In this instance, manager Fred Tenney showed some mercy and moved Wilhelm out to right field for a couple of innings to let outfielder Cozy Dolan pitch. Naturally, Dolan didn’t give up a single hit in 2 innings.

To nobody’s surprise, Wilhelm was released by Boston in March of 1906. By then, he was 29 years old, had a career win-loss record of 22-46 and was headed back to the minor leagues. That would be the end of many baseball careers, but Wilhelm responded with two brilliant seasons for the Birmingham Barons. He won 22 games in 1906 and 23 in 1907. He threw a 7-0 perfect game against Montgomery on July 10, 1906, which the Birmingham News noted (incorrectly) that it was only the second perfect game in baseball history after Cy Young’s 1904 effort.

“Never before has an audience at any ball game throughout the land witnessed a greater exhibition of ball tossing in these latter days, or days long ago faded into history,” the News wrote. “Irwin Wilhelm stands out as having performed the star feat in baseball.” Yeah, the newspaper misspelled hit name while calling it the best game ever pitched.

Wilhelm almost called it quits at the end of 1907 to become a baseball coach at Vanderbilt, but the Brooklyn Superbas bought his contract instead. He didn’t want to go and sought his release, claiming he had a non-reserve contract. Brooklyn ended up paying $350 on top of his contract to settle the issue. That done, Wilhelm turned in possibly the greatest 20-loss season in the modern baseball era.

The 1908 Superbas, as a team, batted .213 and lost 101 games. Even brilliant seasons from starting pitchers Wilhelm (16-22, 1.87 ERA) and Nap Rucker (17-19, 2.08) couldn’t help them. Wilhelm made an incredible turnaround from the days with the Beaneaters, where he was hit hard with regularity. He allowed 266 hits in 332 innings and tossed 6 shutouts. His 1.051 WHIP was the best of his career. He was just the victim of bad luck and a bad ballclub. He threw a 2-hitter on May 9 against Philadelphia and faced the minimum of hitters until an error, a sacrifice bunt and a scratch base hit led to a 1-0 loss.

Nobody ever interviewed Wilhelm during that time to ask him about his change of fortune. However, a game account from a September 17 3-0 win stated, “Irvin Wilhelm’s spit ball delivery was too much for Cincinnati and the visitors were shut out.” Perhaps Wilhelm had picked up the spitter sometime after leaving Boston.

Source: Library of Congress

Wilhelm never lost 20 games in a season again, but he was also never as good again. The 1909 season got off to a fantastic start when Wilhelm and the New York Giants’ Red Ames went head-to-head on Opening Day, April 15. Wilhelm took a no-hitter into the 8th inning, while Ames topped that with nine hitless innings. The game went into extras in a 0-0 tie, when Brooklyn scored 3 runs. Wilhelm ended up with a 13-inning, 3-hit shutout. He won only twice more the rest of the season and finished the year 3-13.

A far more typical game for him occurred on May 12, when his old nemesis the Cardinals beat him 13-2. “Thirteen large, ripe and juicy bingles they gathered off Kaiser Wilhelm, whose saliva coated floaters were as deceptive to those St. Louis youngsters as an open book,” reported The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Wilhelm worked a mere 163 innings as other Brooklyn pitchers pushed him out of playing time. At least he batted .228, which was almost 100 points better than the team’s starting catcher, Bill Bergen.

Incidentally, Wilhelm hated the “Kaiser” nickname, according to his SABR biography. The Brooklyn newspapers used it pretty frequently, but for most of his career, it seems like he was referred to as Irvin K., Irving, Irwin or Erwin.

Wilhelm spent most of 1910 in the Brooklyn bullpen. He had a 3-7 record and a 4.74 ERA. To make matters worse, his season ended in late July when he came down with typhoid fever. He spent the rest of the year back home in Wooster, recovering from his illness.

Brooklyn cut the pitcher loose, so Wilhelm spent the next three seasons pitching for the Rochester Bronchos/Hustlers. He showed no ill effects from his bout with typhoid and threw over 200 innings each year, winning at least 14 games. The team won three straight pennants Now in his late 30s, Wilhelm managed to return to the major leagues again, or at least a major league. The Federal League sprung up for a couple of seasons, 1914 and 1915, as a competitor to the NL and AL. The FL teams tried to lure players away from the other leagues, and the Baltimore Terrapins gave Wilhelm a three-year, $10,500 contract. He in turn gave them a 12-17 record and 4.03 in 1914. He struck out a career-best 113 batters while working as a swingman. He started 27 games and finished 18 others – tops in the FL. He ended up with 11 complete games and 5 saves.

Wilhelm was slow to report to spring training in 1915, and all the prodding by manager Otto Knabe couldn’t get him there faster. When he finally showed up to pitch, he threw one perfect inning in relief on April 12 and didn’t pitch again. The team finally cut him loose on August 10. Within a few days, he had successfully petitioned to become an umpire in the Federal League. He had umpired a couple of times in his playing career, and he was said to have done well. As an umpire in the Federal League, he worked 52 games and ejected two people. One of them was his old manager, Knabe.

Wilhelm pitched for a couple more seasons in Elmira. He worked as a government motor inspector during World War I and pitched a little in and around Buffalo. He made a successful comeback in 1920, when he was 43, by turning in a 12-12 record with the Jersey City Skeeters. The Skeeters manager, Wild Bill Donovan, was named skipper of the Philadelphia Phillies for 1921, and he brought Wilhelm to the majors with him as a coach and scout.

As noted, Wilhelm had the misfortune of being tied to teams that lost 100+ games, and the ’21 Phillies were no exception. Donovan got off to a 25-62 start, fell out of favor with Phillies management and was fired on August 9. Wilhelm, who was managing the team anyway while Donovan was off scouting, took over the duties full-time. Within a few weeks, he was given an extension for the 1922 season as well.

Source: Star-Gazette (Elmira, N.Y.), August 24, 1921.

Wilhelm provided a boost to what was a pretty apathetic team. His plan was to restock the team in 1922 with young blood. “The training camp is the place to start rebuilding a team, not in the middle… of the pennant chase. I expect to get a thorough acquaintance with the players on hand now,” he told the Star-Gazette of Elmira. “I am working them all to see what they have and then I will know where to start rebuilding and go right ahead with it without any doubts.”

Under Wilhelm, the Phillies went 26-41, which isn’t great but was an improvement. He also made the final pitching appearances of his career. He put himself into 4 games and threw a total of 8 innings. He allowed 3 earned runs, walked 3 and struck out 1. That leaves his career totals, over 9 seasons, at a 56-105 record and 3.44 ERA. He struck out 444 hitters and walked 418. He appeared in 216 games, started 158 of them and threw 118 complete games and 12 shutouts.

The 1922 Phillies managed to avoid 100 losses – they finished 57-96. The modest improvement wasn’t enough to save Wilhelm’s job. Over a season and a half, he guided the team to an 83-137 record.

Wilhelm remained in baseball, working as a coach in Rochester and a manager in Bridgeport in 1925 and Syracuse in 1929. Though some real estate investments had left him with a modest fortune, he still signed up to be the coach of the University of Rochester baseball team in 1930. In his leisure time, he was a hunter and dog fancier as well.

In early April of 1936, it was reported that Wilhelm was seriously ill with a kidney ailment in Rochester. He died there on May 22, 1936, at the age of 59. He was returned home to Ohio and is buried in Wooster Cemetery.

Wilhelm set the minor-record for longest scoreless inning streak in 2004, which is a pretty neat trick for someone who had been dead for 68 years. Wilhelm had been the record holder with 56 straight scoreless innings, set at the end of the 1907 season while he was with Birmingham. That record was broken by Brad Thompson of the Tennessee Smokies in 2004, who made it to 57-2/3 scoreless innings. It was then discovered that Wilhelm’s streak in 1907 was actually 59 innings. Furthermore, SABR researcher Ray Nemec pointed out that Wilhelm threw 13 straight scoreless innings when he returned to the minor leagues with Rochester in 1913, so he actually threw 72 consecutive scoreless innings, spread out over two seasons. That record still stands as the longest streak in professional baseball history.

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