The Atlanta Braves announced Sunday that Phil Niekro, a pitcher who used his distinctive knuckle ball to deceive generations of victims and set up a Hall of Fame career, after a long battle with cancer. He was 81.
Niekro, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, was one of baseball’s most productive and durable pitchers, using his ‘butterfly’ field to win 318 matches in a career spanning 24 seasons, 20 of those years with the Milwaukee / Atlanta Braves.
“We are saddened by the passing of our precious friend, Phil Niekro,” the Braves said in a prepared statement. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil hit innings on the field and later he was always the first to take part in our community activities. It was during the activities of the community and fans where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.
‘He has been a constant presence in our clubhouse, alumni activities and throughout Braves Country over the years, and we will be forever grateful that he is such an important part of our organization.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, the sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”
As with many knuckle jars, age was no obstacle for Niekro. He scored 121 wins after turning 40 – a big league record – and he turned 48 years old. By the end of 1987, his last season, Niekro ranked tenth among the major leagues in the number of seasons played. Only Cy Young, “Pud” Galvin and Walter Johnson hit more innings than Niekro’s 5,404. No pitcher since the dead ball era has spent more time on a major league hill.
“Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a prepared statement. “In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 overs. His knockout ball led him to five All-Star picks, three seasons for 20 wins for the Atlanta Braves, the club with 300 wins and finally to Cooperstown. .
“But even more than his distinctive pitch and his brand endurance, Phil will be remembered as one of the most ingenious people in our game. He has always represented his sport exceptionally well, and he will be greatly missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball I extend my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he has earned during his life in our national pastime. ‘
The symbol of both the success and longevity of Niekro’s career was the knuckle ball, the whimsical driver who not only amazes hits and catchers, but also the pitchers who never really know how the rotational pitch to the record will dance.
Niekro was the king of the knuckleballers and took first place in victories and results (3 342). Tom Candiotti, a notable knocker in his time and former teammate of Niekro with the 1986 Cleveland Indians, said that talking to ‘Knucksie’ was like talking to Thomas Edison about light bulbs.
If the knee-jerk stays in the majors, the same can be said of Niekro’s initial difficulty in reaching the big leagues. Confused catchers and drivers wary of successful balls and wild spots are reasons often cited for Niekro’s long stay in the Braves’ minor league system. Signed in 1958, he did not break through well for almost a decade. Yet the knuckle was everything Niekro had, everything he believed in.
“I never knew how to throw a fast ball, and never learned how to throw a curveball, a slider, a split finger, whatever they throw these days,” he said. “I was a pitcher with one pitch.”
Niekro, first called up by Milwaukee in 1964, sawed a seesaw between the majors and minors, a pitcher struggling to find a niche and find willing catchers. He found both in 1967, when he was reunited with Bob Uecker, a veteran reserve with many quips and sage advice.
“Ueck told me if I was always going to be a winner to throw the knuckle and he would try to catch it,” Niekro said. ‘I led the league in the ERA [1.87] and he led the league in successful balls. ‘
Uecker admitted that he raced a lot.
“Catching Niekro’s knuckle ball was great,” said Uecker, now a Hall of Fame broadcaster. ‘I met a lot of important people. They are all behind the home page. ‘
By 1969, Niekro was a star. His 23 wins that season earned him second place in the National League Cy Young Award vote. He will continue to live in the heads’ heads for another two decades. “There are not many victims who like knuckle jars,” he said. “They may not be intimidated by them, but they probably think of them before they go into the box.”
“Trying to hit Phil Niekro is like eating Jell-O with chopsticks,” said Bobby Murcer, a former Yankees fielder.
“He’s simply destroying your timing with that knuckleball,” said Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. “It’s like crazy going in and jumping in and you just can not beat it.”
“It’s actually giggling to you as it passes,” former fielder Rick said Monday.
Niekro, born in Blaine, Ohio, on April 1, 1939, was the proud spectator of a kind of family dynasty. Phil Niekro sr., A laborer and part-time semi-pro pitcher, got the knuckle under control after an arm injury threatened his playing days. He married his sons, Phil Jr. and Joe, learned the field when they were young. Phil and Joe, called ‘Knucksie’ and ‘Little Knucksie’ respectively, learned well. They have hosted a total of 46 major league seasons, earning six All-Star berths and, in perhaps their proudest performance, for 539 wins.
Their winning total is still an important league record for brothers and sisters, as they surpass another brother combination with a Hall of Famer: Gaylord and Jim Perry (529 wins combined).
Although Phil and Joe Niekro teamed up twice, with the Braves of 1973 and the Yankees of 1985, the two self-proclaimed best friends were more often friendly opponents. In 1979, Phil, who had beaten the Braves and Joe for the Astros, drew for most wins in the National League, with 21 each. They clung to each other as opponents of the hill, with Joe defeating his big brother 5-4 in their career. The lead was made possible by a home run that Phil gave to Joe, the only homer to hit Joe in his 22-year career.
When Phil Niekro won his 300th game, Joe was on his side, and it was probably the most unique win in the older brother’s career. It was October 6, 1985, the last day of the season. The Yankees lost a short time the previous day with a loss in Toronto. In the final handover, manager Billy Martin gave the coaching duties to Joe Niekro and the ball to Phil Niekro. Phil, who is trying a fifth time to no. 300 to win, entered ninth place after excluding the Jays on curves, slides, speed balls and screwballs – all but a knuckle ball.
He would later say that he wanted to prove that he was a pitcher, not just a knucklehead. Then the sentiment finally took the upper hand with two out in the ninth. Facing Jeff Burroughs, an old friend and former Braves teammate, Phil Niekro throws four stands – the last three knockers. Burroughs struck and the Yankees won 8-0 and Niekro his milestone.
“I thought there was a way I was going to win my 300th game by beating the man, I’m going to do it with the field that won the first game for me,” said Niekro.
Phil Niekro’s playing days ended in 1987, but he once again donned a uniform as manager of the Colorado Silver Bullets (1994-1997) in the woman’s rush. His pitching coach? Joe Niekro.
Phil Niekro was preceded by Joe Niekro, who suffered a fatal brain aneurysm in 2006.