Obituary: Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

RIP to Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, one of the best knuckleball pitchers in baseball history and a 300-game winner. He died in his sleep on December 26 at the age of 81 after battling cancer the last few years of his life. No place of death was immediately available, but he lived in Flowery Branch, Ga. Niekro played for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1964-1983, 1987), New York Yankees (1984-85), Cleveland Indians (1986-87) and Toronto Blue Jays (1987).

“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro,” the Braves said in a statement. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.

“He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”

Philip Henry Niekro was born on April 1, 1939 in Blaine, Ohio. He was the first member of the family to make the major leagues, later joined by his brother Joe Niekro and nephew Lance Niekro. Phil and Joe hold the major-league record for most wins by a brother tandem with 539 (Phil had 318 and Joe had 221).

The Niekro brothers picked up a couple of valuable things from their father, Phil Sr., who was a coal miner. One was a love of polka music — if you ever find a copy of The Niekro Files, a book that they co-wrote, buy it. Polka music comes up fairly often. The other, of course, was the knuckleball. That hard-to-control, hard-to-hit pitch would become the signature pitch in both of their major-league careers. Their father, a former sandlot pitcher in Ohio with a good fastball, learned the knuckleball after hurting his arm.

“I was in the seventh or eighth grade when I started throwing it,” Phil said in a 1961 interview. “It took lots of work to learn it but it was my pitch all four years in high school.”

Phil Niekro with the Austin Senators in 1961. THe “pigtail” referred to a player who caught all the errant pitches the catcher missed in warmups. Source: Austin American, August 24, 1961.

Niekro was a top pitcher at Bridgeport High School in Ohio and was awarded the Babe Ruth Sportsmanship Award there. He only suffered one defeat in his high school career, and that was when Bill Mazeroski of Warren Consolidated homered off him. Maz would handle Niekro’s knuckleballs in the big leagues pretty well too, though Niekro got a measure of revenge by striking him out four times in a game in 1970. Niekro graduated and spent a couple of years at Fairmount State College before signing with the Milwaukee Braves in July of 1958. Scout Bill Maughn signed him for $500 after a tryout. Niekro reported to the team’s minor-league training camp in Waycross, Ga., the next year.

The thing about Niekro’s career that’s pretty remarkable is that it took a long, long time for him to establish himself in the starting rotation. He didn’t become a 10-game winner in the major leagues until he was 28 and won 20 games for the first time when he was 30. Once he got rolling, though, he became a testament to durability. He threw more than 200 innings in a season each year between 1967 and 1986 with the exception of 1981, which was a strike-shortened season. Niekro hit his peak at an age when most other starting pitchers start to fade and was an effective pitcher into his late 40s. Certainly the knuckleball helped, as many knuckleballers have been able to pitch successfully into their 40s, but Niekro’s workload puts him in a class by himself.

Niekro began his professional baseball career with the Wellsville (N.Y.) Braves in 1959. He struggled with a 7.46 ERA in 10 games and was reassigned to a lower-level team in McCook, Neb. He was to have been released, but Niekro, knowing he faced a future of working in the coal mines if baseball didn’t pan out, asked for and received a second chance. He began to turn things around there, or perhaps he figured out how to harness the knuckleball. He went 7-1 in McCook as a reliever and began his ascent through the Braves system. He became a workhorse reliever, throwing 110 innings in 51 games for the AA Austin Senators in 1961 — but only one of those appearances was a start. That was about when the Braves started to realize they had another problem — Niekro could throw a great knuckleball, but who can catch it?

“His knuckler moves about three times before it finally breaks and you never know which way it’s going to go,” said Austin catcher Dan Williams. When asked how much that final break was, he held his mitt and his bare hand about a foot apart. The Senators ended up using a “pigtail” for Niekro’s warmups — that is, a player who positioned himself behind the catcher and snagged all the pitches that got past him. The pigtail frequently ended up with more balls than the catcher.

At the time, Niekro estimated that he was using his knuckleball about 60 percent of the time. He developed a slider in the spring and was using that more often. His manager, Bill Adair, felt that wasn’t nearly enough. “He needs to throw it 90 percent of the time. When he does that, it will make his other pitches more effective. Now, they can lay off the knuckler and wait for his other pitches,” Adair reasoned.

Niekro’s knuckleball was close in form to Hoyt Wilhelm’s signature pitch, as he dug his fingernails into the cover of the ball and threw it with the thumb and ring fingers guiding it. “I can throw it to break away from the batter, but as far as knowing which way it will break, no, I can’t tell what it’s going to do,” he said.

Niekro missed the 1963 season for military service and returned the following season as sharp as ever. He was loaned to the Denver Bears for an exhibition game on March 9 against the Milwaukee Braves and threw 5 perfect innings against them, with just two balls leaving the infield. He made the Braves Opening Day roster but was mostly ineffective in 10 relief appearances. He was sent to Denver in mid-May with a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings of work. That Denver team, managed by Bill Adair, was the first one to put Niekro in the starting rotation to see how he would do. He won 11 of 16 decisions with a 3.45 ERA, with 119 strikeouts in 172 innings.

The Braves didn’t always have a lot of wins, but they did have Hank Aaron’s bat and Phil Niekro’s knuckleball. Source: The Oshkosh Northwestern, September 18, 1965.

It would take the Braves several seasons to realize what Adair and the Bears had figured out — Niekro could be a great starter. He spent all of 1965 with Milwaukee and appeared in 41 games, but just one was a start. He ended up with a 2-3 record and 6 saves to go with a 2.89 ERA. Two of those saves came on September 6, when Niekro finished off both ends of a doubleheader sweep against the Mets, preserving wins for starters Wade Blasingame and Hank Fischer.

Bobby Bragan, the Braves manager, seemed intent on keeping Niekro in the bullpen. He may not have been as big a fan of the pitcher’s knuckleball as Adair was in the minors. On an occasion where a Milwaukee catcher Bob Oliver mishandled a Niekro pitch for a passed ball to allow a winning run to score, Bragan seemed to just shrug his shoulders. “[That] will happen to anybody with Niekro pitching. He’s got as difficult a knuckler to handle as anyone in the business.”

Niekro struggled in relief in 1966, which was the Braves’ first season in Atlanta. He was demoted to AAA Richmond at the end of May, in fact. When he returned in September, the Braves had a new manager, Billy Hitchcock. Niekro soon had a new role as a starting pitcher, and he would keep the role for almost the next two decades.

Niekro, at the age of 28, started 1967 as a reliever and was a pretty effective fireman. With 7 saves and an ERA under 2, Hitchcock gave Niekro a start against the Phillies on June 13, when an eye injury to Tony Cloninger necessitated a change to the rotation. Niekro threw a 1-0, 2-hit shutout in what was his second major-league start. He made a handful of relief outings after that, but from then on, Niekro was a starter. He ended the ’67 season with an 11-9 record and a 1.87 ERA, which gave him the National League ERA title.

The Braves of the late 1960s and ’70s didn’t have much going for them, but they had a couple of constants. Hank Aaron would be good for 30 home runs, and Niekro would be good for 30+ starts and 250+ innings pitched. The 1969 season was an exception for the team, as the Braves won 93 games and finished first in the NL West. Niekro went 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA and threw 21 complete games. Despite the hard-to-handle knuckleball, he walked just 57 batters in 284-1/3 innings and struck out 193. He made his first All-Star team, finished second in the Cy Young Award to Tom Seaver of the ’69 Miracle Mets and ninth in the MVP vote.

Niekro and Seaver dueled each other in Game One of the ’69 NL Championship Series. Neither pitcher was particularly effective that day, but Seaver was just a little bit better in a 9-5 win. The Braves were swept in the 3-game series and weren’t a serious playoff contender again until 1982.

During that stretch, Niekro was stuck as an excellent pitcher on a terrible team. He led the National League in wins once, with 20 in 1974. It was an impressive season, as he led the NL in complete games (18) and innings pitched (302-1/3) and finished third in the Cy Young vote behind Mike Marshall and Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers. He also led the NL in losses for four straight years (1977-80). That four-year stretch was a remarkable run, despite the ignominious achievement, and bears a second look.

From 1977 to 1980, Niekro led the NL in wins once, games started four times, complete games three times, innings pitched three times, batters faced three times and strikeouts once. For all that work, Niekro had records of: 16-20; 19-18, 21-20 and 15-18. During that time, the Braves finished last three times and fourth once, with their best season coming in 1980 when the team went 81-80. Because of the general ineffectiveness of the rest of the pitching staff, Niekro would pitch well past the point that a normal team would have brought in a reliever. Consequently, Niekro also led the league in hits allowed three times, earned runs twice, home runs allowed twice and walks twice. He also won two Gold Gloves, finished sixth place for the Cy Young Award twice, made an All-Star team and picked up a few down-ballot votes for the MVP award, so the baseball world knew Niekro’s value, even if it didn’t necessarily show up in the win-loss record.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Along the way, the milestones started to pile up. Niekro won his 100th career game on June 6, 1973, with a 5-3 win over the Expos. Later that same year, Niekro threw the first no-hitter in Atlanta Braves history when he knocked off the Padres 9-0 on August 5. It was a big day for the Braves, as legendary pitcher Warren Spahn was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the same day.

Niekro credited catcher Paul Casanova with keeping up with his pitches. “The knuckler was really doing a lot. Earlier, I had been mixing up some sliders and fastballs with the knuckler, but at the end I went strictly with the knuckleball.”

Danny Frisella, one of the Braves’ relievers, commented, “I know the bullpen has been brutal, but a no-hitter, that’s unnecessary. Phil didn’t have to be that afraid we’d come get him.”

At the time of his no-hitter, Niekro was 34 years old. When the Associated Press made mention of Spahn’s Hall of Fame induction, writer Herschel Nissenson noted that Niekro “probably won’t make it career-wise.” In reality, he wasn’t even at the half-way point of his playing career.

By the time he had reached the age of 37, Niekro was still going strong. He won 17 games in 1976 with an excellent 3.29 ERA. He helped himself in one of those wins by hitting a 3-run home run off the Dodgers’ Charlie Hough — a fellow knuckleball pitcher, no less. Niekro turned 38 in 1977 and threw 330-1/3 innings. The only other NL pitcher to throw more than 300 innings was Montreal’s Steve Rogers, who topped the mark by a mere 1-2/3 innings. It was a career-high for Niekro to that point; he would top it in each of the following two seasons.

The Braves were looking for a new manager for the 1978 season, and Niekro was interested in the job but never seriously considered. He was two years older than the man the Braves did pick, which was Bobby Cox. Niekro finished at 19-18 with a 2.88 ERA in ’78. One of those losses came against the Cincinnati Reds on July 31, when Pete Rose managed 1 hit off Niekro on 4 at-bats to extend his hitting streak to 44 games. Rose said he was concerned about facing Niekro, because “freak ball pitchers have a tendency to get you lunging. It’s the aftermath of facing [Niekro] that worries me most.” Sure enough, Rose went hitless the next game to break the streak.

Neikro is the last pitcher to both win and lose 20 games when he ended up with a 21-20 record in 1979. His 200th career win came on May 1 against Pittsburgh; he sent the ball to his father with an inscription that read, “Dad, my 200th win, they are as much yours as they are mine.”

After the strike season of 1981, in which Niekro was 7-7 in 22 starts, he showed he had plenty of pitches left in his arm in 1982. He went 17-4 to lead all of baseball with an .810 winning percentage, and he gained his fourth All-Star nomination, finished in the top five for the Cy Young Award and won another Gold Glove. The Braves also made it back to the postseason for the first time since 1969. Niekro pitched in Game Two of the NLCS against the Cardinals. He worked 6 innings and allowed just 2 runs, but the Cardinals came back against reliever Gene Garber to win the game and eventually sweep the Braves.

Through a terrible dry spell for the Braves between playoff appearances, Niekro was the one constant. After all he did for the club in that time, the relationship ended unceremoniously when the Braves released him after the 1983 season. Niekro, 44, finished with a 11-10 record and a 3.97 ERA, and pretty much everyone on the team’s management felt he was done — except for Niekro.

“Ted Turner and John Mullen basically asked me to retire — to quit pitching,” Niekro said as he cleaned out his locker. “I sat and listened to Ted for 15 to 20 minutes. I didn’t agree with what was said, but I guess I can understand it.”

Niekro also referenced a Braves coach who said in midseason, “Phil Niekro is 100 years old, and he ought to quit right now.” That person was later identified as the pitching coach, Bob Gibson, though Niekro never called him out.

Niekro’s teammates were upset at the shoddy treatment he was given. Team captain Bob Horner called him an institution and felt that he was owed some kind of tribute. Pitcher Rick Camp called the move “one big step backward.”

Niekro wasn’t done. He signed a free agent contract with the New York Yankees and, in 1984, proceeded to win 16 games, have an ERA of 3.09 and strike out 136 hitters in 215-2/3 innings. He also made the All-Star Team for the fifth and final time of his career. He also had 16 wins in 1985, though his ERA jumped by a full run and he led the AL in walks with 120.

That 1985 season was a special one for a few reasons. For one, the Yankees were in the thick of a pennant race all season long, eventually finishing in second place with 97 wins. For another, the team acquired Joe Niekro late in the season, meaning that the brothers were teammates for the first time in their long careers. Then there was the matter of that 300th win.

By early July, Niekro was a disappointing 7-8. He then won eight of his next nine decisions to move his record up to 15-9 and leave him one win shy of history. That milestone win proved to be pretty elusive, as he lost his next three starts and had a no-decision in the next game. His last start came on the last day of the season, on October 6 in Toronto. Niekro pitched the best game of the year, limiting the Blue Jays to 4 hits in an 8-0 shutout. Remarkably, he did it without throwing a single knuckleball for the first 8-2/3 innings.

“I always wanted to pitch a game without throwing a knuckleball, A lot of people thought I couldn’t get people out without the knuckleball,” he said, getting by with curves, sliders and what passed for a fastball. It wasn’t until he was one out away from the win that he threw three straight knucklers to Jeff Burroughs, who struck out swinging to reach the 300-win mark.

Joe Niekro was set to come in from the bullpen should his big brother have needed the help. Instead, he donned catcher’s gear and warmed up Phil in the ninth inning and went out to the mound in the ninth inning before Burroughs came to bat. He advised intentionally walking him, but Phil decided otherwise. “I just wanted to be a part of it,” Joe said.

By the end of the season, Niekro was 47 years old, had won 300 games and had nothing left to prove. He was a free agent again but still wasn’t ready for retirement. The Yankees bid the pitcher adieu by claiming he was a roadblock in the team’s youth movement, much to the dismay of his Yankees teammates who loved him. So he signed with the Cleveland Indians for 1986 and won 11 games in 32 starts, albeit with a 4.32 ERA.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Niekro finally reached the end of his career in 1987. He went 7-11 with a 5.89 ERA for Cleveland and was traded to Toronto in August. Before he was dealt, he beat the Tigers on June 1 to give the Niekro Brothers 530 wins, moving them ahead of Jim and Gaylord Perry for most wins by brothers in baseball history. Niekro pitched poorly for the Jays in three starts and was released. He had one last appearance, and it was a ceremonial appearance with the Atlanta Braves, the team that had dumped him without any ceremony a few years prior.

It came on September 27, 1987 in Atlanta against the San Francisco Giants. Niekro hadn’t pitched in weeks, but he started well enough by throwing three shutout innings. The fourth inning was where he stumbled and failed to retire any of the five batters he faced. He was pulled with the bases loaded and two runs in, and reliever Chuck Cary promptly gave up a grand slam to Candy Maldonado. Niekro was charged with 5 runs in 3 innings with 6 walks, though the loss went to Cary.

“I’m not embarrassed by getting beat around,” Niekro said after the game. “I’ve done that before. The most important thing was to wear the uniform again.”

After 24 seasons, Niekro had retired. He left the game with a 318-274 record and a 3.35 ERA. He threw 245 complete games and 45 shutouts, and he picked up 29 saves along the way as well. His 5,404 innings pitched is a record for any modern-era pitcher. He struck out 3,342 batters and was worth, according to Baseball Reference, 95.9 Wins Above Replacement. At the time of his retirement, he owned pretty much every pitching record for pitching statistics accumulated after the age of 40, including winning 121 games. Most of those have since been broken by another ageless wonder, Jamie Moyer.

Source: Gwinnett Stripers

Niekro didn’t lose his competitive spirit after the ’87 season and hinted that he might be interested in pitching again in 1988. He and the Braves couldn’t agree on a spot for him in the team’s minor-league system, and he went into business as an executive vice president for a small Georgia company that made fishing equipment. He eventually became a roving pitching instructor in the Braves’ minor league system and managed the team’s AAA Richmond affiliate in 1991. His most high-profile job was probably managing the Colorado Silver Bullets’ a women’s baseball team that existed from 1994 until 1997.

Three hundred wins should be good enough for automatic inclusion into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Niekro didn’t gain admittance into Cooperstown until 1997, which was his fifth year on the ballot. His amazing accomplishments were dismissed by some voters because he pitched so long and had so many losses. He was inducted along side Tommy Lasorda, Nellie Fox and Negro Leagues legend Willie Wells.

Niekro won the Roberto Clemente Award in 1980 for all his charitable work. Giving back to the community was something he did throughout his playing career and well into his retirement. He hosted an annual golf tournament for 20 years that benefited victims of child abuse. He remained a popular figure in the Atlanta throughout his life. His No. 35 was retired by the Braves, and a statue of him has stood outside the Braves’ last two ballparks, Turner Field and Truist Park. The Braves’ AAA affiliate, the Gwinnett Stripers, named their sit-down restaurant “Niekro’s,” and he was a frequent guest of the team for first pitches and other appearances.

Niekro is survived by his wife Nancy, sons Phillip, John and Michael and two grandchildren. The family has asked that donations be made in his memory to the Edmondson Telford Child Advocacy Center.

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16 thoughts on “Obituary: Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

  1. Of course after you posted your “Remembering those we lost in 2020” we had to lose another. This year can’t end soon enough! Great tribute to an underappreciated star, who started the very first MLB game I attended, losing a hitters’ duel 10-8 to another HOF’er, Jack Morris. Thank you for all of your remembrances!


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