Remembering Phil Niekro

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Joe Niekro just got his best friend back.

Today we learned that Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro has died. Niekro was 81 years old, and his death adds to the sorrow the baseball community has felt in 2020.

Niekro is the sixth member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame to pass away in 2020. Earlier in this calendar year, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Joe Morgan died.

Niekro won 361 games in a remarkable 28-year professional career that spanned seven presidential administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan. He utilized a fluttering knuckleball that he learned from his father, who was an amateur pitcher in Ohio.

Niekro (who won 318 games in the major leagues) was very close to his younger brother Joe, who captured 221 victories in an excellent career where he also featured the Niekro signature pitch. Joe passed away in 2006.

Phil was thin with short arms and a sly smile. He looked less like a ballplayer and more like a grocer in a country general store. There was never a strong indication that Niekro was going to be a great pitcher until he was a great pitcher, and it took a long time to materialize.

When he was 30 years old, Phil had only 31 wins listed on the back of his baseball card. When he was 40, he still hadn’t won 200 games, but he ended up with 318 victories and struck out more than 3,300 batters, most of them with the family pitch.

“The main thing is treating my arm like I would want to be treated,” Niekro said in a 1979 interview for Sports Illustrated. “I’ve never burdened my arm, I think that’s why it’s let me pitch so long. As for the mental part, I don’t think about the game until the first batter steps up to the plate.”

Three men changed Niekro’s life: his father Joe Sr., Paul Richards, and Bob Uecker. Mr. Niekro taught both of his sons how to throw a knuckleball. Richards was general manager of the Braves when he decided Niekro should be a starting pitcher. Phil tossed a two-hit shutout in his first start after Richards tabbed him for the rotation. Uecker was the catcher who proved someone could catch Niekro’s knuckler, saving Phil from being banished forever to the minor leagues.

Phil’s knuckleball was unique: whereas other pitchers like Hoyt Wilhelm preferred to use it as a setup pitch or as part of a larger repertoire, Niekro liked to throw it early and often. His easy, rocking chair motion confused batters, who didn’t have any idea where the pitch might go anyway.

“It’s like swinging at a butterfly,” Pete Rose said.

Phil’s dad Joe Niekro Sr. was the son of a coal miner in eastern Ohio. He played baseball for a few semi-pro teams and learned the knuckleball from an old pitcher whose name has been lost to history. That man must have known a thing or two, because Joe Sr. pitched for years in Ohio and never had a sore arm. Phil and Joe were taught the pitch in their backyard and the old man’s tutelage ended up providing both men with a livelihood. Phil and Junior won 539 games, a record for brothers. In 1979, the duo became the first brothers to both win 20 games in the same league in the same season.

Willie Stargell faced Phil for close to two decades in the National League, and he never relished the task.

“He threw five different knuckleballs,” Stargell said after Phil beat his Pirates in 1979. “I’ve been facing him since he came into the league, and he’s only gotten better. He’s harder to hit at 40 than he ever was.”

Niekro finished second in Cy Young voting in 1969 when he won 20 games for the first time. Thirteen years later in 1983, when he was 43 years old, he went 17-4 and finished fifth in voting for the same award. That season he was still nimble, winning his fourth of five Gold Gloves. Phil was a tenacious competitor and a fine athlete. Off the field he was known as one of the most humble men in the game, but between the lines he wanted to win. He pointed with pride in 1979 when he beat his brother’s Astros to keep them from the playoffs, even though he privately hoped Joe would make it.

Phil was a pitching iron man: four times he tossed more than 300 innings, and he led the National League in complete games four times. From 1977 to 1979, when he was 38-39-40 years old, “Knucksie” averaged 336 innings, 43 starts, 22 complete games, 19 wins, and 239 strikeouts. In 1979 he won 1/3 of the last-place Braves games. He did it all while performing the same trick over and over: his nearly unhittable knuckler.

Though he pitched mostly for mediocre teams and never got into a World Series, Niekro was one of the most prolific and successful pitchers to ever toe the rubber. His career 95.9 Wins Above Replacement ranks 11th among pitchers all-time, and is fifth among hurlers who pitched after World War II. He rates fourth all-time in innings pitched, and only old timers Cy Young, Pud Galvin, and Walter Johnson are ahead of him. Only four pitchers started more games in major league history: Young, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Greg Maddux.

“He was a manager’s dream because he was always ready to go,” said Bobby Cox, who managed him in Atlanta from 1978 to 1981. Niekro rarely missed a start, and was fond of bragging that his arm was always fresh.

“I never knew how to throw a fastball, never learned how to throw a curveball, a slider, split-finger, whatever they’re throwing nowadays. I was a one-pitch pitcher,” Niekro said.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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