Niekro in 1984
|Born: April 1, 1939|
|Died: December 26, 2020 (aged 81)|
Flowery Branch, Georgia
|April 15, 1964, for the Milwaukee Braves|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 27, 1987, for the Atlanta Braves|
|Earned run average||3.35|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Member of the National|
|Baseball Hall of Fame|
|Vote||80.34% (fifth ballot)|
Philip Henry Niekro ( NEE-kroh; April 1, 1939 - December 26, 2020), nicknamed "Knucksie", was an American baseball pitcher who played 24 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB), 20 of them with the Milwaukee / Atlanta Braves. Niekro's 318 career victories are the most by a knuckleball pitcher and rank 16th on MLB's all-time wins list. He won the National League (NL) Gold Glove Award five times, was selected for five All-Star teams, and led the league in victories twice and earned run average once. He was a key contributor to the Braves winning their only two division titles before 1991. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Niekro and his younger brother Joe amassed 539 wins between them, the most combined wins by brothers in baseball history. Phil's 121 career victories after the age of 40 is a major league record. His longevity is attributed to his knuckleball, which is a difficult pitch to master but is easy on the arm and often baffles hitters due to its unpredictable trajectory.
Niekro remains the last MLB pitcher to have both won and lost 20 or more games in the same season. With the 1979 Braves, Niekro finished with 21 wins and 20 losses. This was his third and final 20-win season and his second and final 20-loss season. That season, Phil and Joe Niekro were NL co-leaders in wins.
Niekro was born in Blaine, Ohio, and grew up in Lansing, Ohio, the son of Henrietta (Klinkoski) and Philip Niekro. He was of Polish descent. He attended Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Ohio, and was a boyhood friend of Basketball Hall-of-Famer John Havlicek. The baseball field on which he played at Bridgeport High School's Perkins Field athletic complex was renamed "The Niekro Diamond" in 2008 after both Phil and his brother, fellow major league pitcher Joe Niekro. The brothers were the sons of a coal miner who had pitched semi-pro baseball and had learned to throw a knuckleball from another coal miner. He later taught his sons the pitch in their backyard while they were kids. In addition, Phil played American Legion Baseball growing up.
Niekro signed with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959 for $250 ($2,193 in current dollar terms). He pitched for several minor league teams at several levels for the next few years, appearing mostly as a relief pitcher. While he was briefly promoted to the Class AAA Louisville Colonels in 1960, he spent the remainder of the 1960 season pitching for the Jacksonville Braves. He spent the entire next season with the Class AA Austin Senators. He returned to Louisville in 1962 and recorded a 9-6 win-loss record. He missed the 1963 season due to military service.
Niekro debuted with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964, working 15 major league innings and spending time with the team's class AAA minor league affiliate. He stayed with the major league team all year in 1965, appearing in innings in 41 games and recording six saves. In 1966, Niekro split time again between the Braves and their minor league system, going 4-3 with a 4.11 earned run average (ERA).
Niekro led the league with a 1.87 ERA in 1967, earning an 11-9 record with 10 complete games and 9 saves. He began the year as a relief pitcher but had earned a job in the starting rotation during the season.
Before the 1968 season, sportswriter Fred Down described the Braves' pitching staff as "chaotic" and reported that team leadership was planning to use Niekro as both a starter and a reliever in the coming season. He appeared in 37 games, finishing with a 14-12 record and 15 complete games. He appeared in relief three times, earning two saves.
In 1969, his first All-Star season, he had a 23-13 season with a 2.56 ERA, finishing second in the National League Cy Young award balloting to Tom Seaver. The Braves went to the playoffs, where Niekro was 0-1 with four earned runs allowed in an eight-inning appearance against the New York Mets. Niekro's playoff loss came against Seaver. The team was eliminated from the playoffs after losing the next two games.
From 1971 to 1973, he combined for a record of 44-36. The Braves finished 3rd, 4th, and 5th in their division respectively. On August 5, 1973, Niekro threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. The no-hitter was the first for the Braves after moving to Atlanta.
In 1974, Niekro led the league in several pitching categories, including wins (20), complete games (18), and innings pitched (302.1). He finished third in the voting for the Cy Young Award that year.
From 1975 to 1976, he went 15-15 and 17-11 respectively while making a second All-Star appearance in 1975.
Between 1977 and 1979, Niekro was the league leader in complete games, innings pitched and batters faced. In 1979, the 40-year-old Niekro led the league in both wins (21) and losses (20). He finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting in both 1978 and 1979, and made his third All-Star appearance in 1978, as well as winning three consecutive gold glove awards from 1978 to 1980.
From 1980 to 1981, he went 15-18 and 7-7 respectively while leading the league in games started (38) and losses (18) in 1980.
In 1982, at the age of 43, Niekro led the Braves with a 17-4 season while winning his fourth gold glove and appearing in his fourth All-Star game. On October 1, with the Braves clinging to a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Niekro beat the San Diego Padres almost single-handedly by throwing a complete game shutout and hitting a two-run home run. Niekro started Game One of the subsequent 1982 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched well, but the game was called on account of rain just before it became official. He pitched six innings of Game Two and left with a 3-2 lead. However, the Cardinals scored two late runs after Niekro left the game and would eventually sweep the series.
In 1983, he went 11-10 and won his fifth gold glove. After the season, the Braves released him.
On October 6, 1985, Niekro gained entry into the 300 win club with a shutout win over the Toronto Blue Jays. At 46 years, 188 days, Niekro became the oldest pitcher to pitch a shutout in the major leagues. This record stood for nearly 25 years before Jamie Moyer (47 years, 170 days) bested the feat in May 2010. He did not throw his trademark knuckleball throughout the game until the final hitter. former AL MVP Jeff Burroughs. Niekro struck Burroughs out to end the game. He finished the 1985 season with a 16-12 record, the final time he won 15 or more games in a single season. He was released by the Yankees before the 1986 season started.
On August 9, 1987, Niekro was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Darryl Landrum and a player to be named later, who was later revealed to be Don Gordon. After going 0-2 in three starts, the Blue Jays released Niekro.
On September 23, 1987, Niekro signed again with his old team, the Atlanta Braves. On September 27, he made his final start of his career, pitching three innings and surrendering five runs in the no-decision. The Braves lost the game against the Giants 15-6. Niekro retired at the end of the season.
At the age of 48, Niekro was the oldest player in major league history to play regularly until Julio Franco played at age 49 in 2007. He set a major league record by playing 24 seasons in the major leagues without a World Series appearance. His total of innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 live-ball era.
A sidearm pitcher, his pitching featured the knuckleball, which frustrated major league hitters. Ralph Kiner compared Niekro's special pitch to "watching Mario Andretti park a car".Pete Rose said, "I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil messes it up in one night... Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living." Catcher Bob Uecker was also frustrated by the pitch at times, saying, "Niekro struck out a hitter once and I never touched the ball. It hit me in the shinguard, bounced out to Clete Boyer at third base and he threw out the runner at first. Talk about a weird assist: 2-5-3 on a strikeout."
After the end of his professional baseball career, Niekro managed the all-women Colorado Silver Bullets baseball team. Niekro taught his nephew Lance Niekro, to throw a knuckleball after Lance's unsuccessful stints as a power-hitting first base prospect with the San Francisco Giants.
Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, his fifth year of eligibility. He was the only player elected that year; Tony Pérez and Don Sutton were among the notable eligible players who were not elected that year. After he was notified, Niekro said, "Giving a description of today's phone call is impossible. I've been stunned before. I just didn't prepare myself this year. I was not going to get myself so high." The year before, Niekro had received the most Hall of Fame votes out of all the players in the ballot, but had not received the required 75% of the vote for election.
Niekro was a member of the board of directors for Kiz Toys, a toy company based out of Cumming, Georgia, and Niekro advised the company on the KizSport baseball line, reviewing product designs and development.
The Gwinnett Braves' home, Coolray Field, has a restaurant, Niekro's, named after him. It features the Knucksie Sandwich, made with barbecue pork and cole slaw atop a corn muffin, said to be his favorite. Niekro and his family support the students of Bridgeport High School with the proceeds from the annual golf tournament "The Niekro Classic".