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Phil Niekro

Phil Niekro

Position(s):
P
Nicknames:
Knucksie
Born:
April 1, 1939
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 1"
Weight:
180 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-15-1964 with ML1
Allstar Selections:
1978 GG, 1979 GG, 1979 LG, 1980 GG, 1980 RC, 1982 GG, 1983 GG
Hall of Fame:
1997

A native of Blaine, Ohio, Niekro attended Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Ohio, and was a boyhood friend of NBA player John Havlicek. Phil and his younger brother, fellow major league pitcher Joe Niekro, learned to throw a knuckleball from their father Joe Niekro, Sr. in their backyard as kids.

With 318 career victories, Niekro is the winningest knuckleball pitcher of all time, and currently ranks 16th on the all-time wins list. He also won the National League Gold Glove Award five times. Phil and Joe Niekro are the winningest brother combination in baseball history, with 539 wins combined. Phil Niekro's 121 career victories after the age of 40 is a major league record, and his longevity is attributed to the knuckleball, which, while a difficult pitch for pitchers to master, is easy on the arm and difficult for batters to hit. He is also the uncle of former first baseman and current pitcher for the Atlanta Braves Lance Niekro. The baseball field in Phil's hometown of Bridgeport, Ohio has been named Niekro Diamond in honor of Phil and Joe Niekro. Niekro, was elected into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1997.

Career with the Braves
Niekro pitched for 20 seasons for the Atlanta Braves (two of those seasons when the team was still in Milwaukee). He was popular in the city of Atlanta for remaining loyal to a team that often had a losing record, as well as for his contributions to Atlanta charities. On August 5, 1973, Niekro no-hit the San Diego Padres. The no-hitter was the first for the Braves since they moved to Atlanta. He was often the only star on the Braves teams. In 1979, for example, Niekro tied his brother for the league lead with 21 wins while playing for a team that only won 66. During his tenure in Atlanta, Niekro was selected for five All-Star Teams, won five gold gloves, led the league in victories twice and earned run average once.

Niekro was also a key to the only two division titles Atlanta won before 1991. In 1969, he had a 23–13 season with a 2.56 ERA and finished second in Cy Young balloting to New York Mets sensation Tom Seaver. In the final days of the season, Niekro started three of seven games, going 3-0 as the Braves won the division. He lost his only appearance in the NLCS, as Atlanta was swept by the Mets.

In 1982, at the age of 43, Niekro led the Braves' pitching staff with a 17–4 season. 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 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 2 runs off the bullpen to win the game and eventually sweep the series.

Career after the Braves
Phil Niekro's number 35 was retired by the Atlanta Braves in 1984.

The Braves released Niekro after the 1983 season and he signed with the New York Yankees and went on to win 16 games and make the last of his five All-Star appearances. It was while pitching for the Yankees that Niekro gained entry into the 300 win club with a shutout win over the Toronto Blue Jays on October 6, 1985. 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; for Niekro, this complete-game shutout would be his 300th win. He did not throw his trademark knuckleball until the final hitter.

After two seasons in New York, Niekro pitched for the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays in 1986 and 1987. The Blue Jays released him after he pitched ineffectively, and the Braves brought him back for one last start to wrap up his career late in the 1987 season. At the age of 48, Niekro was the oldest player in major league history to play regularly until Julio Franco, and his 24 seasons in the major leagues without a World Series appearance is a major league record. His total of 5,404⅓ innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 live-ball era. He only appeared in the post season twice, making a playoff start in 1969 and again in 1982, both for Braves teams that would go on to lose the series.

Post-playing career

After the end of his professional baseball career, Niekro managed the all-women Colorado Silver Bullets baseball team. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997. Niekro tutored his nephew, Lance Niekro to throw a knuckleball after his unsuccessful stints as a power-hitting first base prospect with the San Francisco Giants. Niekro was a good enough tutor to help Lance earn a minor-league contract with the Atlanta Braves preceding the 2009 season.

Currently, Niekro is a member of the Kiz Toys Board of Advisors. Kiz Toys is a toy company based out of Cumming, Georgia, and Niekro advises the company on the KizSport baseball line, reviewing product designs and development on an ongoing basis and offering suggestions on current and future products.

The Gwinnett Braves' stadium has a restaurant named Knucksie's after him; it featuring the Knucksie Sandwich made of barbecue and cole slaw atop a corn muffin, said to be his favorite.

Quotations

    * "Trying to hit [Niekro] is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks." – Bobby Murcer, who batted only .208 with no home runs (all 10 of his hits were singles) in 48 career at-bats against Niekro.

On Niekro's knuckleball:

    * "It's like watching Mario Andretti park a car." – Ralph Kiner

    * "Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living," and "I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil (Niekro) messes it up in one night." – both quotes by Pete Rose

    * "It giggles as it goes by," and "When I swing, don't laugh." – both quotes by Rick Monday

    * "Hitting Niekro's knuckleball is like eating soup with a fork." - Richie Hebner

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Tagged:
1982 NLCS, 300 wins, All Star, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Gold Glove, Hall of Fame, Joe Niekro, Knuckleball, Lance Niekro, Milwaukee Braves, New York Yankees, No-hitter, Phil Niekro, Retired number, Toronto Blue Jays

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