Phil Niekro’s career marked by a pitch, persistence

Phil Niekro.
Image from 1966 Topps baseball card

Phil Niekro’s career in baseball was defined by his signature pitch and his persistence.

Niekro, a Baseball Hall of Famer, died Dec. 26, 2020, at the age of 81 after long battle with cancer.  In his baseball career, Niekro He finished his MLB career with 318 wins, a 3.35 ERA and 3,342 strikeouts.  He was a 5-time All Star and, also, won the Golden Glove five times in his career.  

But all of his success started with persistence and a pitch.

He signed a minor league contract at the age of 20 in 1959.  However, it would take six years to make his first appearance in the major and a couple more years after that to find his place in the game. 

His biggest barrier was his pitch — the knuckleball.  This slow pitch is thrown so that the ball has nearly no spin and, because of that, the ball moves erratically between the pitcher’s hand and the catcher’s glove. While the pitch creates trouble for batters, it is also a challenge for the who have to catch it and can lead to more passed balls in a game.

Niekro, nicknamed “Knucksie,” acknowledged how the pitch impacted his rise to the majors.  

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

Once he made it to the majors, he found success with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.  In 1967, Niekro lead the league with a 1.87 earned run average.  His pitch, though, would become a thing of legends.

“He simply destroys your timing with that knuckleball,” said Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. “It comes flying in there dipping and hopping like crazy, and you just can’t hit it.”

He played for the Braves for 21 seasons and ended his final years with the New York Yankees, the Cleveland Indians, the Toronto Blue Jays and then back to the Braves in 1987.  With his knuckleball as his primary pitched, Niekro’s career when until he was 48 years old.  In fact, he won 121 games after he turned 40.

Niekro’s father taught Phil and his brother, Joe, to throw the knuckleball.  Joe was also a pitcher in MLB and finished with 221 wins.  Phil and Joe combined to win more games than any other sibling combo in baseball history.

After his career ended, Phil Niekro remained an active part of the Braves organization.

Many paid tribute to NIekro following his death including the Atlanta Braves.  The organization posted: “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.”

Current Braves player Freddie Freeman tweeted, “Ugh heartbroken! An amazing pitcher but an even better man! Thank you Phil for all the laughs and wonderful memories over the years! #RIPKnucksie”

Atlanta legend Dale Murphy tweeted, “Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the news today of the passing of Phil Niekro. Knucksie was one of a kind. Friend, teammate, father and husband. Our hearts go out to Nancy Niekro, the kids and grandkids. So thankful for our memories and time together. We’ll miss you, Knucksie.”


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