Phil Niekro

Philip Henry Niekro (/ˈnkr/ NEE-kroh; April 1, 1939 – December 26, 2020), nicknamed "Knucksie",[1] was an American baseball pitcher who played 24 seasons in Major League Baseball, 20 of them with the Milwaukee / Atlanta Braves. Niekro's 318 career victories are the most by a knuckleballer and rank 16th on MLB's all-time wins list. He won the National League Gold Glove Award five times, was selected to 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.

Phil Niekro
Niekro in 1974
Born: (1939-04-01)April 1, 1939
Blaine, Ohio, U.S.
Died: December 26, 2020(2020-12-26) (aged 81)
Flowery Branch, Georgia, U.S.
Batted: Right
Threw: Right
MLB debut
April 15, 1964, for the Milwaukee Braves
Last MLB appearance
September 27, 1987, for the Atlanta Braves
MLB statistics
Win–loss record318–274
Earned run average3.35
Career highlights and awards
Member of the National
Baseball Hall of Fame
Vote80.34% (fifth ballot)

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 win and lose 20 games in the same season, finishing 21-20 with the Braves in 1979.[2] It was his third and final 20-win season and his second and final 20-loss season.[1] That season, Phil and Joe Niekro were NL co-leaders in wins.

Early life

Niekro was born in Blaine, Ohio, and grew up in Lansing, Ohio, the son of Henrietta (Klinkoski) and Philip Niekro.[3][4] 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 where he played at Bridgeport High School's Perkins Field athletic complex was renamed "The Niekro Diamond" in 2008 after Phil and his brother, fellow major league pitcher Joe Niekro. The brothers were the sons of a coal miner[5] who had pitched semi-pro baseball and learned to throw a knuckleball from another coal miner. He taught the boys the pitch in the backyard. In addition, Phil played American Legion Baseball.[6]

Niekro signed with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959 for $250 ($2,324 in current dollar terms).[7] 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 rest of that season pitching for the Jacksonville Braves. He spent the next season with the Class AA Austin Senators. He returned to Louisville in 1962 and had a 9–6 record. He missed the 1963 season due to military service.[8]

Major league career


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.[1][8] He stayed with the major league team all year in 1965, pitching 74+23 innings in 41 games and recording six saves.[1] 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).[8]

Niekro led the league with a 1.87 ERA in 1967, earning an 11–9 record with 10 complete games and 9 saves.[1] He began the year as a relief pitcher but had earned a job in the starting rotation during the season.[9]

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.[9] 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,[1] 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.[1] Niekro's playoff loss came against Seaver. The team was eliminated from the playoffs after losing the next two games.[10]


In 1970, he went 12–18 with a 4.27 ERA in what turned out to be a down year. He surrendered a league-leading 40 home runs that year, a feat he would not repeat until 1979.[1]

From 1971 to 1973, he combined for a record of 44–36. The Braves finished 3rd, 4th, and 5th in their division. On August 5, 1973, Niekro threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, the first for the Braves since moving to Atlanta.[1]

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.[1]

From 1975 to 1976, he went 15–15 and 17–11 and made a second All-Star appearance in 1975.[1]

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.[1]


In 1980 and 1981, he went 15–18 and 7–7 while leading the league in games started (38) and losses (18) in 1980.[1]

In 1982, at the age of 43, Niekro led the Braves with a 17–4 season while winning his fourth Gold Glove Award 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 National League Championship Series 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 2 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.[1]

In 1983, he went 11–10 and won his fifth Gold Glove Award. After the season, the Braves released him.[11]

New York Yankees (1984–1985)

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

In 1984, Niekro signed a two-year contract with the New York Yankees.[12] He won 16 games in 1984 and made his fifth and final All-Star appearance.

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;[13] to former AL MVP Jeff Burroughs.[14] 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.[1] He was released by the Yankees before the 1986 season started.[15]

Cleveland Indians (1986–1987)

After two seasons in New York, Niekro pitched for the Cleveland Indians in 1986. He went 11–11 with a 4.32 ERA.[16] He started the 1987 season with the Indians, going 7–11 in 26 starts.[1]

Toronto Blue Jays (1987)

On August 9, 1987, Niekro was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Darryl Landrum and a player to be named later,[17] who was later revealed to be Don Gordon.[18] After going 0–2 in three starts, the Blue Jays released Niekro.[19]

Second stint with the Atlanta Braves (1987)

On September 23, 1987, Niekro signed again with his old team, the Atlanta Braves.[20] 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 San Francisco Giants 15–6.[1] Niekro retired at the end of the season.[21]

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 5,404+13 innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 live-ball era.[22]

Pitching repertoire

Niekro signing an autograph in 1982

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".[23] 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."[24] 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."[25] Uecker also said humorously of the pitch, "The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up."[26]

Career statistics

318 274 .537 3.35 864 716 245 45 29 5404.0 5044 2012 2337 482 1809 3342 226 123

Later life and death

Niekro in 2013

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.[27]

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."[28] 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.[28]

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.[29]

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 supported the students of Bridgeport High School with the proceeds from the annual golf tournament "The Niekro Classic".[30]

On December 26, 2020, Niekro died in his sleep at age 81. He had been diagnosed with prostate[31] cancer.[32][33]

See also


  1. Phil Niekro Statistics and History Archived March 28, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  2. Skelton, David E. "20-Game Loser: Profiles of the 20-Loss Seasons". SABR. Retrieved August 6, 2022.
  3. "Phil Niekro has never forgotten the Ohio Valley". Archived from the original on July 3, 2018. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  4. Porter, David L. (December 27, 2000). Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: G-P. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313311758 via Google Books.
  5. "Phil Niekro Goes Home to Visit His Ailing Father". Los Angeles Times. September 30, 1985. Archived from the original on November 6, 2013. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
  6. "Is American Legion baseball dying?". New Castle News. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  7. "Happy Birthday, Phil Niekro". April 1, 2015. Archived from the original on March 10, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  8. "Phil League Minor League Statistics and History". Archived from the original on April 24, 2015. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  9. Down, Fred (February 27, 1968). "Harris planning dual role for Phil Niekro". Rome News-Tribune. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  10. "1969 NLCS". Archived from the original on January 1, 2015. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  11. Burns, Gabriel (December 27, 2020). "Phil Niekro's illustrious career by the numbers". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  12. Durso, Joseph (January 6, 1984). "Phil Niekro Signs 2-Year Yankee Pact (Published 1984)". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 30, 2018. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  13. Quinn, T.J. (September 2003). "Road to 300: with Roger Clemens becoming the 21st pitcher to win 300 big league games, here are the stories of seven others who reached the same milestone". Baseball Digest. Archived from the original on July 10, 2012. Retrieved November 4, 2008.
  14. Smith, Claire (October 7, 1985). "Niekro Gets 300th Win – a Shutout of Blue Jays". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on June 14, 2014. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  15. Chass, Murray (March 29, 1986). "YANKEES TRADED BAYLOR AND RELEASE PHIL NIEKRO". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 24, 2015. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  16. "Hall of Famer knuckleballer Phil Niekro dies at 81 | Sports |". Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  17. "Indians Deal Phil Niekro to Blue Jays". Los Angeles Times. August 10, 1987. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  18. "Looking back at past Blue Jays trades". torontosun. Archived from the original on March 20, 2016. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  19. "SPORTS PEOPLE; Phil Niekro Released". The New York Times. September 2, 1987. Archived from the original on November 5, 2017. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  20. "SPORTS PEOPLE; Phil Niekro to Braves (Published 1987)". The New York Times. September 23, 1987. Archived from the original on November 6, 2017. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  21. Foster, Jason. "Back Where He Belonged". Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  22. Brehm, Mike. "Phil Niekro, who rode his knuckleball to the Hall of Fame, dies at 81". USA Today. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  23. "Ralph Kiner Quotes". Baseball Almanac. Archived from the original on November 3, 2013. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
  24. Clark, Dave (2012). The Knucklebook: Everything You Need to Know About Baseball's Strangest Pitch – the Knuckleball. Ivan R. Dee. p. 74. ISBN 978-1566639705. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  25. McCombs, Wayne. "No Spin Zone: Knuckleball master Phil Niekro to speak at Field of Dreams Banquet". Claremore Daily Progress.
  26. Hoffman, Benjamin (June 23, 2012). "Not So Easy On The Eyes". The New York Times.
  27. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved August 22, 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. "Phil Niekro enters Hall alone". The Nevada Daily Mail. Associated Press. January 5, 1997. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  29. Pepalis, Bob. "Talent draws Kiz Toys to area". Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  30. Smith, Claire (January 8, 1997). "Coal Miner's Gift Is Treasured by Son". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 14, 2013. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
  31. McCallum, Jack. "A Roster of MLB All-Stars Helped Raise Awareness for Prostate Cancer". ABG-SI LLC. Retrieved August 6, 2022.
  32. "Legendary Braves pitcher Phil Niekro dies at age of 81". December 27, 2020. Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
  33. Bowman, Mark (December 27, 2020). "Hall of Fame knuckleballer Niekro dead at 81". Archived from the original on December 27, 2020. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
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