Philip Henry Niekro Jr. was born in Blaine, Ohio, on April Fools’ Day — April 1, 1939. That was appropriate, for he spent much of his career fooling batters with a pitch that most other pitchers wanted no part of.
The knuckleball specialist spent 24 seasons in the major leagues from 1964 to 1987, mostly with the Atlanta Braves, winning 318 games and induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame a decade later. He died at the age of 81 following a battle with cancer on Saturday, December 26, 2020.
Phil and his younger brother Joe — who combined to win more games (539) than any other siblings in major-league history — learned how to throw the knuckleball from their father, Phil Niekro Sr., a coal miner and successful semipro pitcher.
Phil Jr. signed with the Braves and made his debut at the relatively advanced age of 25 as a reliever in 1964, two years before the team moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. He was switched to the starting rotation in Georgia and had a breakout season in 1967, leading the National League with a 1.87 ERA in 207 innings, his first of 19 consecutive seasons reaching that milestone (excluding the strike-shortened schedule in 1981.) Niekro finished runner-up to the Mets’ Tom Seaver in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1969 with a 23-13 record, leading Atlanta to the West Division crown and its first playoff berth. That was also the year he gained a lasting nickname: “Knucksie.”
The Braves fell on hard times in the 1970s, and Niekro’s dancing knuckleball was the team’s lone bright spot for many years. He pitched a no-hitter in 1973, finished in the top 3 in Cy Young Award voting a year later, and led the NL in innings pitched four times. But he earned a rare distinction in 1979 when he became the first NL pitcher in the live-ball era to win 20 games and also lose 20 in the same season.
Niekro and the Braves finally made it back to the postseason in 1982, but his Game One gem in the NLCS was wiped out by rain and Atlanta was swept by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves released their 44-year-old ace after the 1983 season, but with 268 career wins, he felt he still had enough left in the tank to keep going. Niekro signed with the New York Yankees and won 16 games in each of the next two seasons. His milestone 300th victory came on the final day of the 1985 season, a four-hit shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays, with his brother Joe watching as a Yankees teammate.
After two more seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Niekro signed with the Braves for $1 to make one final start on September 27, 1987. The Braves un-retired his number 35 for the occasion and he received a standing ovation from the Atlanta crowd. He finished his career with 5,404 innings pitched and 716 games started, both totals ranking in the top 5 in major-league history. His 121 wins after the age of 40 are also an all-time record.
In retirement, Niekro managed the Colorado Silver Bullets women’s baseball team and made numerous public appearances for the Braves, the Hall of Fame, and many youth sports organizations that he supported near his adopted home of Flowery Branch, Georgia. He and his brother Joe also became mentors to a new generation of knuckleball pitchers in amateur and professional baseball, generously teaching the devious pitch to the likes of Tim Wakefield, Steve Sparks, R.A. Dickey, Chelsea Baker, and anyone else who desired to learn.
- Read Phil Niekro’s SABR biography, by SABR founding member Tom Hufford
- Mark Bowman: Hall of Fame knuckleballer Niekro dead at 81 (MLB.com)
- Tyler Kepner: Saying Goodbye to the Knuckleball, and Its Master (New York Times)
- David O’Brien: Phil Niekro’s legacy with Braves filled with innings, wins, relationships (The Athletic)
Originally published: December 28, 2020. Last Updated: December 28, 2020.