Known for his unhittable floating knuckleball that seemed to approach the plate like a balloon, Philip Henry “Phil” Niekro was a trailblazer, an icon, a legend, a Hall of Famer and so much more.
But most of all, he was a genuinely good soul. While most people will remember him for his daunting knuckleball and his ability to strikeout some of the best hitters the game of baseball has ever seen, I will remember him for his kind, generous heart. They just don’t make them like Phil anymore.
Niekro was born in Blaine, Ohio, and grew up in Lansing, Ohio. 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 at Perkins Field athletic complex was renamed “The Niekro Diamond” in 2008 after both Phil and his brother Joe Niekro, whom was also a Major League pitcher.
Their father was a coal miner who pitched semipro baseball and had learned how to throw a knuckleball from another coal miner. He later taught his sons how to pitch in the backyard when they were kids.
During his 24 big league seasons, Phil Niekro rode his knuckleball to 5,404 innings pitched – the most of any pitcher who started his career in live ball era. Unlike most pitchers, Phil was more than simply durable.
His 318 wins and 3,342 strikeouts are a testament to a pitcher who was often untouchable. By the time he turned 40, Niekro had already won 121 games, the most wins by anyone that age in baseball history.
During his career Niekro, who became known as “Knucksie” due to the dancing movements of his famous pitch, appeared in 864 games, gave up 5,044 hits, 2,337 runs, in 5,404 innings pitched. Totaled 318 wins and 274 losses, starting 716 games, had an ERA of 3.35, pitched 245 complete games, 45 shutouts, earned 29 saves, surrendered 2,012 earned runs, 1,819 walks, and 3,342 strikeouts.
He spent time with the Milwaukee Braves (1964-65), Atlanta Braves (1966-83, 87), New York Yankees (1984-85), Cleveland Indians (1986-87), and Toronto Blue Jays (1987).
He was also a five-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove Award winner, the 1980 Roberto Clemente Award winner, led the National League in wins twice, pitched a no-hitter on August 5, 1973, had his number 35 retired by the Braves, is a member of the Braves Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1997, alongside Nellie Fox, Tommy LaSorda, and Willie Wells.
He died of cancer at age 81.
Rest well Knucksie, I’ll see you again on the other side. Thank you for not only your contributions to the Atlanta Braves organization, but also for your contributions to Major League Baseball, your name will live on forever in the book of baseball lore.