Phil Niekro

From BR Bullpen


Philip Henry Niekro

Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1997

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Biographical Information[edit]

"It actually giggles at you as it goes by." - Rick Monday, discussing Niekro's famous knuckleball

Phil Niekro was, by several years, the last man born in the 1930s to be playing Major League Baseball. His longevity was greatly aided by his reliance on the knuckleball, which puts far less stress on a pitcher's throwing arm than a standard repertoire of pitches. He is one of only two pitchers in the last 80 years to win and lose 20 games in the same season. The other was Wilbur Wood, a fellow knuckleballer and contemporary. He is the brother of Joe Niekro and uncle of Lance Niekro and J.J. Niekro.

He went to Bridgeport High School at the same time as future basketball Hall of Famer John Havlicek. He wasn't considered much of a prospect in the minors, as Pat Jordan explains in his memoir of pitching in the Milwaukee Braves system in those days, A False Spring. Niekro missed the 1963 season due to military service and did not make his major league debut with Milwaukee until the start of the 1964 season, when he was already 25.

He pitched a no-hitter on August 5, 1973 against the San Diego Padres. On July 29, 1977, Niekro had four strikeouts in an inning; one of the strikeouts came on a pitch that got away from the catcher, and batter Rennie Stennett made it to first base in time. When the 46-year-old Niekro bagged his 300th win by blanking the Toronto Blue Jays on the last day of the 1985 season, he became the oldest pitcher to throw a shutout, surpassing Satchel Paige, who was a few months younger when he shut out the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in 12 innings on August 6, 1952. Famously, he did not use his signature knuckleball at all in that game, until the game's final pitch. Niekro's record lasted until May 7, 2010, when Jamie Moyer shut out the Atlanta Braves at age 47. Niekro retired with 318 career wins and holds, with his brother Joe, the record for most wins by a pair of brothers, 539. Niekro also held the career Atlanta Braves strikeout record of 2,912 until 2007, when John Smoltz broke his mark. He topped the 3000 strikeouts mark after leaving the Braves, spending his last few seasons with the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays before returing to the Braves for his final career game, on September 27, 1987. He was 48 by then. He holds the record for most innings and wins by a pitcher past his 40th birthday. Phil frequently pitched for mediocre or poor Braves teams, and did not appear in a World Series.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 6, 1997 by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

After his retirement, he became manager of the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-female baseball team that toured the country playing semi-pro men's teams. He also managed Atlanta's AAA farm team, the Richmond Braves, in 1991. He died of cancer at the age of 81 in 2020, one of an unusually large number of Hall of Famers from the 1970s to pass away that year.

"I just aim for the heart of the plate and hope for the best. But I don't know whether the ball will jump up or down or sideways. The best part, I guess, is that the batter doesn't know either." - Phil Niekro

Notable Achievements[edit]

  • 5-time All-Star (1969, 1975, 1978, 1982 & 1984)
  • 5-time NL Gold Glove Winner (1978-1980, 1982 & 1983)
  • NL ERA Leader (1967)
  • 2-time NL Wins Leader (1974 & 1979)
  • NL Winning Percentage Leader (1982)
  • 4-time NL Innings Pitched Leader (1974 & 1977-1979)
  • NL Strikeouts Leader (1977)
  • 4-time NL Complete Games Leader (1974 & 1977-1979)
  • 15-Win Seasons: 13 (1969, 1971, 1972, 1974-1980, 1982, 1984 & 1985)
  • 20-Win Seasons: 3 (1969, 1974 & 1979)
  • 200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 19 (1967-1980 & 1982-1986)
  • 300 Innings Pitched Seasons: 4 (1974 & 1977-1979)
  • 200 Strikeouts Seasons: 3 (1977-1979)

Year-By-Year Minor League Managerial Record[edit]

Year Team League Record Finish Organization Playoffs
1991 Richmond Braves International League 65-79 8th Atlanta Braves

Famous Lasts[edit]

  • Last active player born in the 1930s.
  • Last active player who played for the Milwaukee Braves.
  • Last player to win and lose 20 games in the same season (1979).
  • Last pitcher to start at least n games in a season (n any number between 41 and 44).
  • Last pitcher to pitch at least x innings in a season (x any number between 305 and 342).

Further Reading[edit]

  • Mark Bowman: "Hall of Fame knuckleballer Niekro dead at 81",, December 27, 2020. [1]
  • Mike Brehm: "Phil Niekro, who rode his knuckleball to the Hall of Fame, dies at 81", USA Today, December 27, 2020. [2]
  • Bob Kuenster: "Phil Niekro: A Deserving New Hall of Fame Member", Baseball Digest, April 1997, pp. 84-86. [3]
  • Sarah Langs: "11 unbelievable facts about Niekro's career",, December 27, 2020. [4]
  • Dave Newhouse: "Niekro Still Knuckles Down to Task of Winning", Baseball Digest, January 1983, pp. 55-56. [5]
  • Phil Niekro (as told to George Vass): "The Game I'll Never Forget", Baseball Digest, November 1975, pp. 58-60. [6]
  • Phil Niekro and Tom Bird: Knuckle Balls, Freundlich Books, New York, NY, 1986. ISBN 0881910422

Related Sites[edit]