Though the 2020 calendar year has just a few days remaining before it is over, it continues to be filled with unfortunate developments. That trend continued Sunday morning, as it was revealed that Braves legendary right-hander Phil Niekro passed away at the age of 81.
Master of the knuckleball and a great mentor, leader and friend, Hall of Famer and @braves legend Phil Niekro passed away overnight at the age of 81. https://t.co/aj7uScYnuy pic.twitter.com/F1GmX9Yb1n— National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum ⚾ (@baseballhall) December 27, 2020
Appropriately earning the nickname “Knucksie” during his playing career, Niekro was one of the most unique and interesting players of his time due to the source of his success and the longevity of his career. Though he did not make his Major League debut until the age of 25 in 1964, Niekro would play for 23 seasons until he retired at the age of 48 in 1987. Before Nolan Ryan defied the age limits in the early 90’s and other knuckleballers such as Tim Wakefield remained effective well into their 40’s over the past quarter century, Niekro was a true trend setter and one of baseball’s most successful pitchers past the age of 40 in MLB history.
He also is one of the best pitchers in Braves franchise history. He is in the top five in wins and fWAR among pitchers in the history of the Braves. While he also has the most losses and walks in franchise history, a big reason for that is because his 740 appearances are the most among pitchers in the history of the Braves. Those numbers were also acceptable flaws in the approach that eventually allowed Niekro to win 318 games and remain in the majors until he was nearly 50 years old. Niekro’s prowess with the knuckleball earned him his Hall of Fame induction in 1997.
Though he never won a Cy Young award, Niekro was arguably the “Face of the Franchise” for the Braves between Hank Aaron leaving in 1974 and the emergence of Dale Murphy in the early 80’s. Between 1974 and 1983 (Niekro’s final full season in Atlanta, though he returned to retire in 1987), Niekro ranked sixth in fWAR and second in wins among Major League starters. He also finished among the top six in the Cy Young voting four times and made four All-Star appearances. Due to his peak occurring at ages that nearly all other MLB players are considering retirement, Niekro has the most wins and games pitched by a starter past the age of 35 in MLB history.
As timeless as Niekro was on the mound, he was just as enduring to the Braves franchise and their fans for decades after his playing career was done. As Talking Chop’s own Cory McCartney wonderfully showed in his Starting Nine Case Study of Niekro’s career this past May, “Knucksie” was both a character on and off the field. He will also remain a true legend for those who were lucky enough to watch him pitch, and the rest of us who have enjoyed the stories and highlights of his career in the decades that followed.
Rest in Peace Knucksie, there will never be another one like you.