The great “Knucksie” is gone.
Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro, the greatest pitcher of the first quarter-century of Atlanta Braves baseball, died late Saturday at age 81. The legendary knuckleballer had been battling cancer in recent years.
His was a remarkable, and unlikely, career. An Ohio native, Niekro signed with the then-Milwaukee Braves for just $500 at age 19 in 1958, and did not reach the majors for good until 26.
But Niekro rode the knuckleball to a 24-year major-league career, finally retiring at age 48 with 318 victories, a 3.35 ERA, 3,342 strikeouts and 95.9 Wins Above Replacement. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
In this space just last week, we paid tribute to the astounding number of former Braves stars who died in 2020. Niekro obviously passed away too late to make that list, but it’s just as well, considering he’s deserving of his own full-length tribute.
In appreciation of arguably the greatest knuckleballer in history and an unquestioned inner-circle Braves great, here are 10 memorable moments from Phil Niekro’s remarkable major-league career:
1. The first of 318 (May 13, 1965)
Niekro got into 10 games out of the bullpen as a rookie in 1964, but didn’t pick up his first win until his 14th big-league appearance the following year. Milwaukee starter Tony Cloninger got knocked out of a game in Pittsburgh after giving up four runs in the second inning, with Niekro entering from the bullpen to start the fifth. He pitched five shutout innings, allowing two hits with two walks and five strikeouts as the Braves rallied for a 5-4 victory on Joe Torre’s eighth-inning single.
2. Brother vs. brother (July 4, 1967)
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, and Niekro led the National League with a 1.87 ERA the following year. Younger brother Joe also made it to the majors that season with the Chicago Cubs, and the two Niekros squared off in the first game of an Independence Day doubleheader in Atlanta. Joe lasted just three innings in an 8-3 loss, with Phil going the distance and giving up four hits with seven strikeouts to get the victory. The Niekro brothers faced off nine times total, with Joe’s team winning five of them. Perhaps the most-memorable meeting came on May 29, 1976, when Joe — by this time a member of the Houston Astros — pitched eight innings and also homered off Phil in a 4-3 victory over the Braves. The two were also teammates in Atlanta in 1973-74, and again with the New York Yankees in 1985.
3. The clincher (Sept. 30, 1969)
The Braves took the National League West title in the first season of divisional play, and it was Niekro who got the win in the clinching game. Niekro pitched seven innings in Game 161 against the Cincinnati Reds, allowing two runs on seven hits with six strikeouts. Niekro had been pinch-hit for in the bottom of the seventh, when the Braves took the lead on a sacrifice fly by Rico Carty. Hoyt Wilhelm shut the Reds out over the final two innings to save the 3-2 win, giving Niekro his career-best 23rd victory of the season (he would finish second in the Cy Young Award voting that year). Niekro started Game 1 of the National League Championship Series vs. Tom Seaver and the New York Mets, and held a one-run lead heading into the eighth. Alas, the Mets struck for five runs in that inning (helped along by two Atlanta errors), and claimed a 9-5 victory on their way to a three-game series sweep. Niekro and the Braves wouldn’t return to the postseason for 13 years.
4. The no-no knuckler (Aug. 5, 1973)
Both the Braves and San Diego Padres were heading nowhere fast when they met on an August Sunday in Atlanta in 1973, but the day ended with Niekro having enjoyed one of his greatest days in baseball. Niekro fired a no-hitter — the first of just three by Braves pitchers during the Atlanta era — walking three and striking out four in a 9-0 victory. Only a handful of balls were hit well in the game, on one of which second baseman Chuck Goggin retired Dave Winfield on a well-struck grounder in the eighth inning and another that resulted in an error when shortstop Marty Perez threw high on a Rich Morales grounder in the third. Niekro narrowly missed a second no-hitter on Oct. 2, 1976, when Cincinnati’s Cesar Geronimo doubled with one out in the ninth inning for the lone Reds hit in a 3-0 Braves victory.
Here’s video from Niekro’s no-no:
5. Leading the league in wins … and losses (1979)
The Braves were a pitiful team for much of the late 1970s, with Niekro’s won-lost record suffering despite pitching well for the most part. He led the National League in losses four straight seasons from 1977-80, but pulled off some history in the third of those years. The 40-year-old Niekro posted a 21-20 record for a Braves team that finished 66-94 in 1979, leading the NL in both wins and losses (suffering five defeats in which he gave up two or fewer earned runs). He also compiled a 3.39 ERA and 208 strikeouts, and led the league in starts (44), complete games (23), innings (342), hits allowed (311) home runs allowed (41), walks (108) and batters faced (1,436). In addition, Niekro won his second straight Gold Glove (one of five he would win in his career), finished sixth in the Cy Young voting and 20th in the MVP balloting.
6. With the arm and the bat (Oct. 1, 1982)
The 1982 season was a dream campaign for the Braves, who won their first 13 games on the way to their first division championship since 1969. Niekro was of course at the center of it as Atlanta’s 43-year-old ace, going 17-4 (a league-best .810 winning percentage) and a 3.61 ERA in 35 starts. Among the highlights for Niekro was a 5-4 victory against Montreal on Aug. 19, in which he was a last-minute substitute after scheduled starter Pascual Perez was late getting to the ballpark (it was later revealed that Perez famously got lost on I-285 while driving to Fulton County Stadium). Niekro threw shutouts in his last two starts of the season, a two-hitter at San Francisco on Sept. 27 and a three-hitter at San Diego four days later. In the latter outing, which came in Game 160, Niekro also clubbed a two-run homer off Padres starter Eric Show in the eighth inning to triple the Braves’ lead in a game they won 4-0. The win kept Atlanta one game up on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, with the Braves clinching the division two days later despite losing their final game of the season when the Dodgers also lost to the Giants on a late homer by Joe Morgan.
Here’s video of Niekro’s homer (apologies for the poor video quality):
7. Washed away (Oct. 6, 1982)
Back in the postseason for the first time in 13 years, Niekro gave the Braves every chance to jump out to a 1-0 lead in the 1982 NLCS vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. But Mother Nature would not cooperate. Chris Chambliss singled home Claudell Washington in the first inning to put Atlanta up 1-0, and Niekro had shut out the Cardinals through 4 1/3 innings when the skies erupted into a downpour. After a 2-hour, 20-minute rain delay, umpire Billy Williams called the game a washout. Because five innings had not been completed, the game was wiped out and was re-played from the beginning the following night. Pascual Perez started the Game 1 replay for the Braves, and was shelled in a 7-0 Cardinals victory. After another rainout, Niekro started Game 2 on Oct. 9. This time, he allowed two runs in six innings, departing with a 3-2 lead when he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. The Braves did not score again, as St. Louis rallied for a 4-3 victory. The series ended in a three-game sweep and Niekro never pitched in the postseason again.
Here are some highlights of Niekro’s dancing knuckler during the 1982 playoffs (again, the quality is not great):
7. Cut loose (Oct. 7, 1983)
Niekro’s last season in Atlanta was not a happy one, as he struggled to an 11-10 record and a 3.97 ERA while walking nearly as many (108) as he struck out (125) in 201.2 innings. The Braves also blew a substantial division lead in the final six weeks of the season, finishing three games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. The 44-year-old Niekro was given his unconditional release by the Braves five days after the season ended, terminating a 25-year relationship with the organization. Though owner Ted Turner remained in Niekro’s corner, then-manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Bob Gibson had soured on Niekro and encouraged him to retire (there were also rumors that Torre felt threatened by Niekro, who had long expressed a desire to manage the Braves, implying Turner had promised him that very opportunity at one point). Though he’d thrown more than 4,000 innings in his career, Niekro believed he still had enough left in the tank to get 32 more victories and reach the magic number of 300. He signed the following January as a free agent with the New York Yankees, receiving $1.4 million on a two-year deal.
9. The milestone (Oct. 6, 1985)
Niekro was an all-star for the fifth and final time in 1984, his first year with the Yankees. He posted a 16-8 record with a 3.09 ERA in 215 innings at age 45, putting together his best overall season since the late 1970s. He wasn’t quite as good the following season, but picked up career win No. 299 on Sept. 8 against the Oakland Athletics. Niekro lost his next three starts — including one in which he allowed three unearned runs in a complete game — then took a no-decision on Sept. 30 against Baltimore. The Yankees lost in Toronto on Oct. 5, a victory that clinched the AL East for the Blue Jays. Niekro started in the regular-season finale the following day, and pitched a four-hit shutout for win No. 300. Niekro famously stayed away from his knuckleball on that day, using a combination of conventional off-speed pitches to get the first 26 outs. He finally went to the knuckler for the game’s final batter, striking out former teammate Jeff Burroughs on three pitches to cap the 8-0 victory and become the 18th 300-game winner in history.
Here are some highlights from Niekro’s 300th:
10. The last hurrah (Sept. 27, 1987)
Niekro pitched two more seasons after winning his 300th game, catching on with the Cleveland Indians after the Yankees released him during spring training in 1986. He was decent the first year in Cleveland — going 11-11 with a 4.32 ERA at age 47 — before the bottom finally fell out in Year 2. He put up a 5.89 ERA in 22 starts with the Indians before being traded (for the first time in his career) to the pennant-contending Blue Jays in early August. Unfortunately, Niekro was even worse in Toronto, running an 8.25 ERA in three starts before he was released Aug. 31. The 48-year-old Niekro headed home to Georgia believing his big-league career finally over and hoping to land a managing job. But with the Braves well out of contention in the NL West, Turner arranged a one-game reunion with his former star. Niekro signed with the Braves during the final week of the regular season and drew the starting assignment in the finale vs. the playoff-bound San Francisco Giants. Niekro got through the first three innings unscathed — though he walked four and gave up three hits — and actually had a 5-0 lead heading into the fourth. After three more hits and two walks, Niekro left the mound to a standing ovation and still holding a 5-2 lead, but reliever Chuck Cary promptly surrendered a grand slam. The Giants went on to win 15-6, a bittersweet ending to one of the great careers in Braves history.
Here’s video of Niekro leaving the mound for the final time:
“I’m not embarrassed by getting beat around,” Niekro told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after his final game. “I’ve done that before. The most important thing was to wear the uniform again.”
Few ever wore it better.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at email@example.com. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; SABR Bio Project; BaseballAlmanac.com