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Starting Nine: A study in No. 35, Phil Niekro

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The deep dive into the Braves retired numbers continues with the godfather of the knuckleball, and its only wielder to win 300 games

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves
Of the 318 games he won, Phil Niekro delivered a record 121 of them after turning 40.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Uecker, a walking quote machine, was traded to the Braves in 1967 because they saw him as a better option to catch Phil Niekro’s knee-buckling, temper-flaring knuckleball. The key to catching it, he’d say, in true Uecker form, was simple. “Wait’ll it stops rolling, then go pick it up.” Though it did come with a built-in benefit. “I met a lot of important people. They all sit behind home plate.”

As tough as it was to catch, it was an absolute monster to hit, fueling a 24-year career in which Niekro won 318 games, an ERA title, was a five-time All-Star and claimed five Gold Gloves.

He was a godfather of the knuckleball, and a Braves legend. As we continue our run through the franchise’s retired numbers, this week we take a deep dive into No. 35, Phil Niekro.

A study in No. 3, Dale Murphy

A study in No. 6, Bobby Cox

A study in No. 10 Chipper Jones

A study in No. 21 Warren Spahn

A study in No. 29 John Smoltz

A study in No. 31 Greg Maddux

1. The pitch that defined him

The knuckleball that danced, dazzled and frustrated hitters and catchers alike, was a gift from Niekro’s father, Phil Sr. A semipro pitcher in the Mine Workers League who threw 92 mph, the elder Niekro injured his arm and a coworker showed him how to throw the pitch. He threw one one day in the backyard of the family’s Lansing, Ohio home, and Phil asked “What was that, dad?” After watching his dad make other players in his league look foolish, Phil Jr. was on board with its domination, never bothering to add a fastball, curveball or slider as a kid. While the likes of R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield found the knuckleball later in life, it was all Niekro had. “I was a one-pitch pitcher,” Niekro says of his younger days. But it was good enough to help Niekro get a $500 signing bonus with the Milwaukee Braves in 1958. So what’s the secret to the pitch? Niekro says it’s simple: “Patience. You’re living with it, you eat it, you drink it, you sleep with it. It’s the knuckleball 24 hours in your head. You got to make the commitment, and you really don’t care what other people think.”

2. Niekro’s place among the great knuckleballers

Granted, Dickey is the only knuckleball pitcher to win a Cy Young (Niekro’s best finish was second in 1969, when he finished by Tom Seaver), but there’s really no debate that Niekro the greatest ever to wield the pitch. He’s the only one to reach 300 wins in his career — including a record 121 after turning 40 — is the only one enshrined in Cooperstown, and also has five Gold Gloves on his resume. If you’re making a list of the greatest to use the pitch, the biggest rival to Phil Niekro may be the major leaguer he grew up with, his brother Joe, the first 20-game winner in Astros history. Knucksie racked up 3,342 strikeouts (eight all time), and doing it at 65 mph earned him more than a few choice words. “I’ve been called more names,” he said. “Young lady, and ‘how can you get hitters out throwing that slow?’ It didn’t bother me. That’s what I could get hitters out with. That’s what I threw and I didn’t care what anybody called me as long as they didn’t call me late to dinner.”

3. Longevity surpassed by only a few

There have been nearly 19,000 players to have taken the field in MLB, and just 10 of them logged more time than Niekro in a career that began in 1964 with the Milwaukee Braves and ended in ‘87 in Atlanta, with stops with the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays in between. When Niekro pitched in his first game against the Giants on April 15, 1964, he shared a field with Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda; and in his final game on Sept. 27, 1987 (also vs. Giants, which we’ll touch on later), he’d face the likes of Will Clark and Matt Williams.

4. The very definition of a workhorse

Among those 10 players with longer careers than Niekro, not a one of them has thrown more innings than his 5,404 innings. But, in a testament to the way deeper pitching rotations changed the game, Niekro is fourth all time in innings pitched behind only Cy Young (7,356), Pud Galvin (6,003 1/3) and Walter Johnson (5,404), yet Young played two fewer seasons than Niekro’s 24, Galvin is nine behind Niekro and Johnson is three back. Limit it to the Expansion Era of 1961 on, and Niekro is the standard for a workhorse, tossing 18 more innings than second-place Nolan Ryan and despite being fourth in the era in start (716), behind Ryan (773), Don Sutton (756) and Greg Maddux (740).

5. Brothers in (pitching) arms

Phil amassed 318 wins in his career — sixth most in the Expansion Era — while his younger brother Joe, another pitcher who defined playing time by decades and not years, lasting 22 seasons, won 221 games. That gives the Brothers Niekro the most wins in history at 539, 10 more than the next closest brothers, Jim and Gaylord Perry (529). The Niekros, who tied for the NL lead with 21 wins each in 1979, were teammates in Atlanta in 1973 and ‘74, before Joe was sold to the Astros, and then again in 1985 and ‘86 with the Yankees. Joe would hit just one home run in his career, and it came on May 26, 1976 against his big brother. Recalled Phil “He had two on with two outs had never hit me before. I threw him a knuckleball and he didn’t swing ... I hollered to him that ‘you can’t hit if you don’t swing.’” With a knuckleball headed toward his feet “he hit it like a golf ball .. I saw it going over the shortstop’s head and it went right over the fence. Joe was in such shock, halfway to second base he had to go back because he missed tagging first base.”

6. A first for any Atlanta pitcher

The Braves are entering their 26th season without a no-hitter, a drought that goes back to Kent Mercker’s no-no against the Dodgers on April 8, 1994, and they’ve tossed just three since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966 (by comparison the Diamondbacks, around since just 1998, have two of their own). The first in the franchise’s tenure in Georgia belongs to Niekro, who at age 34, shut down the Padres on Aug. 5, 1973 in a 9-0 Braves’ win. It came before a crowd of just 8,748 at Atlanta Stadium. “Nobody talked to me after the third in the dugout,” Niekro said that night. “Darrell Evans told me just to give them knuckleballs in the ninth. Other than that, no one spoke to me.” Niekro walked three and struck out four in a what he’d say was a much-needed moment for his family, with Phil Sr. suffering from clots in his lung. “It probably happened at the best time in my life. My father is ill in a hospital, and maybe this will pick him up a bit.”

7. Front-row seat for one of the oddest events in Braves history

My first conversation with Niekro took place at MLB’s Winter Meetings in Nashville in 2015, and we discussed one of the strangest days in the pitcher’s career: when his team’s owner decided to become its manager. With the Braves mired in a 16-game losing streak in 1977, Ted Turner told manager Dave Bristol to take 10 days off to relax, and when Captain Outrageous took the field wearing No. 27, he encountered Niekro. “I was pitching that day, and I remember Ted came out of the clubhouse with the Braves uniform on, and I just got through hitting in the batting cage pregame in Pittsburgh, and I came behind the cage to wait for my next turn and Ted came out and I was standing right next to him,” Niekro told me. “I just joked to him, I said ‘Hey, Ted, what spot you got me hitting in today?’ He said ‘Hell, I don’t care. You want to lead off? You want to hit third or fourth?’ I said ‘We just lost sixteen in a row. I think you’d better keep me in the ninth spot. (That) may upset some players.’” The Braves’ skid hit 17, but not due to Niekro, who went eight innings and allowed just two earned runs in the only game of Turner’s tenure as manager, as NL president Chub Feeney cited it a violation of Major League Rule 20E.

8. Two Braves HOFers and a shared moment in time

When Bobby Cox took over as the Braves manager in late December 1977, he was 36 years old. As Turner said at the time “we have a young team and wanted someone who was young and had his future ahead instead of behind him.” Never mind that Cox was two years younger than Niekro. Nonetheless, they would be together for four-plus seasons before Cox’s firing, and when they were both cast off from Atlanta and joined the American League, they’d share in one of the biggest moments in Niekro’s career. The Blue Jays had already clinched a postseason berth in 1985 when Niekro took the mound for his last start of that season. Cox, then Toronto’s manager, sat another of his starters and Niekro mowed down a Jays lineup that opened with just two regulars (designated hitter Jeff Burroughs and second baseman Damaso Garcia), tossing a complete game shutout. Most stunning of all in that game, Niekro didn’t throw a single knuckleball until the ninth inning, when he fanned Burroughs for the final out. Said Niekro: “In the end, I wanted the knuckler, not because I didn’t think I could win without it, but because I just couldn’t see myself pitching the most important game of my career without throwing one.”

9. The plot changed, but the story ended the way it should have

When the Braves fired Bobby Cox in 1981, Niekro had expressed interest in the job, with the then-42-year-old looking to take on a player-manager role. “When I was growing up, Lou Boudreau was the player-manager at Cleveland,” Niekro said. “I felt I could do both.” Instead, Turner went with Joe Torre in 1981, and with expected friction between the two after the ‘83 season, the Braves called Niekro in and told him he should retire. Said Torre at the time “When I was a catcher, I couldn’t catch him; when I was an opposing player, I couldn’t hit him; and the last two years, I’ve found out I can’t manage him.” If there were thoughts that Niekro was fading after an age-44 season in which he threw 201 2/3 innings (the fewest of any healthy season in his career), he responded by piling up 122 more starts and won his 300th game in Yankees pinstripes, not a Braves uniform. But in 1987, Niekro got the sendoff he deserved, as Cox signed him for a one-game farewell start for the Braves on Sept. 27. He’d last three-plus innings with six hits and five runs and six walks ... at 48 years old. As Niekro said in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1997, “Thanks to the Atlanta Braves organization. Where I was born — and where I retired.”