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Baseball Hall of Famer, knuckleballer Phil Niekro dies at 81

Known for a pitch that befuddled hitters and catchers — Mr. Niekro didn’t even know where it was going — he was a five-time All-Star who had three 20-win seasons with the Braves.
In this March 29, 2007, photo, Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro holds a knuckleball at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big-league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Braves, has died after having cancer for several years, the Braves announced Sunday. He was 81.
In this March 29, 2007, photo, Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro holds a knuckleball at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big-league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Braves, has died after having cancer for several years, the Braves announced Sunday. He was 81. [ TONY DEJAK | AP ]
Published Dec. 27, 2020
Updated Dec. 28, 2020

ATLANTA — Phil Niekro threw a pitch that baffled hitters and catchers.

Heck, he didn’t even know where it was going most of the time.

But the knuckleball carried him to more than 300 wins, earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame and led to a nickname that stuck for the rest of his life.

Knucksie.

The longtime stalwart of the Braves rotation died after a long fight with cancer, the team announced Sunday. He was 81.

The Braves said Mr. Niekro died Saturday night in his sleep. He lived in the Atlanta suburb of Flowery Branch, where a main thoroughfare bears his name.

He was the seventh Hall of Famer to die this year, the most sitting members to die in a calendar year. The others are Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver.

Mr. Niekro was 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA over his 24-year career, which ended in 1987 at age 48. The right-hander was a five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who had three 20-win seasons with Atlanta.

Dale Murphy, who won two straight National League MVP awards as a teammate of Mr. Niekro’s, was among those who mourned his death.

“Knucksie was one of a kind,” Murphy wrote on Twitter. “Friend, teammate, father and husband. Our hearts go out to Nancy Niekro, the kids and grandkids. So thankful for our memories and time together. We’ll miss you, Knucksie.”

Mr. Niekro reached the big leagues in 1964, when he pitched 10 games in relief for the then-Milwaukee Braves. He also pitched for the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays late in his career.

He had 121 wins after his 40th birthday.

“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend,” the Braves said in a statement. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.”

Mr. Niekro ranked first among knuckleballers in victories and strikeouts (3,342). Knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, a teammate of Mr. Niekro’s with the 1986 Indians, said that talking to him was “like talking to Thomas Edison about light bulbs.”

The knuckleball is a whimsical floater, a rotationless pitch that is unpredictable for catchers, hitters and pitchers alike as it dances toward the plate. Catchers wear oversized mitts for the knuckleball.

Mr. Niekro, born in Blaine, Ohio, learned the knuckleball from his father, who played for a coal-mining team.

“He threw it to me one day.” Mr. Niekro recalled. “I asked him what it was. He showed me how to hold it. Didn’t know what it was, didn’t know anything about it except that I liked it.’'

The pitch was all Mr. Niekro had and all he believed in.

“I never knew how to throw a fastball, never learned how to throw a curveball, a slider, split-finger, whatever they’re throwing nowadays,” he said. “I was a one-pitch pitcher.”

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“It actually giggles at you as it goes by,” former outfielder Rick Monday said of Mr. Niekro’s knuckler.

One of Mr. Niekro’s catchers was Bob Uecker, who went on to become a Hall of Fame announcer.

“Ueck told me if I was ever going to be a winner to throw the knuckleball at all times and he would try to catch it,” Mr. Niekro said. “I led the league in ERA (1.87 in 1967), and he led the league in passed balls.”

“Catching Niekro’s knuckleball was great,” Uecker said. “I got to meet a lot of important people. They all sit behind home plate.”

Mr. Niekro went 23-13 as the Braves won the NL West title in 1969. He was runner-up to Seaver for the Cy Young Award that season, and finished in the top six of the balloting four other times.

“Trying to hit Phil Niekro is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks,” said former Yankees All-Star outfielder Bobby Murcer.

Many of Mr. Niekro’s Braves teams struggled, and he led the league in losses for four straight seasons, losing 20 games in both 1977 and ’79. He never reached the World Series.

Mr. Niekro’s younger brother, Joe, also had a long baseball career and threw the knuckleball. He won 221 games over 22 years in the big leagues, making the Niekros baseball’s winningest set of siblings. Their 539 victories are just ahead of Gaylord and Jim Perry (529).

Joe Niekro died in 2006.

Mr. Niekro pitched a no-hitter in 1973 but his most memorable game with the Braves came in 1982, when the team started the season with 13 straight wins and won the NL West by one game.

On the final weekend of the season, Mr. Niekro pitched a three-hit shutout and hit a two-run, eighth-inning homer in a crucial 4-0 victory over the Padres.

The knuckleball put little stress on his arm, so he made at least 30 starts every season from 1968-86 — excluding the strike-shortened 1981 campaign — and had 245 complete games in his career.

In 1987 the Blue Jays let Mr. Niekro go. Before retiring, he returned to the Braves to make a final start.

He remained active in the Braves organization after his retirement, taking part in alumni activities and often serving as a special instructor at spring training.

“I used to tell players there wasn’t a bigger fan of our players, our organization than Phil Niekro,’' Braves manager Brian Snitker said Sunday. “How this guy lived each and every day, I’ve never seen somebody (make the most of a day) like this guy did. He’d always be so positive. Always have a smile on his face.

”There’s a lot of times in the last couple years he’d come down (to visit the team), and I know he probably wasn’t feeling that great, but you’d never know it. He was always smiling. You’d never see him without his Braves hat on. Just a wonderful person. Just who he was, what he did for the community and this organization, epitomized everything good the Braves stand for. Just a wonderful, wonderful man.”

A minor-league catcher in the late 1970s, Snitker was assigned to catch Mr. Niekro during a side session at spring training in West Palm Beach.

“The good thing about that was behind the catcher’s box, there was a chain-link fence, so I didn’t have to go very far to get the ball,” Snitker recalled. “I didn’t catch many of them. I’d never seen a knuckleball before. It was crazy.”

In this era where teams value velocity, the knuckleball is essentially extinct, though Mets minor-leaguer Mickey Jannis throws it. Jannis was originally selected by the Rays in the 44th round of the 2010 draft.

“There’s nobody around who can teach how to throw a knuckleball,” Mr. Niekro said. “There’s very few pitching coaches that I worked with that actually came out on the mound and told me what I was doing wrong with the knuckleball. Because they just didn’t know.

“I was on my own.”

— By PAUL NEWBERRY, with information from Times news services