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Remembering Phil Niekro

January 2, 2021

Hugh Atkins

Phil Niekro passed away last Saturday. To me he was more than the ace pitcher for my favorite baseball team; he was responsible for my lifelong fascination with the knuckleball.

Niekro was a relief pitcher early in his career, having come out of the bullpen in 98 of his first 99 appearances. He bounced back and forth between the major and minor leagues in 1964, 1965, and 1966. Niekro’s spot in the majors was so tentative that he appeared on rookie cards in both 1964 and 1965.

© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC

I began following the Braves in 1966, but I can’t say I even realized Niekro was on the team until he showed up on television one night in 1967 and pitched a complete game shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies. I knew Niekro existed because I ended up with his 1966 baseball card after my older brother Cushman complained about it turning up in one of his packs. But just because Niekro was on a Braves card didn’t necessarily mean he was on the team. We also had 1966 versions of John Blanchard, Chris Cannizzaro, and Dan Osinski, and none of those guys played for the Braves after I started following them.

A week before Niekro’s shutout, the Braves traded backup catcher Gene Oliver to the Phillies for Bob Uecker, another backup catcher. At this early stage of my baseball fandom, I was not a big fan of trades. I suppose I became attached to all the players who were on the team when I started following the Braves; I hated it when the Braves traded Ed Mathews to the Houston Astros. Even though Oliver was just a backup, I had fond memories of this three-homer game the previous season, and his 1966 Strat-O-Matic card had lots of home runs on it.

© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC

After Niekro started the 1967 season with a record of 1-1 with seven saves and a 1.73 earned run average, the Braves decided to move him into the starting rotation. Before they could make the change, however, the Braves needed a catcher who could handle the knuckleball, thus the trade for Uecker. Niekro went on to lead the National League with a 1.87 E.R.A. that year.

I started trying to throw a knuckleball and eventually got to where I could float out a pitch that did not spin. But my knuckleball never did anything but float; it did not dart around like the knucklers of Niekro and other masters of the pitch like Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, and Phil’s brother, Joe.

I’ve read books on the knuckleball, and even at my advanced age I still occasionally wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts like “I’m throwing it too hard!” or “I’m not throwing it hard enough!” or “I’ve got to lock my wrist!” As a coach, I occasionally would toss a knuckler during batting practice. Though it never danced, it always caught the kids by surprise and froze them in their tracks. Maybe that’s part of what made the knuckleball so effective for the pitchers who had the nerve to throw it to major league hitters.

Niekro logged 24 seasons in the big leagues. In addition to the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, he also pitched for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Toronto Blue Jays. He won 318 games, struck out 3,342 batters, pitched a no-hitter, and won five Gold Gloves. He and Joe combined to win 539 games, the most by any brother combination in baseball history. He entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. Phil Niekro was 81 years old.

What the Braves hopefully came up with, according to vice president Paul Richards, is a man who can successfully handle the knuckleball.

That, of course, means someone who can catch Phil Niekro, the Braves No. 1 relief pitcher who owns one of the best knucklers in the business.

–Wayne Minschew, the Atlanta Constitution, June 7, 1967

(All statistics are from Baseball Referencegame details are from RetrosheetThe quote from Wayne Minschew of the Atlanta Constitution came from Newspapers.com.)

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