During most of their first two decades in Atlanta, the Braves had a shortage of high-quality starting pitching.
Except on the days when knuckleballer Phil Niekro was on the mound.
Niekro combined his mastery of an unpredictable pitch with his competitiveness on the field and his compassion in community endeavors to become a beloved icon of Braves history — and Atlanta sports history — to generations of fans, many of whom knew him simply as “Knucksie.”
Philip Henry Niekro died in his sleep Saturday night at age 81 after a long battle with cancer, the Braves said Sunday.
Former Braves star Dale Murphy, who last spoke with Niekro about a month ago, described his ex-teammate as “the ultimate gamer and competitor” and remembered that he “always wanted the ball and never wanted to come out of a game.”
“When people ask me who was an influencer and an example to you that helped you in your career, Knucksie is the first guy I think of,” Murphy said Sunday. “Even if I had a few aches and pains, I was going to get out there and play, because Knucksie would.
“He loved the game, loved his teammates. That’s why you were very thankful to be a teammate of his.”
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, Niekro won 318 major-league games, 268 of them for the Braves, by relying on the knuckleball taught to him by his father, a coal miner, in the backyard of the family’s home in Lansing, Ohio.
Niekro was a 27-year-old relief pitcher in the Braves’ first season in Atlanta, 1966, but he thrived after getting an opportunity to start games in 1967, when he led the National League with a 1.87 ERA. He pitched for the Braves through 1983, then for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays, before finishing his career with a ceremonial final start for Atlanta in 1987.
He played a huge role in the two most most successful pre-1990s seasons of the Braves’ Atlanta history: their National League West championship seasons of 1969 and 1982. In 1969, he won a career-high 23 games and finished second in the voting for the NL Cy Young Award. In 1982, he won 17 games and lost only four.
Murphy recalled that in Niekro’s final regular-season start of 1982, with the Braves still in a tight race for first place, the then-43-year-old knuckleballer not only threw a three-hit shutout but also hit a two-run homer.
Niekro simply would not let that division title get away from the Braves.
But he is remembered just as fondly for how well he pitched on some not-very-good Braves teams.
He led the NL in complete games for three consecutive seasons (1977-79), even though the Braves finished in last place in their division each of those years, and led the league in starts for four consecutive seasons (1977-80).
“When we weren’t in the hunt, which was more times than not, that didn’t stop his attitude and willingness to get out there,” Murphy said. “I just really admired him and loved being around him.”
Bob Hope, a former Braves public relations and marketing executive, remembers what Niekro meant to the team and to the city off the field, as well as on.
“During that time frame, the teams weren’t always very good. In fact, they were very bad sometimes. But we probably had the three highest-character athletes I’ve ever met: Phil Niekro, Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy,” Hope said Sunday. “… If you were a charity in Atlanta, you could always count on Phil Niekro participating in some way.”
Hope, who first met Niekro in 1965 and hired him as manager of the Colorado Silver Bullets women’s pro baseball team in the mid-1990s, was struck by something Niekro said on stage at a luncheon event a couple of years ago.
“He was talking about how important it is for you to tell your friends that you love them,” Hope said.
In his 24-year big-league career, including all or part of 21 seasons with the Braves, Niekro posted a 318-274 record, had a 3.35 ERA, recorded 3,342 strikeouts (11th most in MLB history) and pitched 5,404 innings (fourth most in MLB history).
For the Braves, Niekro pitched in a franchise-record 740 games. He ranks second in franchise history in shutouts and strikeouts and third in wins. He holds or shares 13 Atlanta-era Braves career pitching records. On Aug. 5, 1973, he pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres at Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.) In 1979, he won 21 games and lost 20.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Controversially released by the Braves after the 1983 season at age 44, Niekro went on to pitch four more years in the American League. He won his 300th game in 1985. He retired at age 48 after rejoining the Braves to make the final appearance of his career on Sept. 27, 1987, against the San Francisco Giants.
A statue of Niekro gripping a knuckleball stands outside Truist Park.
In a statement Sunday, the Braves said the organization is “heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro.”
“Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta,” the Braves’ statement continued. “Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long-lost friends.
“He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country, and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred described Niekro as “one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation” and added in a statement: “Even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most genial people.
“He always represented his sport extraordinarily well,” Manfred said.
Long after retirement, Niekro maintained confidence in his prized pitch. Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone recalled that Niekro was well into his 70s when he said at a golf tournament, “Hell, Leo, I could still get three outs today throwing a knuckleball.”
Mazzone’s response to Niekro that day: “You know what? I believe you.”
In the late 1970s, a young Murphy got an up-close look at Niekro’s fluttering knuckleball. Before converting to the outfield, Murphy was a catcher, meaning he was tasked with corralling the pitch. He recalled Sunday that he was charged with four passed balls in one game started by Niekro in Houston’s Astrodome, “and I should have had five.”
Tom Glavine’s own Hall of Fame career as a Braves pitcher overlapped with Niekro’s for only one game -- Niekro’s finale in 1987 -- but over the years Glavine came to know and appreciate Niekro.
“He is for sure one of the most beloved Braves of all time,” Glavine said Sunday. “There’s no question about that.
“I’ve never heard anybody say they didn’t like Knucksie. That says a lot. When you’re an athlete or celebrity to some extent, there will inevitably be people who don’t like you for whatever reason, even though they don’t know you. But you never heard that about Knucksie. Everybody loved him.”
Another Hall of Fame pitcher from the Braves, John Smoltz, said Niekro “made you feel like you were the only Hall of Famer in the building. That is something that he will always be known for ... the way he made you smile, the way he made you feel.”
The Braves shared in their statement: “In lieu of flowers, the (Niekro) family has asked for any donations to be directed to the Edmondson Telford Child Advocacy Center, 603 Washington Street SW, Gainesville, GA, 30501.”
Carroll Rogers Walton and Gabriel Burns contributed to this article.