Braves manager Brian Snitker was a minor-league catcher during one of his earliest encounters with Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, which he estimates occurred in the late 1970s. Snitker was assigned to catch Niekro during a side session at spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“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.”
The legendary Niekro died Saturday night after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 81. Nicknamed “Knucksie,” Niekro is one of the most celebrated Braves in history.
The Ohio native spent 21 of his 24 major-league seasons with the Braves franchise, dazzling hitters with his iconic knuckleball, a pitch that helped him reach unparalleled longevity. He was a lauded teammate and member of the community.
“What a great ambassador for the Atlanta Braves,” Snitker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday. “This year, we probably lost two of the greatest fans of the Atlanta Braves in Mr. B (former owner Bill Bartholomay) and Knucksie. I used to tell players there wasn’t a bigger fan of our players, our organization than Phil Niekro. 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.”
On the field, few could even imagine Niekro’s resume. While pitching from 1964 through 1987, he logged 5,404 innings — the fourth-highest total all-time — and pitched to age 48. He notched 318 wins (16th all-time) and 3,342 strikeouts (11th all-time) in his career. He holds or shares 12 Atlanta pitching records and ranks near the top in every statistical category.
Niekro was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. As a player, he’s remembered for his consistent dominance, longevity and competitiveness.
“He was always there for his team,” said Snitker, who’s spent over four decades with the Braves organization. “If something happened and somebody had to pitch on short rest, he was always there to do that. It’s amazing the competitor this guy was. … Just to go out there, all of those who’ve won 300 games, it blows me away. The longevity and consistency it takes to do that. For him to pitch into his late 40s, my God, that’s unbelievable, the things that he did. He’s just a special, special person.”
“He used to love coming to spring training — he’d always come early when it was pitchers and catchers — and he’d love to be there and out on the field when guys were doing their (pitcher’s fielding practice and workouts). He’d talk to these guys about how important that part of the game was, being a winning pitcher, just how invested and involved he was.”
Off the field, Niekro was revered by friends and strangers alike. Those who knew Niekro say he filled a room with life. He was charismatic, kind, enthusiastic and wise. Snitker recalled Niekro often being the life of the party at the organization’s annual fish fries just before Christmas. Niekro’s energy and positivity attracted others.
The Hall of Famer was always eager to share his wealth of knowledge, too. He believed in paying it forward, helping upcoming generations of players. Niekro loved being around baseball and, even more so, people. Snitker cherished having Niekro represent the organization. As he said, the beloved knuckleballer was the perfect ambassador for one of the most recognizable franchises in North American sports.
“The whole time I ever knew Knucksie, the person he was, he always had time for everybody,” Snitker said. “Just a wonderful, wonderful guy. Always had a great attitude. There was no bigger fan of the Atlanta Braves than Phil Niekro.”
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