Phil Niekro was beloved.
The Hall of Fame pitcher is an icon inside and outside the Braves organization — one with more than its fair share of those enshrined in Cooperstown.
Niekro died Saturday at the age of 81 after a long battle with cancer. Known as ‘Knucksie’ for his use of the knuckleball, the Braves legend won 318 games in his 24-year major league career, 21 seasons with the Braves in two stints. He still owns or shares 12 Atlanta career records for the pitching-rich Braves.
Those who knew Niekro spoke in glowing terms about the person he was off the field a day after his death on Sunday.
“He is for sure one of the most beloved Braves of all time, there’s no question about that,” Tom Glavine said. “Obviously his statistics are what they are as a baseball player. You just don’t hear many people if any ever say anything bad about him. 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.
“Those of us that had the pleasure of knowing him, you know why people love him. He was such a bubbly personality and just had that knack of making you laugh and making you feel better about things whenever he was around.”
Niekro had his No. 35 retired by the Braves in 1984. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Braves’ Hall of Fame in 1999. Niekro is one of 10 Braves with retired numbers joining Dale Murphy (3), Bobby Cox (6), Chipper Jones (10), Warren Spahn (21), John Smoltz (29), Greg Maddux (31), Eddie Mathews (41), Hank Aaron (44) and Glavine (47).
“He was the greatest,” Smoltz said. “There’s not an adjective or word to describe how special he was and what he meant to not only the Braves organization but anyone who was around him. He made you feel like you were the only hall of famer in the building. That is something that he will always be known for is the way he made you smile, the way he made you feel. It’s sad, because he doesn’t get any better. He’s one of those guys that you would never know he was a hall of famer and he treated you like a hall of famer.”
Niekro made an impression on future Braves when he would attend spring training. One such player was Eddie Perez. The catcher was new to the United States and said he quickly learned to listen to Niekro, especially when he found out the magnitude of his status in the organization.
“When I made it to big leagues, he was so happy that I was there,” Perez said. “It was amazing because he saw me for the first time in the minor leagues and he was calling me by my first name. I was like ‘How does he know my name?’ He sees me and says hi in front of people and that made me feel important. I will never forget him.”
Niekro was quick with a joke which he shared at the ball park and at charity events. Leo Mazzone said he will always remember the respect Niekro showed him when Niekro was a superstar and Mazzone was a minor league coach.
“He told me at a golf tournament, he said ‘Hell Leo, I could still get three outs today throwing a knuckleball.’ I said, ‘You know what? I believe you.’ He was over 70 then,” former pitching coach Leo Mazzone said.
Smoltz, one of those Braves pitchers in the Hall of Fame, believes Niekro ranks with the giants in the organization. And that says a lot.
“When I think of his legacy with the Braves, I think of Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro second,” Smoltz said. “That’s always the way it seemed from the way he was an ambassador of the Braves. He was the person everybody kind of gravitated to, with his personality and the way he could light up a room. He was like the Arnold Palmer of (baseball). He had that flavor about him.”