“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).
Phil Niekro holds his hands to his face during a New York news conference Tuesday, Jan. 7, 1997, after being voted into Baseball's Hall of Fame Monday. Niekro, who went through four years of eligibility without being voted into the Hall, said, 'Well, sometimes you wonder. I thought someday it was going to come.' (Kathy Willens/AP)
“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.”
Braves great Phil Niekro (right) visits with manager Brian Snitker in the dugout before the game. Curtis Comptonfirstname.lastname@example.org