One last task for Phil Niekro’s catchers — saying goodbye

A statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, the winningest knuckleball pitcher in major league history, adorns the Atlanta Braves' Truist Park Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Niekro died Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
A statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, the winningest knuckleball pitcher in major league history, adorns the Atlanta Braves' Truist Park Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Niekro died Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

If anyone should tell the story of Phil Niekro and the pitch that made him a Braves folk hero, it’s rightly those former teammates on the receiving end of his dancing knuckleball.

Niekro’s catchers made up a fraternity charged with imposing order on a pitch that seemed to have a mind all its own, that skipped from mound to plate like a carefree schoolboy. They never lacked mettle. And they may all have deserved a medal. He went through plenty of them in 24 seasons, 1964-87, 21 of those with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves.

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Some are no longer with us, like the fellow who caught Niekro’s no-hitter in 1973 (Paul Casanova). Joe Torre’s still here, and he caught Niekro at the beginning. Bruce Benedict caught him at the end. They say no one corralled that free-spirited pitch better — or for more games, 148 — than “Eggs” Benedict. And no one had more fun with it than Bob Uecker. He (in 1967) and Bob Didier (1969) and the late Earl Williams (’72) led the league in passed balls, a tribute to their working relationship with Niekro and his unpredictable pitch.

All these years later, what else was there to do but laugh about it? It was Uecker who made catching Niekro an important part of his famed self-roast routine, coining the line that best way to catch his knuckleball was to wait until it stopped rolling and just pick it up. Among others.

Bob Uecker: “One day, he and his brother were pitching against each other in Atlanta and their folks were at the game sitting behind home plate. (Chasing pitches that got away) I saw their folks more during the game than they did the whole weekend.”

These are their memories of their pitcher who died the day after Christmas at the age of 81. Some are funny. Some poignant. All of them fond.

Bruce Benedict: “I was talking to Dale (Murphy, the two-time MVP who broke in with the Braves as a catcher) a couple days ago. We both said almost at the same time it was really an honor to be a part of Niekro’s career that way. It was such a privilege.”

In the beginning, Niekro broke in as a reliever in Milwaukee in 1965.

Joe Torre: “Talk about a nightmare, knowing he could pitch every game.”

What made Niekro’s knuckler unique was that he threw it harder than most and still maintained the lack of spin that made it so capricious. Something a Milwaukee minor league catcher learned the hard way as both were coming up through the system. And it continued to perplex catchers as well as hitters from that point forward.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro is carried by catcher Paul Casanova and second baseman Chuck Goggin after completing a 9-0 no-hitter over the San Diego Padres Sunday, August 5, 1973, at Atlanta Stadium. The no-hitter by the knuckleball specialist was the first for the Braves since moving to Atlanta from Milwaukee. (Bill Hudson/AP)
Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro is carried by catcher Paul Casanova and second baseman Chuck Goggin after completing a 9-0 no-hitter over the San Diego Padres Sunday, August 5, 1973, at Atlanta Stadium. The no-hitter by the knuckleball specialist was the first for the Braves since moving to Atlanta from Milwaukee. (Bill Hudson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Bob Uecker: “In Triple-A, I’m warming him up in the bullpen. He used to throw it so hard, and he never knew where it was going to wind up and neither did you. He hit me in the bare hand and split my finger. That was my introduction to Phil’s knuckleball one particular day.”

Vic Correll (who caught 67 of Niekro’s games with the Braves between 1974-77): “Game in Houston I caught him, I remember the last pitch of the game, it was a knuckleball that did three different things. I happened to catch it, and Ernie Johnson asked me on the bus on the way back to the hotel, how the hell did you catch that? I don’t know, I told him, I guessed right. To me there was no secret. You either caught ‘em or you didn’t.”

After the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, Niekro was still working in relief. Didn’t make it as a starter until the following season. The world was always slow to come around to the son of an Ohio coal miner. Baseball people often didn’t know exactly what to make of his signature pitch, and what they were uncertain of, they mistrusted.

But upon breaking through as a starter, Niekro wanted to practically build a home and plant a garden on the mound. He is fourth all-time in innings pitched, 5,404. He put up 245 complete games on the way to the 318 career wins that assured his entry to the Hall of Fame.

How about this mind-blowing three-season stretch, between 1977-79, at the end of which Niekro was 40 years old, when he averaged 335 innings pitched and totaled 65 complete games?

Torre would see Niekro from two different perspectives, as his catcher and, from 1982-84, as his manager with the Braves. He underestimated Niekro’s resilience in the 1982 National League Championship Series, after his Game 1 start against St. Louis was rained out just short of an official game, Niekro shutting out the Cardinals to that point. And regrets it still.

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Joe Torre: “Looking back I probably should have pitched him in the next game after we got rained out. I know he wanted to pitch, and I don’t remember exactly what happened. I’m sure I talked it over with (coaches) Bob Gibson and Rube Walker, and we decided to make sure when he makes his next start, he’ll have some kind of rest anyway. Knowing Knucksie he could have pitched every day and never bitched about it.”

Pascual Perez was shelled in the Game 1 redux, while Niekro pitched strong in Game 2, leaving with the lead in a game the Braves would lose.

When the Braves released him, at the age of 44, in 1983, it naturally created quite a stir. The man was practically an historic landmark. Niekro would pitch four more seasons with three different teams, going 16-8 with the Yankees in 1984 and making his fifth All-Star team. Getting cut from a team he had served for more than two decades did not sit well.

Atlanta Braves' catcher Joe Torre is seen, March 1967.  (AP)
Atlanta Braves' catcher Joe Torre is seen, March 1967. (AP)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Joe Torre: “He was upset with me, I know. I was in the middle of it. He was of a mind that I got rid of him because he could have been in line to manage the team. I remember that bothered me because if somebody wanted him to manage, it didn’t matter if he was in the dugout or across the country.

“I was playing in an old-timers game when he was pitching in Cleveland. Going down to warm up, he walked by me and I stopped him. And I asked him if he actually said that or felt that way. He said, yes, he did. I did the best I could to say I was sorry about that, but it certainly had nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t stop his leaving. I certainly had a lot to do with that, but that wasn’t the reason.

“Yet when I got voted in (Hall of Fame) in 2014 he was on the (expansion era) committee that voted me in. He was the first one to welcome me into the room.”

Just because Niekro threw an exotic pitch didn’t mean that he was any less a proud athlete. He won four Gold Gloves for fielding his position. He hit seven career home runs, his last in 1982 during an October victory over San Diego in which he also threw a three-hit shutout. When he won his 300th game as a Yankee, the story goes that he didn’t throw his first knuckleball until the last hitter, striking out Jeff Burroughs on three of them. Just to prove that he could.

Bob Uecker: “He used to love to do that, not because guys were going to hit his knuckleball. Some games when he went out there, if he kept shaking you off and you didn’t put down something else other than a knuckleball, he’d throw whatever he wanted to throw anyway. ... He liked to be a regular guy every once in a while.”

But never forget it was the knuckleball that made him special and turned opposing hitters inside-out.

Coach and catcher Bob Uecker of the Atlanta Braves sports an injury during spring training in 1968 in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP)
Coach and catcher Bob Uecker of the Atlanta Braves sports an injury during spring training in 1968 in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Vic Correll: “I went on to the Reds after I left the Braves (1978). I remember (Hall of Fame second baseman Joe) Morgan came to the park one day and saw (Niekro’s) name in the lineup, and he went in and told (manager) Sparky Anderson he didn’t want to hit off him cause it put him in a slump for two days. He gave Joe a day off.”

Bruce Benedict: “I remember opposing hitters coming up to me and saying you know what, we only face him three or four times a year, I’m not going to mess my swing up trying to hit this thing. I’m just going to swing as hard as I can. If I hit it, I hit it. If I don’t, I don’t.”

Niekro’s playing journey ended when at 48, he was brought back by the Braves, having been released by Cleveland, for a one-game encore Sept. 27, 1987. He went three innings, gave up five runs.

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Bruce Benedict: “I remember for four or five games before that I dreaded it. I got the big glove out again and was full of angst, I can tell you that. You don’t want his last game to be missing half of his pitches. And I remember what a proud moment it was for everybody. For anybody to be a part of that was special.”

Common to all those who caught Niekro and knew him best as a ballplayer was just what a fine teammate and decent fellow he was.

Dale Murphy (who was called up in 1976 as a catcher, and caught Niekro 23 times before his move to the outfield): “It was ’76. I’m catching. This is my first call-up. He takes a no-hitter into the ninth. We got until one out in the ninth with a no-hitter. And Cesar Geronimo got a hit. I was just a kid. I’m just trying to stop the knuckleball. I don’t even know what I am doing, and here I am going out into the ninth inning and Knucksie has got a no-hitter going. Over the years, Knucksie would say, ‘Hey, Murph, remember that day in Cincinnati?’ Invariably, he’d say, ‘I felt worse for you than I did losing the no-hitter because I thought it would have been so cool for you as rookie to catch my next no-hitter.’ ”

Vic Correll: “One of the nicest guys I ever met in the big leagues. He was right up there with guys like Ernie Banks.”

Bruce Benedict: “Even to the last speaking engagement we did together, Phil would stand up there, and given his generosity and the type of person he was, he would say, ‘I am not in the Hall of Fame without him,’ and point to me. What does that mean to your heart and your spirit as a friend and a teammate? It meant the world to me.”

Three days before he died, in hospice care for the cancer that would take him, Niekro made one last call to his catcher. The one who always made the world laugh when talking about his adventures with the knuckleball. Now it was a serious as it could get for a friendship that stretched back more than 50 years.

Bob Uecker: “He told me that he was ready. I talked to him for about 15 minutes. He was strong enough that I understood everything that he was saying. He wanted to say goodbye to me.

“He called me The Chaser and I called him The Thrower. That was our nickname for each other. He told me, ‘Chaser, I’m getting tired, and I think I’m going to go to sleep for a while.’ ”

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