Phil Niekro, 1939-2020: The one and only Knucksie

Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro waves to fans after he was introduced before a spring training baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Braves, has died. He was 81. (John Raoux/AP)
Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro waves to fans after he was introduced before a spring training baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Braves, has died. He was 81. (John Raoux/AP)

Credit: John Raoux

Credit: John Raoux

There were knuckleballers before him and knuckleballers after, but only one practitioner of the game’s most arcane pitch was known, both in his heyday and in perpetuity, as Knucksie. No other knuckleballer won 318 games. Only three others — Hoyt Wilhelm, of whom you’ve heard, plus Jesse Haines and Ted Lyon, of whom you probably haven’t — are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Phil Niekro threw, now and surely forever, the best of all knuckleballs. (His brother Joe had a good one, but not as good.) He did it for 24 big-league seasons, beginning as a Milwaukee Brave and then, when the franchise moved south, becoming the only reason to watch the Braves in the years after Henry Aaron and before Dale Murphy.

Phil Niekro died Sunday. He was 81. He had barely become an ex-Brave before Ted Turner commissioned a statue, the famous knuckler grip cast in bronze. Turner hadn’t wanted Niekro to leave as a free agent, but Joe Torre, then the manager, wasn’t sure he needed another season from his most famous pitcher, who was 44. Bang on cue, Niekro signed with the Yankees — all free agents did that back then, or so it seemed — and went 16-8, making the All-Star team for the fifth and last time.

That was in 1984. This correspondent had just arrived from Kentucky. One of my earliest assignments was to track down Niekro in his New York hotel and speak with the man himself about his success in pinstripes. A follow-up task was to get George Steinbrenner on the phone and ask that famous figure about Niekro’s life as a Yankee. During that conversation, Steinbrenner said, “The rumor is that he’s going to replace Torre as manager down there.”

That never quite happened, though Torre was indeed canned the day after the 1984 season. He was replaced by Eddie Haas, who didn’t make it through August 1985. As the world knows, Torre would win four World Series over five years for Steinbrenner, twice beating Turner’s Braves. One of the great Atlanta sports unknowables: What if Niekro and Torre had gotten along just a tad better?

For Braves fans, the sight of Niekro gracing another uniform was a punch in the gut. He wasn’t just a curio; he was demonstrably a great pitcher. He won 23 games with an ERA of 2.56 in 1969, the year Atlanta won the newfangled National League West. He finished second in the Cy Young voting to Tom Seaver, whose Miracle Mets would sweep the Braves in the first NLCS.

Fantastic factoid: In 1969, Niekro faced the Cincinnati Reds — who’d just been dubbed the Big Red Machine — six times. He won all six games. Five times he went the distance. Twice he worked shutouts. He struck out 36 in those six games, issuing five unintentional walks. The Reds of Rose, Bench and Perez led the NL in runs, homers and batting average. They were winless against Knucksie.

Personal note: I witnessed one of those games. I was 14. My friend Bobby Clarke had an extra ticket. We drove up the river from Maysville to Crosley Field. We sat between home plate and first base. The Braves won 12-2. Niekro worked a complete game. He got two hits and drove in two runs. We who followed the Reds were used to them being the side that scored 12, but not that night. One man with a knuckleball rendered them feeble. Such was the power of that one pitch by that one pitcher.

Thirteen years later, I’d become a Braves fan through the lure of TBS. On Friday, Oct. 1, I watched from a hotel room in Clemson, S.C. — Kentucky, which I covered for the Lexington Herald-Leader, would play the Tigers the next day — as Niekro did something similar. He pitched a shutout in San Diego and hit a clinching home run in the eighth off Eric Show to keep the Braves a game ahead of the Dodgers with two remaining.

Those Braves would clinch the West on Sunday, leading to another what-if. Niekro started Game 1 of the NLCS in St. Louis. The Braves led 1-0 with one out in the bottom of the fifth when rain descended. That game, two outs from becoming official, wasn’t resumed. They wound up getting swept again.

I’d love to tell you I had many warm interactions with Niekro, but that would be a fib. I wrote something in 1987 that displeased him. He’d announced plans to retire at season’s end, and the Braves were considering signing him and letting him make a final start in their uniform at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I wasn’t crazy about the idea. Niekro read my little missive and nearly backed out of the game. In his autobiography, he wrote, “To hell with Bradley.” Full credit for spelling the name right.

Many years later, we sat near one another at Ernie Johnson Sr.’s funeral. We exchanged pleasantries. I felt better about that. Even this famous grouch would rather not be the only guy in the world — possible exception: Joe Torre — not to get along with the most beloved Brave ever.

There have been many great Braves; you know the list as well as I do. None inspired the same amount of incredulity and affection. We wondered how a soft-tossing pitcher could, for 24 amazing years, get away with doing what this man did. We were also thankful we got to watch him do it. One man took one pitch and mastered its vagaries in a way nobody else has or will.

In the wake of his passing, do this: Google “career leaders pitching WAR.” You’ll find a Baseball-Reference table in which he ranks 11th — three spots behind Greg Maddux, three ahead of Warren Spahn. There was only one Knucksie. There will always be only one Knucksie.

A statue of Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro stand outside Truist Park, home of baseball's Atlanta Braves, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Atlanta. The Braves were suppose to host their home opener on Friday, April 3, but the season's start was postponed by Major League Baseball because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
A statue of Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro stand outside Truist Park, home of baseball's Atlanta Braves, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Atlanta. The Braves were suppose to host their home opener on Friday, April 3, but the season's start was postponed by Major League Baseball because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves great Phil Niekro throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the game. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Braves great Phil Niekro throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the game. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Phil Niekro in 1982 NLCS after a 17-4 season at age 43. (AJC file photo)
Phil Niekro in 1982 NLCS after a 17-4 season at age 43. (AJC file photo)

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