A longtime symbol of the Atlanta Braves, Phil Niekro holds many major league records, nearly all of which are as a result of his trademark pitch, the knuckleball, which kept him in the majors until he was 48. Niekro’s records tend to center on longevity, durability, and unpredictability, as his reliance on the knuckler saved his arm, fooled batters, and caused catchers to consider a new occupation.
A boyhood pal of basketball Hall of Famer John Havilcek, Phil, and his younger brother Joe, came out of the Ohio River valley for 46 major league seasons. Teammates briefly on the Braves and Yankees, they would eventually combine to pass Gaylord and Jim Perry as baseball’s winningest brother act in 1987, finishing with 538.
Along with Niekro’s longevity, his loyalty to a floundering Atlanta franchise won him the admiration of fans and players. He contributed greatly to charitable groups in Atlanta and won the 1979 Lou Gehrig Award for his exemplary character. There was little indignation in Atlanta when Phil finally signed with the Yankees as a free agent; the consensus was that he deserved an opportunity to pitch for a contending team. Niekro’s effectiveness did not falter with age and his undistinguished records reflected the ragged teams behind him more than anything. In his forties Niekro was able to fashion a 17-4 mark with Atlanta in 1982. At age 45, the gray-haired Niekro went 16-8 for the 1984 Yankees.
Niekro’s statistics were compiled with little national fanfare. The 300-game winner pitched a total of 1.1 innings in two All-Star games nine years apart and was selected to only three other squads, possibly because All-Star catchers were unfamiliar with his pitch. His two LCS starts, thirteen years apart, produced no wins, and his playing 24 years without a Series appearance represents a major league mark for futility. His most celebrated game came on the final day of the 1985 season at age 46. Relying on everything except his knuckler until the final batter, former teammate Jeff Burroughs, Niekro became the thirteenth pitcher to win 300 games. He seems destined for Cooperstown. The oldest player to regularly play in the majors, Niekro’s outstanding character and his ability to master the most difficult pitch will always be recognized.