Atlanta Braves icon Phil Niekro, the master of the knuckleball who was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1997, died, the Baseball Hall of Fame said Sunday. He was 81.
Niekro retired with 318 victories over 5,404 innings, the fourth-most all time and the most of any pitcher who started his career in the live ball era. He learned the unpredictable knuckleball from his father while a young boy in Ohio in the 1940s and 1950s. After signing with the Braves in 1958 he resisted the pitch until he was told by a minor league manager “throw the knuckler or go home,” per the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He did, and commonly went home a winner. He started 716 games, which ranks fifth all time, and earned five All-Star Game selections and five Gold Glove awards. He threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on Aug. 5, 1973.
“Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown.
“But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime.”
Niekro spent 21 of his 24 seasons in MLB with the Braves. He also played for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. He finished his career with a 318-274 record, and a 3.35 ERA.
Niekro and his brother Joe, who also relied on the knuckleball, have the record for most victories by a brother combination with 539.
He spent his post-playing days as manager of the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-women baseball team, in the late 1990s and served on the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum’s board of directors since 2009.
“Phil Niekro’s record on the field ranks him as one of the game’s finest pitchers,” Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement. “As a mentor, leader and friend, Phil brought out the best in all of us in Cooperstown. Over more than a decade of serving as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame, his wisdom, his compassion, and his love for the game proved to be invaluable in helping us shape our decisions. On behalf of the Board of Directors and the staff of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I would like to send our heartfelt condolences to Nancy Niekro and the Niekro family.”
He was honored with the Lou Gehrig Award in 1979, the Roberto Clemente Award in 1980 and the Brian Piccolo, a sports-wide humanitarian award.
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