COOPERSTOWN – National Baseball Hall of Fame announced yesterday that pitcher and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro passed away overnight after a battle with cancer. He was 81 years old.
Niekro rode his knuckleball to 5,404 innings pitched – the most of any pitcher who started his career in the live ball era. But Niekro, who pitched for 21 of his 24 big league seasons with the Braves, was more than simply durable. His 318 wins and 3,342 strikeouts are a testament to a pitcher who was often untouchable.
“Phil Niekro’s record on the field ranks him as one of the game’s finest pitchers,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. 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,” she said.
Born April 1, 1939 in Blaine, Ohio, Philip Henry Niekro was taught the knuckleball – which would become his signature pitch – by his father. Signing with the Braves in 1958, Niekro ascended through the team’s minor league system. By 1967, Niekro was one of the top pitchers in the big leagues, leading the National League that year with an ERA of 1.87.
Following a 23-13 season in 1969 that firmly established him as one of baseball’s best, the durable Niekro consistently piled up innings and perplexed batters. The fluttering knuckler danced throughout the summers in the Atlanta heat, and by his late 30s Niekro became an absolute workhorse – averaging 335 innings a season from 1977 through 1979 and becoming the last pitcher to post back-to-back seasons of at least 300 innings pitched.
He won 121 games after turning 40, threw a no-hitter against the Padres on Aug. 5, 1973, and won his 300th career game on the final day of the 1985 season by throwing just one knuckler – on the last pitch of the game.
Niekro and his brother Joe, another knuckleballer, hold the record for the most victories by a brother combination with 539. His 24 major league seasons also included stints with Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays. Niekro finished with a record 318-274 and a 3.35 ERA.
For his humanitarian service, Niekro was honored with the Lou Gehrig Award, Roberto Clemente Award and Brian Piccolo Award. Following his baseball career, he managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-women baseball team, in the late 1990s.
Niekro was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 and served on the Museum’s Board of Directors since 2009. Donations in Phil Niekro’s memory can be made to Edmondson Telford Child Advocacy Center, 603 Washington St. SW, Gainesville, Ga., 30501.