“It’s like watching Mario Andretti park a car,” said Ralph Kiner. “It giggles when it goes by,” laughed Rick Monday. “Trying to hit it was like trying to eat Jello with chopsticks,” stated Bobby Murcer. What are these guys talking about? Phil Niekro’s knuckleball, that’s what. What kind of pitch did you expect from a guy who was born on April Fool’s Day? Phil and his younger brother, Joe, learned how to master the knuckleball, in their backyard, from their dad, Joe Sr. To this day, Phil’s 318 career wins are the most ever recorded by a knuckleball pitcher. Add Brother Joe’s victories and they have a total of 539 wins together, the most combined wins by brothers in Major League baseball.
Only twenty-four pitchers have reached the 300-win milestone and all are in the Hall of Fame except Roger Clemens. Between 1982 and 1990, six new members joined the 300-win club. They are as follows: Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Tom Seaver. Not too bad a group to be associated with. It must be pointed out that these pitchers benefited from raised pitching mounds and increased use of relief pitchers, an expanded strike zone and new stadiums, which suppressed offensive production.
With the recent success of a “once Met now Blue Jay” pitcher, R.A. Dickey, and his knuckleball, it’s been kind of refreshing to relive the days when players swung from their heels and came up empty on a pitch thrown at 60 mph. It was like trying to hit a butterfly. Eddie Cicotto of the Chicago White Sox is credited for inventing the knuckleball during the early 1900’s. Other notable knuckleball pitchers include Hall-of-Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, Jim Bouton, Wilber Wood, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough. I have even heard stories that Mickey Mantle threw an incredible dancing knuckleball in practice.
In 1983, after 20 seasons with the Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves, Phil Niekro was released. He was 44 years old and 32 wins shy of 300 victories for his career. George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees owner, always recognized opportunity when it reared its head and signed Phil Niekro to a player’s contract. Niekro won 16 games in 1984 and 16 games in 1985, therefore becoming the first Yankee to amass 300 wins while wearing the New York pinstripes.
But this story is not so much about wins as it is about the things that really matter, love, faith, family, and fate. All the truly good stories begin and end in the heart. You see, as Phil moved closer to the magic 300-win plateau, Steinbrenner saw an opportunity to magnify the event. The “Boss” loved nothing more than touting his Yankees. In September of 1985, the Yankees traded for Phil’s brother, Houston Astros pitcher, Joe Niekro.
During this time, their father, Joe Sr., was sick and had been placed in a hospital in West Virginia and had slipped into a coma. Joe and Phil spent every off day traveling back and forth to be with their dad. During one of these visits, Joe mentioned to Phil that he had heard that even patients in a coma can sometimes be aware of their surroundings and what is being said. So, the Niekros asked their dad to blink if he could hear them and to their amazement, he blinked. Then he raised his arm and brought it back down. The boys scrambled to find a pencil and paper. Remarkably with time, their dad scribbled these two words, “Win happy.” Phil automatically takes this to mean he needs to return to New York and make history by collecting his 300th win and therefore make his father happy.
On the last game of the season, with 299 wins, Joe and Phil make a deal. Phil will start the game and Joe will come in and save the game, so both will be associated with Phil Niekro’s milestone. The Yankees jump out to a 7-0 lead through eight innings and Phil’s 300th win looks to be in the bag. In the top of the ninth inning, the Yankees score again. In the bottom of the ninth, Phil recorded the first two outs, and in trots Joe Niekro to close it out. But it’s not to be. Joe comes out as the pitching coach and refuses to take the ball from Phil and informs him that if he gets another out, he will be the oldest pitcher in Major League history to throw a complete game shutout. Joe then suggests in jest that Phil give the batter an intentional walk, as he heads to the dugout. Phil Niekro used his famed knuckleball on the final pitch for the win.
While walking off the field after the game was over, Joe ran into his brother’s arms with a message about their dad. The hospital had allowed the game to be broadcast in their father’s hospital room. During the seventh inning, Joe Sr. had awakened from his coma, turns to his wife and said, Sonny (Phil) is pitching a pretty good game.” Their father continued to get better and lived two more years, including being able to watch Joe pitch in the 1987 World Series with the Minnesota Twins.
Phil Niekro’s 300th win was a complete game shutout over the Toronto Blue Jays on October 6, 1985. At age 46 years, 188 days, Phil became the oldest pitcher to pitch a complete game shutout in the Major Leagues. Niekro’s record stood for 25 years until Jamie Moyer (age 47 years, 170 days) moved past him in May of 2010. Interestingly, Niekro did not use his knuckleball until the last batter, the former American League MVP, Jeff Burroughs. Burroughs struck out to end the game on a Phil Niekro knuckleball. Phil Niekro was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. Sometimes the healing powers of this great game shine through the lost stories of our heroes.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, email@example.com.