RIP Phil Niekro, 1939-2020

11 03 2021

Back to catching up on a few more of these posts.  The next Hall of Famer who passed away doesn’t hit home for me like Joe Morgan did, but Phil Niekro’s passing does make me sad how many 300 game winners have passed away.  I am guessing Randy Johnson will be the last of that club.

Since I came into card-collecting age in the late 80’s – my cardboard memories of Phil Niekro are not with the team where he spent the overwhelming majority of his career.  In fact, the 1988 Topps Record Breaker subset (2nd in the middle row) with his brother is easily the card I think of first for him.

But he spent 20 (plus 1 additional start) of his 24 seasons with the Braves, and was a phenomenal knuckler who ate up a ton of innings for some pretty bad Braves teams.  In his career, he only pitched in 2 playoff games – 13 years apart the Braves made the 1969 and 1982 NLCS – both times swept by the eventual World Champions.  He went 0-1 with an OK 3.86 ERA over 14 innings in his 2 starts.

He was born in Blaine, Ohio, just a little past the Ohio River from West Virginia and his family moved a mile or so east to Lansing shortly after he was born.  His father, a coal miner who played some baseball in his free time, taught him the knuckleball when he was about 8 years old.  Phil practiced the pitch with his best friend growing up – John Havlicek.  Pretty amazing that in about 6 years – considering Phil, his younger brother Joe and Havlicek – the same tiny town of 500 or so could produce 26,000 NBA points and 539 MLB wins!

They attended Bridgeport High School one town over, Havlicek went on to play basketball for Ohio State while Phil was signed to play in the Braves minor league system.  Here’s a great article on Niekro and Havlicek growing up.

Niekro struggled at first, nearly getting cut from class D ball.  For comparison, Havlicek (despite going to 4 years of college and being a year younger) made it to the NBA 2 years ahead of Niekro, and Phil didn’t come up to MLB for good for another 3 years after that.  Some of that was his knuckle ball – it was hard to catch.  Some of that was that he spent 1963 away from pro ball in military service.  And finally, in 1964 when he did come up as a reliever, he was soon sent back down because the Braves realized he was good enough to become a starter.  After two more years of back and forth – he came up for good in 1967, going 11-9 with a 1.87 ERA (his lone ERA title).

From there, he became a steady workhorse for the Braves.  He went 23-13 in 1969, winning the division clinching game for the Braves that year and notching a second place Cy Young finish (which meant he got 1 vote – Tom Seaver was the runaway winner).  He has been quoted saying that was his best year – but I think he’s selling his seasons in the late 70’s short.  He probably deserved the Cy Young Award in 1978, when he threw 334 innings (74 more than winner Gaylord Perry).  But the Braves offense was awful and writer’s of the time weren’t going to reward a 19-18 record.

Here’s some highlights of looking through his statistical accomplishments – and I must say, I didn’t realize how good he was!

  • Niekro was the last pitcher to throw over 310 innings in a season (342 in 1979), and only Steve Carlton (304 the next year) has thrown 300 since.  Those 342 innings pitched were in his age 40 season!
  • From 1977 to 1979 he averaged 336 innings pitched per season, and over a 7 year span from 1974 to 1980 he averaged over 300 IP!
  • His 5,400 innings pitched place him 4th all-time, and the 3 guys ahead of him (Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson) all pitched before 1928.
  • In that 1979 season he led the National League in both wins and losses (I believe he’s the only player to do this).  He went 21-20.  Niekro and Wilbur Wood (24-20 in 1973), are the only pitchers to have 20 wins and losses in the same season since the Dead Ball era.  Nobody has had more than 34 decisions since that season.
  • Niekro won his 300th game at the age of 46 – throwing a shutout for the Yankees and becoming the oldest pitcher in history to throw a shutout (Jamie Moyer has since eclipsed that record).
  • Niekro is incredibly underrated, in part because his teams were really bad.  His career WAR of 97 is 6th since the dead ball era – behind only Clemens, Grove, Seaver, Maddux and Johnson.  That puts him ahead of Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan.  He is the all-time leader in WAR for the Braves since they moved to Atlanta – and only Spahn and Aaron have a higher WAR with the Braves franchise.  That puts him ahead of Mathews, Chipper, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Murphy, and Andruw Jones.  Yet it took the BBWAA 5 tries to elect him!

Of course, you can’t think of the older Niekro without mentioning his younger brother.  Joe, who died 14 years before Phil, was also a great pitcher.  He didn’t use the knuckleball as much his brother at first, but eventually started to after he joined his brother in Atlanta in the 1973 season.  The 539 wins they accumulated are the most of a brother duo – and they did get to play 2 seasons in Atlanta together and the end of the 1985 season in New York.

RIP to an underrated legend!


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