Long-time Major League Baseball knuckleballer Phil Niekro of Blaine, OH, passed away on Sunday at the age of 81 of cancer according to Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Niekro pitched 24 years with the Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Toronto Blue Jays from 1964 to 1987. The fact that Niekro was a knuckleball pitcher allowed him to pitch in Major League Baseball until he was 48 years of age.
Niekro’s 318 career wins are the most all-time for a knuckleball pitcher, and ranks him 16th all-time in career wins. Niekro was a five-time all-star. The first time was with the Braves at the age of 30 in 1969, and the last time was with the Yankees at the age of 45 in 1984. On October 6, 1985, Niekro made Major League Baseball history by becoming the oldest pitcher to record a complete-game shutout. Niekro pitched nine innings, and only gave up four hits in an 8-0 Yankees win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
Niekro twice led the National League in wins. He had 20 wins with the Atlanta Braves in 1974, and 21 wins with the Atlanta Braves in 1979. In an interesting statistic, Niekro also led Major League Baseball with 20 losses in 1979. He is the last pitcher to record 20 wins and 20 losses in the same season.
In only his fourth Major League season in 1967 with the Atlanta Braves, Niekro had the best earned run average in all of baseball at 1.87. That season he only gave up 43 earned runs in 207 innings pitched.
In 1982 at the age of 43, Niekro led Major League Baseball with a winning percentage of .810. There is no doubt that Niekro’s knuckleball was dancing that season, as he reached his fourth career All-Star appearance.
Known for his endurance, Niekro led Major League Baseball in starts for four straight years from 1977 to 1980, and the National League in complete games and innings pitched another four times. Niekro’s 262 strikeouts led the National League in 1977. He was also used as a reliever, as he had 29 career saves.
Niekro also had an impressive earned run average of 3.35 in 864 career games. His number 35 was retired by the Braves in 1984, three years before he retired. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.