Nearly 30 retired major leaguers will congregate at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown on Sunday for the first Hall of Fame Classic. The list of ex-Yankees who will participate includes Mike Pagliarulo, Kevin Maas, Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat, and Lee Smith. In the latest installment of “Card Corner,” we take a closer look at the man known as “Knucksie.”
Like fellow Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and Billy Williams, Phil Niekro exudes gentlemanly class. Frankly, Leo “The Lip” Durocher was wrong when he said, “Nice guys finish last.” Some guys, like Niekro, might have played for a lot of last-place teams, but 318 career wins and a permanent residence in Cooperstown hardly qualify as “finishing last.”
During my tenure as a full-time employee at the Hall of Fame, I had the privilege of engaging Phil Niekro in several casual conversations and a few formal interviews. Whether Phil was in front of a microphone or not, he always behaved the same way. He didn’t like talking about himself—I never heard him brag about anything—but preferred steering credit in other directions.
On a Saturday night in Cooperstown in 2006, I watched Niekro behave in his typically dignified fashion. Along with several other retired ballplayers, Niekro was taking part in a roundtable discussion about the game in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. As he sat next to his beloved brother Joe, who would pass away unexpectedly only three weeks later, Phil expressed only words of fond praise for his two-time teammate with the Braves and Yankees. “To get to play with your best friend, that’s an experience,” Phil said that evening. “I wish all brothers would get a chance to have that experience.”
The Niekros also faced each other as opponents a number of times, mostly while Phil pitched for the Braves and Joe toiled for the Astros. “I won the first game against Joe,” Phil said in recalling that first matchup. “Mom said to me, ‘You’re the older brother. Joe’s got to win the next one.’ ‘Well, Mom it doesn’t work that way.’ ”
Nonetheless, Joe came back to win five of the next eight decisions against Phil, giving him a 5-4 advantage in head-to-head matchups. Joe also gained the upper hand at the plate, in spite of a reputation as a notoriously poor hitter. Phil remembered Joe’s circuit clout all too well. “I saw [Ralph] Garr going back in left field. I said, ‘No, this can’t be happening!’ Joe was so excited that he missed first base and came back to touch it.”
Even in pointing out the shortcomings of others, Phil does it with humor and good nature. That night at the Hall of Fame, Niekro discussed some of the catchers who struggled to handle his knuckleball, none more so than Earl Williams, a notoriously poor defensive catcher who did not enjoy wearing the tools of ignorance. “Earl missed my first [of the game] and it hit the umpire,” said Niekro, setting the scene. “He missed the second pitch and it also hit the umpire. The umpire said, ‘I’m not gonna make nine innings.’ ”
Niekro’s career lasted more than nine innings. Even after the Braves released Phil in October of 1983, he soon found work in the Bronx pitching for Yogi Berra’s Yankees. In two seasons, he would win 32 games for New York. Yet, a stigma remained with Niekro. Throughout his career, Niekro’s accomplishments had been minimized because of the knuckleball. It was as if some fans (and even members of the media) didn’t think his records had legitimacy because of his dependence on the knuckler. I never understood that way of thinking. The knuckleball has always been a legal pitch, never outlawed like the spitter or the emery ball. It’s also a very difficult pitch to master. If it were so easy to throw the knuckleball, then why have so few pitchers relied on it heavily during their careers?
On the final day of the 1985 regular season, Niekro seemed to make a statement to the knuckleball naysayers. Just one day after the Yankees’ elimination from the American League East race, Niekro took to the mound against the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium. The game meant nothing in the standings, but meant everything to the 46-year-old Niekro, who was taking aim at his 300th career victory. In shutting out the Jays on a meager four hits, Phil did not throw a single knuckleball—not until the final pitch of the game. With two outs in the ninth and two strikes against Toronto DH Jeff Burroughs, Niekro unleashed his trademark pitch, resulting in a swing and a miss. The final pitch represented an exclamation point to a game in which Niekro had otherwise discarded the knuckleball. It seemed to be his way of telling those critics who frowned on the knuckleball that he could handle opposing batters with conventional pitches, too.
As it turned out, Niekro’s 300th win would represent his final appearance as a Yankee. The following spring, in a decision that mystifies me to this day, the Yankees released Niekro. Given Niekro’s 16 wins in 1985 and the Yankees’ need for starting pitching throughout the decade, the move made little sense—then or now.
It was also an ill-conceived parting for a Hall of Famer and easygoing gentleman. I hope that Phil wears his Yankee uniform on Sunday. Even if it’s only an old-timers game, Phil Niekro deserves a better sendoff in pinstripes.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.