Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and many more. Now, following the passing of the great Phil Niekro, heaven has gained a hell of a rotation recently, with four Hall of Fame pitchers passing away this year.
Unfortunately, just days before the new year, 2020 has claimed one more giant of the game. Braves legend Phil Niekro succumbed to a long and arduous battle with cancer late Saturday night.
Known for his trademark knuckleball and affable personality, Philip Henry Niekro Jr. debuted for the Milwaukee Braves in 1964 and would go on to have a remarkable 24-year major league career, ending at the age of 48. A crafty right-handed workhorse, “Knucksie” threw an astounding 245 complete games in his career, including a major league-leading 23 in his age-40 season. All told, the Ohio native spun 5,404.0 innings of 3.35 ERA ball, racking up 3,342 strikeouts and 318 wins. With well over two decades of elite work, the five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner earned a well-deserved induction into Cooperstown in 1997.
Phil Niekro hailed from a baseball family, with his father teaching him the knuckleball at a young age. His brother, Joe, would join him in having an impactful major league career, as he himself pitched in 22 seasons and earned an All-Star appearance and a World Series ring. Phil and Joe set a major league record, piling up an astounding 539 combined wins, the most of any set of brothers. Joe’s son Lance would also play in parts of four big league campaigns as a first baseman for the San Francisco Giants. Suffice it to say, the Niekro’s were an exceptionally talented bunch, and are nothing short of baseball royalty.
Phil Niekro will be remembered for many things, chief among them being his status as the greatest knuckleballer of all time. With an unconventional career path made possible by an unconventional pitch, Knucksie’s contributions to the game of baseball will live on forever, and the baseball world will be more than happy to slam the door shut on a tragic year in only a few days.