Major League Baseball has lost another legend. Hall of Fame crackball pitcher Phil Niekro died overnight after a long battle with cancer, the Atlanta Braves and National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Sunday. He was 81.
“Phil Niekro’s record on the field ranks him as one of the game’s finest pitchers,” Hall of Fame President Jane Forbes Clark said in a statement. “As a mentor, leader, and friend, Phil brought out the best in all of us in Cooperstown. Over more than a decade of serving on the Hall of Fame, his wisdom, compassion, and love of the game proved invaluable. to help us shape our decisions. On behalf of the board and staff of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to Nancy Niekro and the Niekro family. ”
Niekro was born and raised in Ohio, and he was a traditional pitching prospect early in his life. His father taught him bone ball as a child, and he switched to knuckle balls full-time while in minor leagues with the Braves in the early 1960s. Niekro made his MLB debut in 1964 and played 24 seasons in the major leagues, including 21 with the Braves.
During a career that stretched from 1964-87, Niekro went 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA and 3,342 strikes. He threw a no-hitter in 1973 and is one of only 10 men in history with 300 wins and 3,000 strikes. His 5,404 innings is the fourth most in history and the most among pitchers who started their careers in the live ball era (1920 to today).
- Cy Young: 7,356 innings (1890-1911)
- Pud Galvin: 6,003 1/3 innings (1875-92)
- Walter Johnson: 5,914 1/3 innings (1907-27)
- Phil Niekro: 5,404 innings (1964-87)
- Nolan Ryan: 5,386 innings (1966-93)
Niekro left the Braves as a free agent and signed with the Yankees in 1984. After two seasons in New York, he was traded to Cleveland, after which he ended his career with the Blue Jays and a brief return to Atlanta at the age of 48 in 1987 Niekro is the last pitcher to throw 300 innings in consecutive seasons (1977-79).
Although he never won a Cy Young, Niekro finished in the top six of the poll five times and was second to Tom Seaver in 1969. During his peak of 1967-84, Niekro won 278 games and sent a 3.18 ERA in nearly 4,700 innings. He never won a World Series, but he was a four-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
“Phil Niekro was one of the most prominent and memorable pitcher of his generation,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His crackball led him to five All-Star picks, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the club with 300 wins and ultimately to Cooperstown.
“But even more than his signature height and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most ingenious people,” Manfred continued. “He always represented his sport extraordinarily well and he will be deeply missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I would like to express my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he has served throughout his life in our national pastime.”
Off the field, Niekro won the Roberto Clemente Award and the Lou Gehrig Award for his charitable and humanitarian efforts throughout his career. He also led the Colorado Silver Bullets and all women’s baseball teams in the late 1990s.
Niekro’s late brother, Joe, hit 22 years in the major leagues from 1967-88 and won 221 games. Niekros combined to win 539 games, most by two brothers in MLB history.
Niekro is the seventh Hall of Famer to die in 2020. Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver all died earlier this year.