It's easy with pitchers named Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz to forget about the best pitcher in the first half of the 50 years of Atlanta Braves baseball. But let's make sure we never forget Phil Niekro.
The knuckleball specialist turns 76 years old on Wednesday, so we want to wish Knucksie a very Happy Birthday!
Niekro is a Hall of Famer. He won 318 games in the Major Leagues, and we all know he likely would have won a lot more if he had been on a few more winning teams in his career.
With the Braves, Niekro was 268-230 with a 3.20 ERA. The amazing part of Niekro's career is he didn't even join the rotation until he was 28 years old in 1967, the Braves' second season in Atlanta. His first three years with the Braves he was a reliever, making only one start in Milwaukee in 1965.
Just imagine if Niekro had been a starting pitcher those first three seasons, from 1964 through 1966.
Niekro spent 17 seasons in the Atlanta rotation, and Braves fans didn't know a team without him on the roster until he was unceremoniously released after the 1983 season. For some reason, the Braves, and particularly pitching coach Bob Gibson, thought they would have 10 pitchers better than Niekro.
Well, Niekro wasn't finished. He went on to pitch four more seasons and posted a 50-44 record with the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays.
Of course, Niekro came back for one most last start for Atlanta in September of 1987 to finish his career. That was fitting, since he had done so much for the city of Atlanta and loved the Braves uniform so much.
One sad part of Niekro's career is he never managed the Braves. For years there was talk Niekro would become the manager. He reportedly was a candidate when the Braves hired Bobby Cox before the 1978 season and in 1982 when Joe Torre was hired.
Niekro managed in the Braves farm system in the 1990s, but tha was about it. He told me once that Hawk Harrelson talked with him about managing the White Sox, but Niekro never got his shot as a manager.
But Niekro remains a very popular Braves legend. Players love seeing him every year at spring training, and Niekro is very generous with his time with events at Turner Field.
There will never be anyone wear number 35, as the Braves retired Niekro's numbers decades ago.
So Happy Birthday Philip Henry! You're still one of the best pitchers to ever wear the Braves uniform.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy Birthday Phil Niekro!
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