Great Braves Through The Ages: Phil Niekro

In his latest <B><I>Great Braves Through The Ages</B></I> Dan Pace profiles the career of one of the greatest Braves of all time, Phil "Knucksie" Niekro. Read on for the biography of this Braves pitching legend.

Philip Henry Niekro was born on April 1st 1939 in the coal mining town of Blaine Ohio. As a child he would spend late afternoons and weekends along with his brother (Joe) learning about baseball from his father. Each day in the backyard the elder Niekro would teach his two sons the fine arts of pitching and how to throw a knuckle ball. In high school Phil was a 2 sport athlete playing both baseball and basketball where he was a teammate of future NBA star John Havlicek.

Phil spent some time working in the coal mines after graduation and played in the Miners league before signing as a free agent with the Braves in 1958. In 1959 Phil began his minor league career and was 9 and 2 splitting the season between Wellsville of the New York/Penn league and McCook of the Nebraska state league. In 1960 he split the season between Jacksonville of the Southern league and Louisville of the American association with a combined record of 7 and 4. In 1961 Niekro spent the entire season with Austion of the Texas league, pitching mostly in relief Phil ended the season 4 and 4. In 1962 Niekro returned to Louisville and the starting rotation ending the year with a 9 and 6 record. Phil missed the 1963 season while serving in the military but returned in '64 with Denver of the Pacific coast league where he had his best year yet winnng 11 and losing 5. On April 15th of that year Phil made his major league debut and got into 10 games for the Braves that season. He ended the year with 8 strikeouts, 7 walks, a 4.80 era and no wins or losses.

In 1965 Phil spent his first complete season in the majors pitching out of then pen with only one start. He ended the season 2 and 3 with 6 saves, 49 strikeouts, 26 walks and a 2.89 era. In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta and Phil continued to pitch out of the bullpen. In 28 games Phil went 4 and 3 with 17 strikeouts, 23 walks, 2 saves and a 4.11 era. Despite the subpar season the Braves didn't give up on him and in 1967 Niekro split the season between the bullpen and the starting rotation. That year Phil started 20 games while relieving in 26. He finished the year with a 11 and 9 record with 9 saves, 10 complete games, 1 shutout, 129 strikeouts, 55 walks and a league leading 1.87 era.

Phil worked mostly as a starter in 1968 beginning 34 games for the Braves and appearing in only 3 as a reliever. Phil continued to impress ending the season with a 14 and 12 record with 15 complete games, 5 shutouts, 140 strikeouts, 45 walks and a 2.59 era. 1969 would be a career sesason for Phil. That year he was 23 and 13 with 21 complete games, 4 shutouts, 193 strikeouts, 57 walks and a 2.56 era as he helped lead the Braves to the NL West championship. The Braves would take on the Amazing Mets in the NLCS. The Braves were swept in the best of 5 series 3 games to none. In the series Phil was 0 and 1 with a 4.50 era, 4 strikeouts, 4 walks and 4 earned runs given up in his 8 innings of work. Phil ended the season 2nd in NL Cy Young voting. He also made his first All Star appearance of his career that season.

From 1970 to 1981 Niekro went on to win 15 or more games 9 times despite playing for a team which annually found itself out of the pennant race by the All Star break. During that 12 year period Phil was also in the top 6 in Cy Young voting 3 times (1974 3rd, 1978 6th, 1979 6th), led the league in wins twice (20 in '74, 21 in '79), made the all star team twice (1975, 1978), led the NL in innings pitched 4 times ('74, '77,'78,'79), led the NL in strikeouts in 1977 with 262, finished 2nd in era in 1974 with 2.38, led the NL in complete games 4 times ('74, '77, '78, and '79), won the NL gold glove for pitchers 3 times ('78, '79, '80) and came in second in the NL in the shutout department twice (6 in '74 and 9 in '72).

In 1982 the Braves won thier first Division championship since 1969 and Phil was the only player to appear on both of those teams. That year at the age of 43 Niekro went 17 and 4 with 144 strikeouts, 73 walks and a 3.61 era. The Braves took on the St.Louis Cardinals in the NLCS and were once again swept 3 games to none in a best of 5 series. In the series Phil pitched 6 innings givine up 2 runs while striking out 5 and walking 4 ending the game with a no decision. Phil was voted to his first All Star team since 1978 and it would be his last in the National League.

In 1983 Phi returned at the age of 44 and finished the year 11 and 10 with a 3.97 era, 128 strikeouts and 105 walks. The Braves decided to not resign Phi and offered him a coaching job. But Niekro wasn't ready to quit pitching being only 32 wins away from 300.

Phil signed with the Yankees in 1984 and went on to win 16 games becoming the oldest player to appear in the All Star game. Niekro won another 16 games for the Yankes in 1985 earning his 300 career victory on the last day of the season by shuting out the Blue Jays and becoming the oldest player to ever hurl a shutout.

In 1986 at the age of 47 Phil pitched for the Indians where he went 11 and 11. He split 1987 between the Indians and Blue Jays combining for a 7 and 13 record. Phil finally decided at the age of 48 to retire but he wanted to pitch one last game for the Braves. On September 27th 1987 Phil Niekro made the last start of his career and he did it as a Brave. Against the Giants that day Phil gave up 5 runs, walked 6 and struck out none. Despite the poor performance the fans went nuts for the man affectionately called "Knucksie".

Since he retirement Phil has been manager of the all girls baseball team the Colorado Silver Bullets, managed the triple A Richmond Braves and was the Braves bullpen coach for one season. And who can forget Phil taking the mound in batting practice for the Braves during the 1992 NLCS so the Braves would be ready for Pirate knuckleballer Tim Wakefield later that night?

On January 6th 1997 Phil was voted to the Baseball Hall of fame and a few years later Phil was inducted into the new Braves hall of fame at Turner Field in Atlanta.

Phil Niekro career Braves pitching stats:
Games: 740
IP: 4,622 (2nd in franchise history)
Wins: 268 (3rd in franchise history)
Strikeouts: 2,912 (1st in franchise history)
Complete games: 226 (5th in franchise history)
Shutouts: 43 (3rd in franchise history)
ERA: 3.20

Phil Niekro career pitching stats:
Games: 864
Wins: 318  (14th all time)
Strikeouts: 3,342 (10th all time)
Complete games: 245
Shutouts: 45
ERA: 3.35

Awards with Braves:
NL Gold Glove for pitchers: 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983
NL All Star: 1969, 1975, 1978, 1982,

Other Awards:
AL All Star 1984

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