With Phil Niekro’s Death, Baseball Has Lost the Knuckleball and Its Master

Niekro realized the pitch he used via 24 main league seasons from his father, additionally named Phil, a sandlot pitcher in Ohio who turned to it after hurting his arm. It labored so properly for younger Phil in pickup video games with neighborhood children — together with John Havlicek, the future N.B.A. Hall of Famer — that he by no means noticed the necessity for different pitches.

“I didn’t know there have been knuckleball pitchers within the massive leagues,” Niekro stated just a few years in the past. “I didn’t even know what a knuckleball was. It was simply one thing that I had enjoyable with, taking part in catch with my dad.”

Jim Bouton, the author of “Ball Four,” cherished telling the story of assembly Niekro in Kearny, Neb., in 1959, after they had been each 20 years outdated and simply beginning their professional careers. Bouton seen Niekro practising his knuckleball within the outfield earlier than a sport, and the pitch was dancing.

Bouton threw a number of pitches, together with a knuckleball, and requested Niekro what else he threw. Nothing else, Niekro replied, and Bouton felt pity for him. By 1963, Bouton was profitable 21 video games for the Yankees and beginning within the World Sequence, whereas Niekro had nonetheless not surfaced within the majors.

“I remembered him and I assumed, ‘Oh, that poor child, he’s nonetheless within the minor leagues and I don’t know the way he hangs on, as a result of I’m on my method to the Corridor of Fame,’” Bouton stated, just a few years earlier than his demise in 2019. “Nicely, guess what? That poor child, restricted to at least one pitch — he’s within the Corridor of Fame now. It’s a very good reminder for me of the tortoise and the hare.”

Niekro was 27 earlier than he reached the majors for good, in August 1966, however his mastery of that one pitch gave him a staggering type of sturdiness. He had simply 31 victories by his 30th birthday, and 287 thereafter. He logged greater than 1,000 innings from 1977 via 1979, when he averaged 19 wins and 19 losses per season.

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