Knuckleball paved Phil Niekro's path to Hall

December 27th, 2020

For many hitters, using a bat to try to get a hit off was a farce. Taking a fly swatter to the batter's box would have worked just as well.

Niekro, who died Saturday at 81, excelled by using the elusive knuckleball, a pitch that is becoming extinct in the collective Major League repertoire. He won 318 games over 24 years, teaming with Joe Niekro to become the all-time winningest pair of brothers.

Here's a look at Phil Niekro's 10 biggest highlights:

1. How it all began
July 19, 1958

The Milwaukee Braves signed Niekro, fresh out of Bridgeport (Ohio) High School, to a contract that included a $500 bonus. Through the coming decade and a half, he would give the Braves a ridiculously high return on their investment.

2. You're the top
1967

Niekro crept closer to joining the elite group of National League starters including Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. Starting 20 games and relieving in 26, Niekro led the Majors with a 1.87 ERA.

3. Breakthrough campaign
1969

Niekro considered this his finest season, and no wonder. He won a career-high 23 games, ranking second in the league to New York's Tom Seaver (25). Niekro also made his first of five All-Star teams as the Braves proceeded to win the NL West title.

4. Routine durability
1977-80

Maintaining stamina due to his mastery of the knuckleball, which requires relatively little effort to throw, Niekro led the NL in starts every year throughout this period, averaging 42 outings, 320 innings and 18 wins annually.

5. Return to glory
1982

Niekro paced an effort that generated the Braves' first NL West crown since 1969. He led the Majors with an .810 winning percentage, finishing 17-4 in 35 starts. This performance helped Niekro establish a record for most wins after age 40 (121). He was 43 during this season.

6. A heck of a year
1979

Niekro finished 21-20 in a Major League-high 44 starts. He's the last pitcher to win and lose 20 games in the same season. He also shared the NL lead in victories with his brother, Houston's Joe Niekro.

7. Super siblings
1964-88

Phil and Joe Niekro combined for 539 victories, a Major League record for brothers. Gaylord and Jim Perry are second with 529 wins. The Niekros pitched together in 1973-74 with Atlanta and in '85 with the Yankees.

8. Rolling a 300 game
Oct. 6, 1985

Niekro became the Major Leagues' 18th 300-game winner by defeating the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-0, while pitching for the Yankees. At 46 years and 188 days, he also became the oldest Major Leaguer to pitch a shutout. Niekro held the record until Philadelphia's Jamie Moyer (47 years, 170 days) set a new standard in May 2010. Niekro did not throw his signature knuckleball until he struck out the final hitter, Jeff Burroughs.

9. Twinkle, twinkle, knuckling star
July 1969 and '78

Niekro thrived in his pair of All-Star Game appearances. At Washington in 1969, he sandwiched strikeouts of the Yankees' Roy White and the White Sox's Carlos May around a groundout by California's Jim Fregosi in a perfect ninth inning. Niekro recorded a save in the NL's 9-3 win. Nine years later in San Diego, Niekro coaxed a popup from Kansas City's Darrell Porter for the final out in the NL's 7-3 triumph.

10. Hall pass delayed
1993-97

Niekro's reliance on the knuckleball didn't sit well with a significant number of Hall of Fame voters. How else to explain the disappointment he endured in his first four appearances on the ballot for Cooperstown? Needing 75 percent of the vote for induction, Niekro drew 65.7 percent, 59.9, 62.2 and 68.3 before breaking through with 80.3 percent in 1997.