ATLANTA -- Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro has died at the age of 81.
Niekro passed away in his sleep on Saturday night. The suburban Atlanta resident had a longtime battle with cancer.
Niekro was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1997. The iconic knuckleballer collected 318 wins over a 24-year career that included stints with the Braves (1964-83 and '87), Yankees ('84-85), Tribe ('86-87) and Blue Jays ('87). He was a five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner who finished within the top six in National League Cy Young Award balloting five times from '69-82.
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“Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. "In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown.
“But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime.”
• Niekro was one of HOF's great ambassadors
Niekro remained in regular contact over the past few months with Braves manager Brian Snitker, who most recently spoke to his longtime friend about three weeks ago. The former pitcher also called Snitker in October to wish him luck as the Braves prepared to play in the NL Championship Series.
“He was one of the nicest and most genuine guys you will ever know,” Snitker said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever find someone who loved life as much as he did. He sucked the life out of every day that he lived. He was really a special, special guy.”
Born on April 1, 1939, in Blaine, Ohio, Niekro learned the knuckleball with the help of his father, who taught both of his sons, Phil and Joe, the pitch between his shifts at the local coal mine. Joe, who was five years younger than Phil, enjoyed a 22-season career as a Major League pitcher from '67-88.
The Niekros hold the record for the most victories by a brother combination with 539. They were the NL’s only 20-game winners in 1979.
• Top 10 moments of Niekro's career
Phil Niekro attended Bridgeport High School with childhood neighbor John Havlicek, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984. Legend has it that the only loss Phil took during his high school career came during his freshman season, when he lost a 1-0 game against Warren Consolidated High School’s Bill Mazeroski. The home run Mazeroski hit in that game was not quite as dramatic as the one that ended the 1960 World Series and helped him reserve his spot in Cooperstown.
Phil Niekro made his big league debut for the Braves on April 15, 1964. He enjoyed a breakout season in '67, when he posted a Major League-low 1.87 ERA over 46 appearances (20 starts). But he didn’t become a full-time starting pitcher until '68, when he was 29 years old.
“Phil Niekro’s record on the field ranks him as one of the game’s finest pitchers,” said Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “As a mentor, leader and friend, Phil brought out the best in all of us in Cooperstown. Over more than a decade of serving as a member of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame, his wisdom, his compassion, and his love for the game proved to be invaluable in helping us shape our decisions.
"On behalf of the Board of Directors and the staff of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I would like to send our heartfelt condolences to Nancy Niekro and the Niekro family.”
Following a 23-13 season in 1969 that firmly established him as one of baseball’s best, the durable Niekro consistently piled up innings and perplexed batters. The fluttering knuckler danced throughout the summers in the Atlanta heat, and by his late 30s Niekro became an absolute workhorse -- averaging 336 innings a season from '77-79 and becoming the last pitcher to post back-to-back seasons of at least 300 innings.
Niekro won 121 games after turning 40, threw a no-hitter against the Padres on Aug. 5, 1973, and won his 300th career game on the final day of the '85 season by throwing just three knucklers -- on his final pitches.
Niekro tallied far more wins (121) and innings (1,977) after turning 40 than any pitcher in baseball history. Jamie Moyer ranks second in both categories with 105 wins and 1551 1/3 innings.
After spending the first 20 seasons of his career with the Braves, Niekro signed a two-year deal with the Yankees.
Former owner Ted Turner's appreciation for Niekro led the Braves to retire Niekro's number 35 during one of the Yankees' off-days in 1984. Three years later, at the age of 48, Niekro rejoined Atlanta to make one last start in the team's home finale. He then fulfilled his wish to retire as a Brave.
“He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization,” the Braves said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”
For his humanitarian service, Niekro was honored with the Lou Gehrig Award, Roberto Clemente Award and Brian Piccolo Award. Following his baseball career, he managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-women's baseball team, in the late 1990s.
Niekro had served on the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Board of Directors since 2009. Donations in his memory can be made to Edmondson Telford Child Advocacy Center, 603 Washington St. SW, Gainesville, Ga., 30501.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.