Bob Uecker, who caught Niekro in 1967, when he was first emerging as a leading pitcher, drew on the wry persona he would put to use later as a baseball broadcaster when he told Sports Illustrated in 1969 what that was like.
“In those days, Phil had less control,” Uecker said. “Sometimes I’d know before he let go of it that it was going to get by me. I’d just start running and play it off the wall. At least I got to know a lot of the folks in the box seats.”
“Nobody has ever given me a good, definite explanation as to why the ball does what it does,” Niekro told Sports Illustrated in 1994. “The thing that I feel sort of guilty about is that with every other pitch, you try to make the ball do something, spin it to make it curve or sink or sail. All I try to do is make the ball do nothing.”
Philip Henry Niekro was born on April 1, 1939, in Blaine, Ohio, a few miles from his family’s home in Lansing. He was the middle of three children of Joseph Niekro, a coal miner, and his wife, the former Henrietta Klinkoski.
The senior Niekro, who threw a knuckleball pitching in sandlot baseball, taught the pitch to Phil when he was 11 years old or so. (Joe, five years his junior, was too young to try it back then.) Phil threw his knuckleball and played basketball in high school and was signed by the Milwaukee Braves organization out of a tryout camp in July 1958 for a $500 bonus.
He made his major league debut with the Braves in 1964 and pitched almost exclusively in relief until 1967, the franchise’s second season in Atlanta, when he made 20 starts and led the N.L. in earned run average, at 1.87, while going 11-9.
Niekro was a four-time All-Star with the Braves, who released him after the 1983 season. He won 16 games for the Yankees in both 1984, when he was an All-Star once more, and in 1985, then was released by them as well.