Good morning, Athletics Nation!
The baseball world lost yet another all-time great last weekend. Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro died Saturday at the age of 81.
The longtime Braves star passed away in his sleep after a long battle with cancer, per MLB’s Mark Bowman.
Niekro debuted in the majors in 1964, and continued twirling his knuckleball until 1987 at age 48. His first two seasons came for the Milwaukee Braves, and then the team moved to Atlanta and he spent the next 18 years there. After brief stints with the Yankees, Indians, and Blue Jays, he returned to his original club and retired in a Braves uniform.
Along the way, the right-hander threw over 5,400 innings, the fourth-most in history. He compiled a 3.35 ERA (115 ERA+), 318 wins, and 3,342 strikeouts, all of which added up to a gaudy 97 bWAR and 78.1 fWAR. Postseason glory eluded him, as he only played in October twice and never reached the World Series, and he never won a Cy Young (one 2nd-place and one 3rd), but he was consistently excellent for over a decade and was at least effective for two decades. He also won five Gold Gloves for his defense.
Beyond the distinction of being the best knuckleballer in history, Niekro holds a couple of odd MLB records. He has the most wins for any pitcher after turning 40 years old, and he and his brother Joe combined for 539 victories, the most for any pair of siblings. He’s also the last pitcher to win 20 games and lose 20 games in the same season. Click here for more odd Niekro stats.
Niekro was elected into the HOF on his fifth ballot, and served on the Hall’s Board of Directors for a decade. He’s remembered fondly by those who know him and worked with him, both on and off the field, as you can see in the sampling of memorials below.
Since the beginning of September, Niekro is the sixth HOFer to pass away, after Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, and Joe Morgan.
Those 121 wins after age 40 are still a record — not even Jamie Moyer could break it
Sad to hear about the passing of Phil Niekro today, at age 81. Always very kind to me and gracious during interviews, even showing that devastating knuckleball grip with a smile. An astounding 121 Wins after age 40!!! #Knucksie pic.twitter.com/UGQO2dqpQu— Paul Byrd (@PaulByrd36) December 27, 2020
Fellow knuckleballer remembers him fondly
So sad today. Phil Neikro helped me in a profound way to change the course of my career and life. I was perpetually moved by his kindness, wisdom, and sense of humor. What a man! He will be missed. Thank you Phil!— R.A. Dickey (@RADickey43) December 27, 2020
A role model for all
RIP Phil Niekro. To a great man both on and off the field. You were a great example for what athletes should aspire to be. Phil had a huge heart to bring joy to others. He cared so much for kids and had a fantastic foundation. Continue to bring the joy in heaven my friend. pic.twitter.com/qq2eB7rsvA— Brian Jordan (@TwoSportman) December 27, 2020
Presence felt throughout the Braves organization
We are saddened to hear of Braves legend Phil Niekro's passing. A key figure in Gwinnett baseball, Phil lent his name to Niekro’s at Coolray Field, threw out memorable first pitches, & took part in the Stripers unveil. Knucksie was a big presence in our team’s history & community pic.twitter.com/nE2WEfz1ew— Gwinnett Stripers (@GoStripers) December 27, 2020
This sentiment appears to be shared by lots of former players
Wow. He was more of a hall of famer as a person. I feel like you truly get to admire someone once you know how they care about others. May you Rest in peace Knucksie— Ender Inciarte (@enderinciartem) December 27, 2020
An Oakland favorite chimes in
So sad to hear about the passing of knucksie. One of the most unassuming hall of famers of all time. He also told the best stories of all time. Rest In Peace my friend.— Jeff Francoeur (@JeffFrancoeur) December 27, 2020
Braves team press release
Rest in peace, Knucksie
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Darvish deal to Padres appears close. Talks revolve around a 4 (or so)-for-2 deal w/Darvish’s personal catcher Caratini likely joining him for 2 going to SD. Cubs trying for some MLB experience in return, including needed pitching. @sdutKevinAcee @sahadevsharma @dennistlin on it— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 28, 2020
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