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Elephant Rumblings: Phil Niekro, Hall of Fame pitcher, dies at 81

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Knucksie
Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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.

Remembering Niekro

Those 121 wins after age 40 are still a record — not even Jamie Moyer could break it

Fellow knuckleballer remembers him fondly

A role model for all

Presence felt throughout the Braves organization

This sentiment appears to be shared by lots of former players

An Oakland favorite chimes in

Braves team press release

Rest in peace, Knucksie

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