Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Atlanta Braves, has died after a long fight with cancer, the team announced Sunday. He was 81.
The Braves said Niekro died Saturday night in his sleep. He lived in Flowery Branch, where a main thoroughfare bears his name.
The Phil Niekro Golf Classic, which began in 1996, supports the Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center. The center is responsible for forensic medical exams and interviews of child victims and works with law enforcement and the judicial system in abuse cases. Phil Niekro Field at Alberta Banks Park, designed for athletes with disabilities, opened in 2008.
Heather Hayes, executive director of the Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center, said Niekro had a “real heart for children.”
“He was actively involved with the work that we did,” Hayes said. “He never hesitated to ask how our caseload was going, what was going on in the realm of child abuse in our community, what else could he do.”
Hayes said he has left a lasting impact on the center through his involvement.
“His personality was very fun — fun-loving, always joking, always pranking, always had a funny thing to say or a funny story,” she said. “It was just a joy. … His whole family is a joy to know and to work with. I really can’t even describe his footprint that he’ll leave on the center, the memories he’ll impart on everyone who knew him.”
Flowery Branch Mayor Mike Miller said he looked up to Niekro as a child, then enjoyed getting to know him later in life.
“I always tried to throw the knuckleball in the backyard when me and my brother were throwing the baseball as a kid, and so it was kind of surreal to grow up and actually get to know him and call him a friend,” Miller said.
Miller said when he visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in summer 2019, Niekro called him, while he was looking at Niekro’s plaque.
“That’s one of the coolest moments of my life,” he said.
Niekro made everyone feel welcome, Miller said.
“He made you feel special. It didn’t matter who you were. You felt like you had known him all your life,” Miller said. “He wanted everybody to always have a good time. He was always the dominant personality in the room, and if you were around Phil and you didn’t laugh, you didn’t have a heartbeat.”
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Miller said Niekro was always willing to help with community charity events, including contributing autographed memorabilia for the city’s Shop with a Cop program, which pairs law enforcement with local families to help with holiday gifts.
“Anytime anyone with the city of Flowery Branch ever asked him to help with something, it was always, ‘What more can I do?’” Miller said.
“Not just Flowery Branch, the greater Atlanta community and the baseball community, have lost a legend.”
Niekro won 318 games over his 24-year career, which ended in 1987 at age 48 after he made one final start with the Braves.
Known for a pitch that befuddled hitters and catchers — heck, Niekro didn't even know where it was going — he was a five-time All-Star who had three 20-win seasons with Atlanta.
Niekro also pitched for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays late in his career.
“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend,” the Braves said in a statement. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.”
A statue of Niekro delivering his trademark pitch is located outside of Truist Park, the Braves' stadium.
Niekro didn't make it to the big leagues until 1964, when he pitched 10 games in relief for the then-Milwaukee Braves. He made only one start over his first three years in the big leagues but finally blossomed as a starter in 1967 — the Braves' second year in Atlanta — when he went 11-9 and led the National League with a 1.87 ERA.
With a fluttering knuckleball that required catchers to wear an oversized mitt, Niekro went 23-13 as the Braves won the first NL West title in 1969.
He also had 20-win seasons in 1974 and 1979, despite pitching for a team that fell on hard times after its appearance in the inaugural NL Championship Series, where the Braves were swept in three games by New York's Amazin' Mets.
Niekro also led the league in losses four straight seasons, losing 20 games in both 1977 and '79.
He finished with a career record of 318-274 and a 3.35 ERA. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
His younger brother, Joe, also had a long baseball career with an arsenal that included the knuckleball. He won 221 games over 22 years in the big leagues, making the Niekros baseball's winningest set of siblings, with a total of 539 victories, just ahead of Gaylord and Jim Perry.
Joe Niekro died in 2006 at age 61.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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