Here we have an air-brushed card of Joe Niekro in a probably air-brushed place. Joe is in his Tigers uniform which indicates the photo is at least from as far back as ’72. The top of his cap looks like it’s dissipating into the ether which may be how Joe felt his career was going in ’73. He was 28 and had been in pro ball since ’66 but after a promising start to things mediocrity set in and after some not great seasons in Detroit he was shipped off to Triple A to begin the ’73 season where he went 7-10 with a 3.71 ERA in the rotation but by late July was placed on waivers. He was then taken by Atlanta who gave him a few innings for its miserable stretch run during which he got three saves but not terribly much else. He did, however, re-unite with brother Phil who pushed Joe to get back on the bus of a pitch their dad had taught them when they were kids. He honed his knuckleball while in Atlanta though the Braves would not be the beneficiaries of one of the more dramatic turnarounds career-wise in history. Those would go to another team and Joe, seemingly washed up at 28, would go on to pitch meaningful ball well into his Forties. So from this seemingly innocuous undated and edited photo very good, if not great, things were about to issue.
Joe and Phil Niekro grew up in Ohio where their dad went to work in the mines and where they played lots of baseball while kids. Their dad, who was a pretty good semi-pro player, taught them to throw the knuckleball when they were relatively young. Phil would ride it to pretty consistent success during his career but Joe eschewed it for a pretty good heater and a nice slider. He also played hoops and was all-district in both sports. Upon graduating in ’62 Joe went on to West Liberty State College where he continued to play both sports and was captain of each his senior year. In ’64 he led his school to the NAIA CWS championship and he was all-conference in both his junior and senior year. In January of his senior year he was taken by Cleveland in the draft but opted to return for his senior season. The Cubs then selected him in the third round of the June ’66 draft and he signed and spent the rest of the summer posting a 6-6 record and 2.08 ERA split between Rookie, Single A, and Double A ball. For a long time that was it for Joe in the minor leagues.
Niekro’s fine summer in ’66 took him to Chicago to start the ’67 season where he eventually worked his way into the rotation and had a quite good rookie year. At the plate he knocked in eleven runs in only 46 at bats. His follow-up season wasn’t crazy bad as he added four wins to his ’67 mark, but his ERA popped big in a year that just about everyone else’s went down hard and his control got a little dicey. It was widely viewed as a disappointing season even though he had the second-best mark of staff starters and early in ’69 he was traded to San Diego with pitcher Gary Ross for Dick Selma. Joe pulled his ERA back down to league average but it didn’t help him too much as his record tumbled and after that year he was sent to Detroit for infielder Dave Campbell and other hard luck pitcher Pat Dobson. Joe spent all of ’70 in the rotation where his record improved substantially but his other numbers didn’t. In ’71 he became a swing guy, more by necessity than design as his walks topped his strikeouts and his ERA topped out in a bad way. In ’72 he was used much less in the same role and also pitched a couple games at Triple A where he performed pretty brilliantly. Nevertheless, by ’73 Detroit was done and by the end of the next year he was back in the NL.
For Atlanta Niekro again did the back and forth between the big club and the minors, but now it was to refine his rediscovered pitch. The results in Triple A were impressive as he went 8-1 with a 2.08 ERA and seven saves as strictly a reliever. While they weren’t as impressive up top, they were still an improvement over his past couple seasons as he went 3-2 with a 3.56 ERA and much better control. Late in ’75 spring training Joe was purchased by the Astros for $35,000 and put back in the pen where he went 6-4 with a 3.07 ERA and four saves. In ’76 he moved back to a swing role where his ERA at 3.36 was pretty good, but his 4-8 record wasn’t so hot. Things changed markedly in ’77 when in mid-season Joe moved from his swing role to the rotation and finished 13-8 with a 3.04 ERA. After a .500 season in ’78 he took off in ’79 when he went 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA and an NL-leading five shutouts to help lead Houston to its first meaningful pennant run. He got his only All-Star nod that year and finished second to Bruce Sutter in Cy Young voting. In ’80 Joe went 20-12, won the division clincher against LA, and then pitched ten innings of shutout ball against the Phillies, though Houston lost that series. In the ’81 strike year he recorded his lowest ERA of 2.82 and then did it again in the playoffs with eight shutout innings against LA. He came back to win 17, 15, and 16 games the next three seasons, twice leading the league in starts – and twice in wild pitches – and during that time posted ERA’s significantly better than league average. In ’85 he slid to his first losing record in a bunch of years and that September was traded to the Yankees for Jim Deshaies and a couple minor leaguers. By the time he left Houston Joe had won 144 games, pretty good for $35K.
Niekro’s ERA popped a bunch back in the AL, in part due to a bad shoulder. After going a combined 14-15 with a 4.58 ERA in a spot role for NY through mid-’87 he was traded to Minnesota for Mark Salas. It was an opportune move for Joe and while he didn’t pitch particularly well down the stretch – he went 4-9 with a 6.26 ERA – he did get into his first Series where he – guess what – pitched shutout ball. He got a ring but when he returned in ’88 his shoulder was toast and after a couple games into that season he was done. Joe finished with a record of 221-204 with a 3.59 ERA, 107 complete games, 29 shutouts, and 16 saves. He recorded 72 RBI’s during his career and in the post-season was about as perfect as you can get with 20 shutout innings, but with no decisions.
Before ’88 was over Niekro took on a pitching coach role in the Minnesota system. He remained there through ’91 when he moved to the Colorado one, where he stayed through ’93. In ’94 he joined up with brother Phil to coach the Silver Bullets, a women’s professional baseball team sponsored by Coors. That lasted through ’97 after which the team folded. He also continued to coach, mostly one-off deals in which he was brought in to help work on other knuckleball pitchers. He also took time to help develop son Lance who played ball the last decade including a few years up to with the Giants. In 2007 Joe was out shopping for a tuxedo for his daughter’s wedding when he felt a searing pain in his head. It turned out to be a brain aneurysm and two days later it would be a fatal occurrence. Joe was 61 when he passed away. Since then his daughter Natalie has run a site that enlists help to combat what killed her dad. It is linked to here and for those with a longer attention span there is an interview with her here.
I like that first star bullet but I do think the Perfect designation makes the No-Hit (all oddly capitalized) designation unnecessary. Joe hit only one homer during his career and it was off Phil. Plus when he got his 21 wins in ’79 he co-led the league; Phil was the other leader.
These guys both played a bit with NY, but let’s go elsewhere:
1. Niekro and Bill Hands ’67 to ’69 Cubs;
2. Hands and Eric Soderholm ’73 to ’74 Twins.