Thursday, October 7, 2010
#29 - Phil Niekro
Phil Niekro is a Hall of Fame 300-game winner who got there on the strength of his knuckleball, which he and brother Joe learned from their dad, a coal miner who was also a semi-pro pitcher. Phil was signed in '58 by the Braves - only the second guy so far whose career began in the 50's - and would play for them the bulk of his long stay in the bigs. It took Phil a while to get to the majors - he was strictly a reliever while working from D to Triple A ball through '62 and then he lost '63 completely to military duty, a feature of players' careers much less prevalent now than in the '60's. In '64 he finally got rotation work at the higher level and went 11-5 with a 3.45 ERA to earn a late-season look and while his numbers weren't great, outside of a short visit to the minors in '66, Phil was up for good.
Niekro had a nice rookie year, again working from the pen, and earning six saves. A rough start got him back in Triple A mid-spring where he did spot duty and when he returned in August he pulled over a run off his MLB ERA. Then in '67 Phil was doing bang-up pen work - through early June he was 1-2 but with seven saves and a 1.74 ERA - so Atlanta got wise, put him in the rotation, and in his first start Phil threw a shutout. He would go on to win the ERA title that year and from then on would be - mostly - a starter. After a good '68 he would enjoy probably his best season in '69 and his 23 wins were a big reason Atlanta got to the playoffs that year. He then pitched OK in the post-season but the Mets pitchers were tough that year. Phil would go on to reach double figures in wins every year in Atlanta he started with the exception of '81, which was a strike year. '70 was a little tough due to an injury but '71 and '72 were very good and in '74 Phil won 20 as his wins, innings, and complete game (18) totals led the NL. In '75 and '76 as Atlanta got truly bad, Phil rose above with a combined 32-26 record with a 3.24 ERA. Then from '77 to '80 he led the league both in starts and in losses, but in two of those years he had winning records and in all of them had ERA's considerably better than league averages. During that time Phil was a big innings hog and from '77 to '79 he led the NL in innings, complete games, and batters faced. In '77 he even led the NL in strikeouts. A 7-7 season in '81 was followed by another playoff season in '82 in which he Phil went 17-4 and had the best winning percentage in the league. After a discounted season in '83 Atlanta cut Phil at age 43. But he wasn't done yet.
Niekro promptly signed with the Yankees for whom he had a very nice '84, going 16-8 with a 3.09 ERA. He won 32 games in two seasons, including his 300th career win at the end of '85. He then went to Cleveland, Toronto, and back to Atlanta his final two seasons and retired following the '87 one. When he was done at age 48 Phil had under his belt a record of 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA, 245 complete games, 45 shutouts, and 29 saves. He was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner five times each and in the post-season went 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA in his two games. A good fielder, he is fourth all-time in pitcher putouts and 38th in assists.
After playing Niekro relaxed a bit, returning to baseball in '91 to coach in the Atlanta system. In '94 he began co-managing the Colorado Silver Bullets professional women's team with his brother Joe. That lasted through '97, when the team folded. That was also the year Phil was elected to the Hall. Since then he has been retired in Georgia.
There's Phil's no-no in the second star bullet. Four of the five 1973 no-hitters have already appeared in this set (Jim Bibby threw one and Nolan Ryan two). I like the cross-sports reference in the cartoon. Hondo was probably a hell of a football player. I also notice that Phil signed his name with a left-handed signature.
Sanguillen to Niekro should be easy enough given their long NL careers:
1. Niekro and Bruce Dal Canton '76 Braves;
2. Dal Canton and Manny Sanguillen '67 to '70 Pirates.