Catching knuckleball specialist Phil Niekro was an adventure.
“Knucksie” carved out a 24-year career baffling hitters with his fluttering tosses. Sometimes he was virtually unhittable. Other times, it went where no one was expecting.
Phil Niekro, aka “Knucksie”, was an absolute legend on the mound. pic.twitter.com/bIfij29zzk
— MLB (@MLB) December 27, 2020
It was easy on his arm, though, and Niekro was still tossing it in the big leagues well into his 40s.
“(My father) taught (the knuckleball) to me in the backyard,” he once recalled. “I didn’t know what it was or anything, he showed me how to hold it and we’d just play knuckleball in the backyard.”
The 300-game winner died late Saturday night of cancer at age 81. He’s the seventh member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to pass away in 2020.
“Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the news today of the passing of Phil Niekro,” stated fellow Braves legend Dale Murphy. “Knucksie was one of a kind. Friend, teammate, father and husband.”
Here are seven career-chronicling cards of a player who began his career the year Duke Snider ended his and was still playing when Bo Jackson entered the big leagues.
1964 Topps #541
Niekro actually appeared on two “Rookie Stars” cards in back-to-back seasons but this was his first appearance, a card he shared with Braves catcher Phil Roof. It’s the top rookie card in the set and Niekro’s most expensive regular issue.
He was already 25 years old and made just ten appearances that year for the Milwaukee Braves.
Here’s what Phil Niekro’s 1964 @Topps rookie card might have looked like if he had gotten his own card that year. #photoshop #notarealcard #RIPPhilNiekro #philniekro @SABRbbcards pic.twitter.com/XFx6W9jNAH
— Michael P Ellingson (@ellingson_p) December 27, 2020
1967 Topps #456
Phil didn’t become a full-time starter until age 28 in ’67 and wound up leading the National League in ERA (1.87). He would pitch for 20 more seasons.
1969 Topps #355
Niekro made his first All-Star team in 1969 and it marked the first of his three 20-win seasons. In 24 years, he only made two post-season appearances, the first coming in the 1969 NLCS against the Mets. He would fare better in ’82, turning in a better performance in a lone appearance against the Cardinals.
1973 Topps #503
While the Braves were usually a middle of the road squad for much of the 70s, there were some great moments. Hank Aaron’s 715th homer was one–Phil’s no-hitter in ’73 was another. His gem against the Padres was the first for the Braves since moving from Milwaukee prior to the 1966 season.
1979 Topps #595
’79 marked his third straight year of pitching over 300 innings and the 342 he piled up at age 40 were the most of his career. He started 44 games, finishing 23 of them and won the second of three consecutive Gold Glove awards.
While he won 21 games, he also lost 20, the last man to both win and lose 20 in the same season. Phil and his brother Joe were the NL’s co-leaders in wins.
That season, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Bucs’ slugger Willie Stargell once likened Phil’s knuckler to “a butterfly with hiccups.”
1986 Fleer #630
Fleer honored baseball’s latest 300 game winners with this card–Niekro and Tom Seaver of the White Sox, both a couple of long-time National Leaguers who had moved to the AL late in their careers. Phil’s 300th had come the year before. It was in that ’85 season in which he became the oldest pitcher ever to throw a shutout at 46 years, 188 days. That record was later broken by Jamie Moyer.
1988 Topps #5
Niekro retired at age 46 in 1987 but appeared in the ’88 Topps set on a card that honored Phil and his brother Joe who had established the major league record for wins by brothers at 539 (318 by Phil and 221 by Joe).
You can check out Phil Niekro cards from throughout his 24-year career on eBay by clicking here.