Celebrating the great Phil Niekro

Bill Shanks

Happy Birthday to the great Philip Henry Niekro, who turned 81 years old Wednesday.

Before there was Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, there was Phil Niekro. For many of us, he defined Braves pitching for years, when the Braves had ole number 35 and that’s about it.

He’s a Hall of Famer, winning 318 games in his 24-year big league career. And no one loved wearing the Braves uniform more than Niekro.

The most unbelievable part of his resume is he had only six wins and one big league start by the time he was 28 years old. It was that third year in the big leagues, and the second season the Braves were in Atlanta, that Niekro took off.

In 1967, Niekro made 20 starts and led the National League with a 1.87 earned run average. His first All-Star season was 1969, when he went 23-13 and helped lead the Braves to the National League West championship.

Knucksie then became Atlanta’s top starter, and in the 1970s he went 164-151 on some very bad teams. He averaged 38 starts in that 10-year span, as the knuckleball found its life. By the time he reached 40 in 1979, Niekro had led the National League in games started and innings pitched for three straight years.

Niekro also led the NL in losses in each of those three seasons, losing 58 games.

That was the Braves of the 1970s, not Niekro.

After an 11-10 season in 1983, the Braves allowed Niekro to leave as a free agent. He didn’t want to go, but the Braves wanted to make room for Ken Dayley and Steve Bedrosian in the rotation.

Niekro signed with the Yankees and had two straight 16-win seasons for the Yankees, winning his 300 game in the last game of the 1985 season. He then went to the Indians in 1986 and pitched three games with the Blue Jays in 1987 after being released by Cleveland.

But Niekro wanted to throw his last pitch in a Braves uniform, so general manager Bobby Cox signed him for a one-game farewell. It happened on a Sunday in September against the Giants in 1987. Niekro, who was 48, didn’t pitch that well, but he finished his career in Atlanta.

A decade later, Niekro would enter the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Again, no one loved wearing the Atlanta uniform more than Knucksie, and for that and his tremendous years of leading the pitching staffs, we should all honor him on his special day.

Listen to The Bill Shanks Show weekdays at 3:00 p.m. ET on Middle Georgia’s ESPN. You can listen online at TheSuperStations.com. Follow Bill on Twitter at @billshanks and you can email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.