The biggest day of the knuckleballer’s career came 50 years ago when the coal miner’s son sat at the kitchen table and signed a contract with the Milwaukee Braves.
“I got a $500 bonus and jumped all over that,” Niekro said with a laugh.
He started at Class D Wellsville, N.Y., but was soon released.
“I didn’t want to go back home to work in that coal mine, like my dad did, so I was going to do anything to try and stay in the game, and the best I could do right there was cry my eyes out, until they put me somewhere,” he said.
It worked. Niekro was sent to the Nebraska State League, which had a young right-hander named Jim Bouton pitching for the Kearney Yankees. Niekro went 7-1 for McCook.
It really started to come together for Niekro the next season, at Class-A Jacksonville. He credits manager Red Murff for making the difference. Murff later became a scout for the Mets and signed a young Texan and worked with the pitcher to put him on the road to success. That pitcher was Nolan Ryan. Ryan and Niekro piled up 642 wins, throwing from opposite ends of the pitching spectrum.
Niekro, 70, pitched 24 seasons in the majors, including two years with the Yankees, 1984-85, winning 32 games over that span. His brother Joe was in pinstripes in 1985, a special time for the Niekro family as the Yankees won 97 games that season.
“We just missed the playoffs and we were really geared up to win the pennant the next year,” Phil said.
It didn’t happen. The Yankees released Phil in spring training.
Phil posted 121 of his victories after the age of 40, a major league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Joe and Phil own the record for the most wins for brothers, an amazing 539 victories.
When Joe passed away from a brain aneurysm three years ago, Phil was devastated.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of him,” Phil said.
Three words have helped him carry on.
“Whether we hadn’t seen each other for three days or three months, the first thing we always told each other was ‘I love you,’ and those were always the last three words we said to each other,” said Phil, who is active in the Joe Niekro Foundation, devoted to aneurysm research. “That was really the greatest gift he could leave me, those last three words he spoke to me, ‘I love you.'”
Lance Niekro, Joe’s son, played first base with the Giants over parts of four seasons, but he has changed his career path. Lance, 30, is learning to be a knuckleball pitcher now in the Braves organization. The family tradition continues.
Phil owes his success to the pitch his father taught him in the backyard.
“The secret to a knuckleball is patience,” Niekro said. “You’re living with it, you eat it, you drink it, you sleep with it. It’s the knuckleball 24 hours in your head. You got to make the commitment, and you really don’t care what other people think.
“I was called everything you can think of while I was pitching, throwing a ball 65 miles per hour and getting guys out in the big leagues.”
The father of three boys, Phil has two grandchildren. He stays active and participates in Hall of Fame fantasy camps and can still throw the knuckler. He helps coach his 7-year-old grandson’s baseball team. But he has yet to teach the youngster the family secret, how to throw the knuckleball?
“I just coach first,” Phil said. “I just tell them go and stop.”
And if any youngster has a really bad day, he is there to help wipe away the tears. Phil Niekro knows that every once in a while, there is crying in baseball.