Sometime in the next couple of weeks, Roy Oswalt may tie and surpass Joe Niekro as the all time leader in pitching wins for the Houston Astros before he then moves on via a trade to a contending club. That trade may not happen, but it seems likely and right for all concerned at this point in time that it will.
Whether the Oswalt trade happens or not, whether Roy breaks Joe’s Houston record before he goes or just stays, it’s high time we put the contributions of the late Joe Niekro in perspective and see that the time to retire his Astros uniform #36 is not maybe. Not ten years from now. Not five years down the road. But now. Right Now. 2010 Now. Before this season of so much good time to tend the garden of honoring our ball club’s past slips quietly into history. Now is the time to get it done.
Most of you know the bare bones that support the body of work that qualifies Joe Niekro for the number retirement honor, but let’s cover them briefly for those who don’t know:
(1) 144 Franchise Wins. In his eleven seasons as a Houston Astro (1975-85), Joe Niekro compiled more wins than any other pitcher in Houston MLB franchise history. Now Roy Oswalt stands right behind Joe with 143 wins, If Oswalt ties or breaks the record, he won’t be breaking a record that’s only stood for six months to two years. Joe Niekro has held the wins record for a quarter century – ever since he passed Larry Dierker for the honor in 1985 on his way via a deal that would send him to the New York Yankees that same season.
(2) First Back-to-Back Twenty Win Seasons. Joe Niekro rolled in 1979-80. The crafty right handed knuckleballer, who mixed his signature pitch with an excellent fastball and tough change, became the first pitcher in franchise history to win twenty or more games in consecutive seasons. His 21 wins and 5 shutouts in 1979 both led the National League. His performance got him on the 1979 All Star team and his production won him the The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year for 1979 Award. He also finished second to Bruce Sutter in the Cy Young Award voting.
(3) Joe Pitched Houston to It’s First Division Crown in 1980. After the Astros dropped their last three games of the 1980 season and fell into a tie with the Dodgers for the division lead in the NL West, Joe Niekro got the call from Manager Bill Virdon to pitch a one-game playoff in LA that would decide the division crown and send the winner on to the playoffs. Niekro gave up six hits in pitching the Astros to a 7-1 win and their first playoff appearance. Joe then defeated the Phillies, 1-0, in Game Three of the NLCS that the Astros ultimately lost in five outings.
(4) Induction into Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, 2005. Joe Niekro was inducted into the the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005, just a little more than a year prior to his sudden death from a brain aneurysm at his home in Florida. This is also around the time I got to know Joe a little personally due to my work at the time as Board President of the TBHOF. He was a fine fellow, as is his brother, Cooperstown Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. – For their careers, the Niekros are the winningest brother pitchers in MLB history. Both men excelled due to the knuckle ball pitch they learned from their father. Phil Niekro knuckled 318 career wins; Joe registered 221. Their total tab of 539 victories is likely to stand forever.
(5) Joe Niekro’s Place Among the Pitching Greats of Baseball History. Here’s where we get into the less obvious reason why the Astros should honor Joe Niekro by retiring his number 36. Get this. – When you really look at the pitching record of Joe Niekro, you are looking at a guy who easily could’ve also gotten the nod for the Hall of fame at Cooperstown and joined with his deserving brother Phil. Joe Niekro’s 221 career wins for his entire MLB career (1967-88) are greater in number than the totals for fifteen predominately starting pitchers who did get the nod for induction into the HOF at Cooperstown.
Again, Joe Niekro won 221 major league games – more than the following fifteen Hall of Fame starters: Chief Bender (212), Jack Chesbro (198), Stan Covaleski (215), Dizzy Dean (150), Don Drysdale (209), Lefty Gomez (189), Jesse Haines (210), Addie Joss (160), Sandy Koufax (165) Bob Lemon (207), Rube Marquard (201), Hal Newhouser (207), Dazzy Vance (197), Rube Waddell 193), and Ed Walsh (195).
If Joe Niekro were alive today, he would be the first in line to shake the hand of Roy Oswalt for becoming the career leader in pitching wins for the Astros, if that is to be. Joe Niekro was all class. And he was an even greater pitcher than his lifetime acknowledgements reveal.
It would be both fitting and an act of class for the Astros organization to retire # 36 before this season ends. Joe Niekro is not going to be any more deserving if we wait any longer. He’s deserving now – and he has been justly deserving for a very long while. It’s time to recognize him with the kind of honor that would really be noticed at this point in history. It would be a shame to go into the upcoming 2012 50th anniversary of the franchise celebration with #36 not already hanging from the rafters at Minute Maid Park – and waiting until 2012 is an embarrassing thought in itself.
Please, Astros. Do it now. Retire #36 before this 2010 season ends. A lot of devoted Joe Niekro fans would show up for that one. There’s no question in my mind.
While we are building for the future. Let’s stop long enough to honor someone appropriately who was a major part of our first winning taste of victory. His name was Joe Niekro. His number was 36.