Phil Niekro Dies: Hall Of Fame Knuckleball Pitcher Was 81

Phil Niekro, the only knuckleball pitcher to win 300 Major League Baseball games, died in his sleep Saturday night after a long battle with cancer, the Atlanta Braves announced. He was 81.

Niekro pitched for 24 seasons, with the first 20 of them as a Brave before moving on to the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Cleveland Indians. He won 318 games, 16th-most all-time, and pitched until he was 48 years old. He was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1997.

He won his 300th game while pitching for the New York Yankees on Oct. 6, 1985, throwing a shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro,” the Braves said in a statement. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends. He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves country and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”

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The knuckleball is an odd duck among baseball pitches. It is difficult to master, and there are days when even the best pitchers of it have no control. But when pitcher and pitch are in synch, they can make batters look comical as they flail at a ball that flutters like a butterfly. Very few pitchers ever gain mastery of it, but those that do tend to have long careers, as the pitch is thrown slowly and without a lot of stress on the arm.

A five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, Niekro learned the knuckleball from his father growing up in Ohio. He threw a no-hitter on Aug. 5, 1973, against the Padres, one of the crowning achievements in his long career.

Many also remember that Niekro was the subject of one of the great ejections in baseball history (watch it below). At age 48, while pitching for the Twins against the Angels on August 3, 1987, when the umpire noticed something dodgy happening on the mound. When the plate umpire walked out to Niekro, the pitcher visible tossed aside a banned emery board. Despite the televised evidence, Niekro denied scuffing up the baseball, which can give it extra movement — especially with a knuckleball. He was summarily ejected from the game and appeared soon after on Late Night with David Letterman to “plead his case.” Sort of.

Joe Niekro, Phil’s younger brother and also a knuckleballer who pitched for 22 seasons, died in 2006 of a brain aneurysm.

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