The Yankees family lost Hall of Famer Phil Niekro overnight.
Phil Niekro is better remembered for his career with the Atlanta Braves than for his still-effective twilight in the mid-80s with the Yankees in the Bronx.
But the Hall of Famer is best remembered for carrying on the legacy of one specific, magical pitch, holding Hoyt Wilhelm’s torch and elevating the knuckleball to an identity — after all, he’s forever “Knucksie.”
Niekro died overnight between Saturday and Sunday at the age of 81, marking the seventh Hall of Famer to pass away in this ridiculous, unfathomable year, matching 1972 for the single year with the highest number of deceased honorees.
After MLB Network had run its year-end honorific special. After the send-offs in print for the greats of the game had already been checked, re-checked, and published. It’s simply that kind of year, isn’t it?
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Niekro won 318 games and posted a career 3.35 ERA all on the strength of the flitting and flopping knuckler. For the generation that came after his career ended, the righty’s numbers are mind-boggling.
After all, we’re used to knuckleball specialists like Tim Wakefield, who were no doubt effective pitchers, but had…well…good and bad days. A 4.50 ERA season felt like the norm for an innings-eater like Wake, a trade-off the Red Sox were happy to make for the several games a year in which he was completely untouchable.
Niekro? There were years where he was never off, and seasons where he might as well have been bolted to the mound.
From 1977-1979 (age 38 through 40), Niekro hurled 330.1, 334.1, and 342.0 innings, leading the league each time (imagine not leading the league!). In ’78, he was an All-Star with a 2.88 ERA. 334.1 innings of Clayton Kershaw-like baseball.
Niekro made his final All-Star Game at age 45 with the Yankees in 1984, the team he pitched for from 1984-85. How we yearn for the bygone era in which there was one 45-year-old on the planet a team could viably go to for mid-rotation help, only to see themselves rewarded with 215.2 innings pitched and a 3.09 ERA. That would certainly look nice next to Jordan Montgomery.
It would also look impossible.
Niekro captured his 300th win in Yankees road grays, officially punching the ticket to Cooperstown that would come just over a decade later in 1996.
Every Hall of Famer is singular, informing future generations with their arsenal of skills, but remaining a life force all their own.
Nowhere, perhaps, is the combination of influence and uniqueness more obvious when evaluating the career of Niekro.
We’ll miss every legend we lost this year equally, from Niekro to Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver to Al Kaline, Bob Gibson to Lou Brock, and finally to Yankees icon Whitey Ford. And we hope Knucksie’s passing becomes the impetus for one more child to pick up a baseball and attempt to push it to the plate, soaking its spin into the tips of his fingers.