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Making a Meal Out Of a Knuckle Sandwich

Author Allison Weiss Entrekin

Raised in the Ohio Valley, Phil Niekro threw a knee-buckling knuckleball.

THE KNUCKLEBALL IS NOT A PITCH. It’s a bit of voodoo, a murky blend of aerodynamics, intimidation and the sort of mysticism that only baseball players—the most superstitious of all pro athletes—are capable of espousing.

The ball leaves the pitcher’s fingertips spinlessly before swooping and swerving toward the plate as though following the path of a butterfly. Its flight path has humbled scores of talented pitchers and catchers, and left many a batter standing knock-kneed.

From Hoyt Wilhelm to Tim Wakefield, many pitchers have tossed the knuckler successfully, but only one has made it look easy. Call him the high priest of the dark art of the knuckleball: Phil Niekro, or “Knucksie,” conjured the pitch so well that he enjoyed a 24-year major league career in a sport that discards the average player in under a decade.

“I’m very grateful for the knuckleball,” allows Niekro, 69, sitting in his modest kitchen in Atlanta, Ga. “To this day, I haven’t figured out exactly how it works, but it’s what got me into the Big Leagues.”

Niekro learned the mysterious pitch from his father, Phil Niekro Sr., a coal miner who pitched for the Coal Miners League in their hometown of Blaine, Ohio. Throughout high school, the knuckleball was Phil’s secret weapon. He was nearly unhittable.

“I had a good high school pitching record, but no limos were pulling up and no scouts were knocking on my door,” Niekro says. “I figured I’d just play in the Coal Miners League and that would be that.”

After graduating from high school in 1957, Niekro joined his father in the mines and floated his knuckleball in the mine-workers league until he heard about a Milwaukee Braves tryout.

A scout saw him play and joined the Niekros for supper. During dessert, he offered Phil his first contract: $275 a month, plus a $500 signing bonus. “That’s as much as my dad made in a month,” he says. “He winked at me and I asked where to sign.”

Carrying a pair of spikes and a glove donated by the Blaine sporting-goods shop, Niekro took a train to Waycross, Ga., for spring training. It didn’t take him long to realize his first season of professional baseball might be his last. “In the Ohio Valley I was okay,” he says. “but now I’m with all these big league prospects with huge signing bonuses—and here’s me with my $500. I knew I was the little guy.”

The Phil Niekro File Nickname: Knucksie Lifetime record: 318-274, including 121 victories after turning 40 Career strikeouts: 3,342 Earned Run Average: 3.35 Highlights: Five-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove Award winner; set record with brother Joe for wins by brothers in the major leagues (539); inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As he tried to keep up, Niekro lost touch with his signature pitch. When his D-League team manager pulled him aside and told him he was releasing him, Niekro burst into tears. The manager took pity on him. “Just to get me to stop bawling, he called in a favor and sent me to another D-League team,” Niekro says.

It was a harrowing moment for the young flutterballer, a look down the barrel of a grim future working the mines. So when he joined the new team, he played like a man possessed, and rocketed to the A-Leagues.

In 1964, the Braves called Neikro up to the majors to pitch in relief. During his first appearance on the mound, he faced one batter and got him out. “I was relieved,” Niekro says. “It meant I was going to stay with the team for one more day.”

One day turned into a career. In 1967, Niekro started his first game for the newly relocated and renamed Atlanta Braves. His peculiar gift caught the fans’ attention, and he was soon among the most popular players in the league. He pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1973 and played in five All-Star games.

In 1983, Niekro was released by the Atlanta Braves. He was 44, well past the sport’s average retirement age, but he quickly signed with the New York Yankees. At 46, he tossed his 300th win—it was a complete-game shutout, and he didn’t float the knuckler until the final batter. Two years later, he finally retired. He was 48.

“At that point, I knew it was probably past the time I should be in the big leagues, so I packed it in,” Niekro says.

Over his career, Niekro pitched 318 victories (121 after he turned
40), making him the winningest knuckleballer of all time. He and his brother Joe, who pitched a knuckler for the Houston Astros, combined for 539 wins, making them the most successful brothers in baseball.

Today, the knuckleball is still something of a family tradition. Phil coached his nephew, Lance, who will join the Braves this year as a knuckleball pitcher. “I think Lance could be a diamond in the rough,” Niekro says proudly. “The knuckleball is tough to master, but I just tell him what I’ve told myself all my life: You have to take it pitch by pitch.”

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