Baseball Hall of Famer, knuckleballer Phil Niekro dies at 81

Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big-league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with Atlanta , has died after a long fight with cancer, the team announced Sunday. He was 81.

Atlanta said Niekro died Saturday night in his sleep. He lived in the Atlanta suburb of Flowery Branch, where a main thoroughfare bears his name.

Niekro won 318 games over his 24-year career, which ended in 1987 at age 48 after he made one final start with Atlanta.

Known for a pitch that befuddled hitters and catchers — heck, Niekro didn’t even know where it was going — he was a five-time All-Star who had three 20-win seasons with Atlanta.

Niekro also pitched for the New York Yankees, Cleveland and the Toronto Blue Jays late in his career.

Phil Niekro, left, talks to fellow knuckleballer and also one-time Toronto Blue Jay R.A. Dickey, seen here playing for the New York Mets in 2012. (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend,” Atlanta said in a statement. “Knucksie was woven into [the team’s] 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.”

A statue of Niekro delivering his trademark pitch is located outside of Truist Park, Atlanta’s stadium.

Niekro didn’t make it to the big leagues until 1964, when he pitched 10 games in relief for the then-Milwaukee. He made only one start over his first three years in the big leagues but finally blossomed as a starter in 1967 — the team’s second year in Atlanta — when he went 11-9 and led the National League with a 1.87 ERA.

With a fluttering knuckleball that required catchers to wear an oversized mitt, Niekro went 23-13 as Atlanta won the first NL West title in 1969.

He also had 20-win seasons in 1974 and 1979, despite pitching for a team that fell on hard times after its appearance in the inaugural NL Championship Series, where Atlanta were swept in three games by New York’s Amazin’ Mets.

Niekro also led the league in losses four straight seasons, losing 20 games in both 1977 and ’79.

He finished with a career record of 318-274 an a 3.35 ERA. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

His younger brother, Joe, also had a long baseball career with an arsenal that included the knuckleball. He won 221 games over 22 years in the big leagues, making the Niekros baseball’s winningest set of siblings, with a total of 539 victories, just ahead of Gaylord and Jim Perry.

Joe Niekro died in 2006 at age 61.

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