Ten points on Joe Niekro
1. The Niekro Brothers- Joe and his Hall of Fame brother Phil grew up 5 miles or so down the road from where I live. What high school athletic teams Bridgeport High School in Ohio must have had back then- first you had brother Phil and his friend the future basketball legend John “Hondo” Havlicek on the same teams when they leave along comes Joe. Not far away- a few years older than Phil and Havlicek was Bill Mazeroski. Was it something in the drinking water back then? The area has seen noting like that since.
2. Joe Niekro and his brother Phil hold the record for pitching wins by brothers. Phil who is in the Hall of Fame had 318 career wins- Joe although he always was in the shadow of his brother was a pretty good pitcher winning 221 for a total of 539 victories by the brothers.
3. Joe Niekro was 6’1″ 185. He threw and hit right handed. His career totals- 221 wins 204 losses with a 3.59 ERA. He pitched in 702 games in his career starting 500 of those. He pitched for seven different teams in his 22 season playing career starting at age 22 in 1967 with the Chicago Cubs and ending in 1988 at age 43 with the Minnesota Twins. Niekro pitched for the Cubs 1967-69, San Diego Padres 1969, Detroit Tigers 1970-72, Atlanta Braves 1973-74 where he got to play on the same team as his brother Phil, the bulk of his playing career and his success was with the Houston Astros from 1975-85 and then he finished his career with the NY Yankees 1985-87 where he again was a teammate of brother Phil’s in 1985 and Minnesota Twins 1987-88.
4. Brother Phil aka Knucksie- got to the majors because of his knuckleball which he learned from their father as a kid. Joe Niekro didn’t rely on the knuckleball as much during his career and in fact didn’t throw it until he became teammates with Phil with the Braves in the early 70’s- up to that point Joe had the traditional pitches. Joe was a late bloomer- if you look at his stats up until 1977 he had some success but it was only occasional -he would go back and forth from the bullpen to starting. In 1977 at the age of 33 he settled in and became one of the better pitchers in the National League.
5. His best seasons were 1979 when he won 21 games and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting and 1980 when he won 20 and he finished 4th in the Cy Young. In 1979 brother Phil also won 21 games. Joe was an effective pitcher until the end of his years with the Astros 1985 when he was forty.
6. Never a great hitter- he had 973 career at bats and a .156 career batting average. He did hit one major league home run- any guesses on what pitcher he hit the home run off? His brother Phil of course in 1976. That had to make for a lot of ribbing when they got together.
7. It is too bad Joe Niekro didn’t have more post season opportunities- he pitched in 3 post-season games- started 2 of those games- for a total of 20 innings pitched- He didn’t give up a run in those 20 innings pitched.
8. What Joe Niekro may be most remembered for happened late in his career with the Twins. In a game against the Angels umpire Tim Tschida detected Niekro with a nail file. When he came out to the mound and asked Niekro to empty his pockets Niekro put his hands in his pockets and then threw his hands his hands into the air. An emery board and sandpaper flew out onto the ground. It made for a great video and was played repeatedly on Sportscenter. American League President Dr. Bobby Brown suspended Niekro for ten games- he didn’t quite believe Niekro’s explanation that he had been filing his nails in the dugout and had forgotten to leave his equipment there. At least Joe showed a great sense of humor about it- during his suspension he appeared on The David Letterman Show- August 15, 1987 wearing a carpenter’s apron and carrying a power sander. Years later the Twins had bobble head promotions honoring the 1987 team and they had a Joe Niekro bobble head with a nail file in his back pocket.
9. On July 2, 1970 Joe took a no-hitter into the 9th inning against the Yankees- with one out Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke broke the no-hit bid up with a single. In 1973 brother Phil pitched a no-hitter. If Joe had completed his- the Niekro’s would have been the first brother act with no-hitters. The Forsch brothers later became the first and only brothers to both pitch no-hitters- Ken pitched two of them and brother Bob had one.
10. When Joe Niekro pitched in the 1987 World Series he set the record for the longest gap a player ever had between their major league debut and playing in a World Series. Joe’s son Lance would play for the San Francisco Giants as a third and first baseman in 2003, 2005-2007. In 2009 Lance would try to make a comeback in the Atlanta organization as a pitcher- you guessed it – as a knuckleball pitcher. Sadly, Joe Niekro passed away at age 61 in 2006 after suffering a brain aneurysm.