Sunday, August 3, 1997
Niekro's journey to Hall started
in his Ohio backyard


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Phil Niekro's father worked in the mines. He came home each afternoon covered in coal dust, pitch-black and bone-weary, and most days his sons were waiting in the driveway with the baseball gloves.

Phil Niekro Sr. would put down his lunch pail and play catch. Frequently, in the summer, the family dinner would be delayed until 9 p.m. Sometimes, Dad would fall asleep on the floor.

Always, he made time for his sons.

Baseball stardom is seldom a solo act. It usually begins with a young boy and a grown man, tossing a ball back and forth in the yard, breaking in a mitt, indulging a dream.

Phil Niekro's dream started to take shape in Lansing, Ohio, around the time he turned 10 years of age. It was there and then that Phil Sr. taught him to throw the knuckleball, the peculiar rotation-free pitch that would bedevil big-league hitters for nearly a quarter of a century.

Phil Jr. won 318 games throwing knuckleballs, mostly for the Braves, but later for the Yankees and the Indians. Joe Niekro, his younger brother, won 221 games. Phil Sr. often said he was glad his sons did not have to work for a living, and he must have been mighty proud of that. His knuckleball was their path to prosperity. Pity he did not live to see this day.

Nearly 50 years since his father first taught him to throw with his fingernails, Phil Niekro achieves immortality this afternoon. He and his famous flutterball are to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and Negro Leagues infielder Willie Wells. On hand will be John Havlicek, the basketball star who grew up five houses from the Niekros, on the other side of Route 40, and busloads of neighbors and friends from Lansing and the small border towns of Blaine and Shadyside, Ohio.

"They tell me you don't need tickets to get in," Nick McKay said. "I'll be wearing a blue Shadyside Lions hat."

Once a Class D catcher in Bluefield, W.Va., McKay is the man who introduced the knuckler to Phil Niekro Sr. It was 1939, and the elder Niekro's throwing arm had given out. The knuckleball was a way to keep pitching without pain.

Phil Niekro would pitch in the major leagues until he was 48 years old, and he'd be out there now if he were still able to get people out. He seldom missed a start, rarely felt the need to ice his arm, and four times led the National League in complete games and innings pitched.

Throwing the knuckleball is an art, but not an arduous one.

"The thing that I feel sort of guilty about," Niekro said once, "is that with every other pitch, you try to make the ball do something - spin it to make it curve or sink or sail. All I try to do is make the ball do nothing."

Aerodynamics experts say a three-inch sphere makes its maximum movement between 50 and 75 miles per hour, which is where Niekro's knuckler registered on the radar guns. When he had it working, when the ball wobbled toward the strike zone like a drunken moth, Phil Niekro was phenomenal. Bobby Murcer once compared hitting Niekro's knuckler to trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.

"It actually giggles as it goes by," said Rick Monday.

On other days, it was Niekro who looked laughable. Unable to fall back on a decent fastball, his success depended on a delicate proposition - the ability to control baseball's least predictable pitch.

"If the knuckleball ain't there, I'm a mass of confusion," he told the New Yorker in 1987. "You've got to sleep with it and think about it all the time. It's a 24-hour pattern. The margin for error is so slight and it can be such a little-bitty thing - your release point, the ballpark, your fingernails, the ball you've just gotten from the umpire. If anything is a fraction off, you might not have a thing out there.

"It's hunt and peck, all year long."

Though his catchers wore oversized gloves and became conditioned to balls in the dirt, Niekro once managed to throw six wild pitches in a single game. He eventually broke three of catcher Bruce Benedict's fingers.

"Sparky (Anderson) once called me and said, 'What would you think if we traded for Niekro?" Reds catching icon Johnny Bench recalled. "I told him, 'That's fine, but bring his catcher, too.' " In 1974, Niekro led the National League with 20 wins. The next year, the Reds beat him six times in six decisions.

Pete Rose had 64 of his 4,256 hits against Niekro, more than he had against any other pitcher. Bench notched 11 home runs against Niekro, third on his personal hit list behind Steve Carlton (13) and Don Sutton (12).

"I treated his knuckler like a curve ball," Bench said. "He told me I was the only one who did that."

Tony Perez, the Cuban-born slugger of the Big Red Machine, had never seen a knuckleball until he first faced Phil Niekro.

"Some of the other guys who had seen knuckleballs before told me that the best way was to wait and not try to pull it," Perez said. "I never was a pull hitter. I used the whole field. You make it easy for a knuckleball pitcher if you try to pull it. I was ready for him, most of the time."

Most of the time, Phil Niekro prevailed. Today, his triumph is permanent. A patient coal miner produced a diamond.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE