Niekro finally flutters into Hall of Fame Braves knuckleballer's 15-year wait ends as he is only inductee

Sutton falls 9 votes short

Honoree won 11-plus from 1967 through '80

January 07, 1997|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Phil Niekro grasps fully the importance of the knuckleball. It's the pitch that enabled him to win 300 games and become the only player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday.

But on the day the knuckleball finally reaped its greatest reward for Niekro, he reminisced about the one occasion he didn't need the pitch.

Niekro threw only one knuckleball on Oct. 8, 1985, when he beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-0, pitching a four-hitter for his 300th victory and, at age 46, becoming the oldest pitcher in history to throw a shutout.

That one knuckleball left Jeff Burroughs befuddled. A strikeout to end the game.

"I always wondered if I could win a game without throwing a knuckleball," Niekro, 57, said last night, just hours after learning of his election. "I guess I proved it that day."

Yesterday, Niekro reached the Hall of Fame, ending a wait that began in 1982, when he became eligible.

"All I know is the phone call came, and it was the right call," he said, "the one I've been waiting for. It felt like some voice coming down from the crowds. Coming down from high-up somewhere."

While the wait ended for Niekro, Don Sutton has 364 days before waiting by his phone for the fifth straight year. Sutton, the only 300-game winner not enshrined, missed election by nine votes, despite having more wins and a lower career ERA than Niekro.

But yesterday was Niekro's day.

His 318 wins are 14th all time, and his 274 losses are fifth-most. He, like Sutton, was criticized for not being a dominant pitcher.

Yet Niekro is among the game's leaders in several categories. Niekro is one of only 20 pitchers to win 300 games, he is fourth all-time in starts and innings pitched and is one of just 10 pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts. He has a sparkling 3.35 lifetime ERA, but he also allowed 482 homers -- third-most ever.

Home runs are inevitable with the knuckleball, a pitch that dances and dives, changing directions at the mercy of physics, leaving even the pitcher unsure of where it will rest. It is a difficult pitch to master. While 229 players have been elected to the Hall, Hoyt Wilhelm is the only other knuckleballer enshrined.

Niekro's father, Phil Sr., taught his sons the pitch. The late Paul Richards, the first general manager and second manager in Orioles history, refined the pitch for Niekro as a minor-leaguer in the Milwaukee Braves' system. Broadcaster/actor Bob Uecker became his personal catcher.

"Uecker and the late Paul Richards were the ones that changed me around," Niekro said. "Those Sutton were the two guys that really built me up." Niekro broke in with the Braves in 1964 and moved with the team to Atlanta in 1966. Niekro is the organization's leader in every major pitching category except for saves, and his number was retired by the Braves in 1984.

Niekro retired in 1987, closing his career with the Braves' organization, his employer for parts of 21 seasons. He was the top Hall of Fame vote-getter in 1996, but missed election by 53 votes.

Niekro made his first of five All-Star teams in 1969, when he enjoyed perhaps his finest season, winning a career-high 23 games with a 2.57 ERA. Niekro also collected five Gold Glove Awards and led the National League with a 1.87 ERA in 1967.

Though he may not have been dominating, he was surely durable and consistent.

The softly tossed pitch helped Niekro stay in the game until he was 48 and make 30 or more starts in 18 of his final 20 seasons. On four occasions he pitched more than 300 innings and he won 20 games three times. Eliminating his rookie and final seasons, Niekro never had an ERA above 4.32. He won 11 games or more every year from 1967 to 1980.

Team accolades would escape him, though.

Niekro set a record by playing 24 years without appearing in a World Series, though he pitched in the NLCS in 1969 and 1982. He was a Brave when the Braves were bad.

Niekro led the NL in losses every season from 1977-1980, despite leading the league in complete games three of the four seasons. He had a cumulative 3.48 ERA during that span in which the Braves went 277-368.

"He went through some tough times there when they were not only a bad offensive team, but they were not a good defensive team either," said Pat Dobson, a former Orioles pitcher and pitching coach, and a teammate of Niekro's in 1973. "That's even more of an accomplishment to get 300 wins and play on that many bad teams."

Niekro moved to the American League in 1984, and pitched briefly with his younger brother Joe for the New York Yankees in 1985. He and Joe own the record for most wins by a pair of brothers. Phil Niekro also played for Cleveland and Toronto and has spent the last few years managing the all-female Silver Bullets baseball team.

Sutton must wait at least one more year to join Niekro, despite six more wins (324-256 record) and a better ERA (3.26) in 23 seasons, most with the Dodgers.

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