Braves legendary pitcher Phil Niekro has died at the age of 81 after a battle with cancer. The team said he died peacefully in his sleep Saturday night.
“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro. Knucksie was woven into the Braves 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,” the Braves said in a statement.
“He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization.”
Niekro is survived by his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.
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Born April 1, 1939 in Blaine, Ohio, Niekro and his brother Joe grew up playing baseball together and learned how to pitch from their father, who played on a coal-mining team.
“He was a very good pitcher,” Niekro told ESPN in an interview after his playing days were over. “He hurt his arm one spring, didn’t warm up good enough, couldn’t throw a fastball anymore. Another coal miner taught him how to throw the knuckleball.”
“He threw it to me one day. I asked him what it was. He showed me how to hold it. Didn’t know what it was, didn’t know anything about it except that I liked it,” he said. “I never knew how to throw a fastball, never learned how to throw a curveball, a slider, split-finger, whatever they’re throwing nowadays. I was a one-pitch pitcher.”
Niekro played 24 years in Major League Baseball, including 21 seasons with the Braves on two different stints. He also pitched for the Yankees, Blue Jays and Indians.
During his time in Milwaukee and Atlanta, “Knucksie” pitched in a Braves franchise-record 740 games. He holds or shares 12 other franchise records.
Niekro pitched a no-hitter in 1973 but his most memorable game with the Braves came in 1982, when the team started the season with 13 consecutive wins and improbably won the NL West title by a single game to send Niekro to the playoffs for only the second time in his career.
The five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Niekro joined Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver as Hall of Famers who died in 2020 — the most ever to pass away in a calendar year, according to Hall of Fame spokesman Jon Shestakofsky.
“These names, and these men, will be remembered forever in Cooperstown,” he said.
Niekro was remembered by the Hall as “master of the knuckleball and a great mentor, leader and friend.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.