THEY called him “Knucksie,” because his knuckleball danced and darted and confounded hitters. Former New York Yankees star Bobby Murcer once said facing Niekro was “like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”
His signature pitch gave him 318 victories, the most ever for a knuckleballer, and 120 victories after he turned 40 — a major-league record. He was a five-time All-Star who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
But when it comes to giving advice, he discards the knuckler and delivers a fastball: Tell 'em you love 'em.
“I think a lot of us have a hard time saying it,” he said in his speech to the TTMA audience. “That was the best gift (brother) Joe gave me. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. It takes about three seconds to say that. So I ask you: Do you go home and talk to your wife and children and grandchildren? It takes three seconds to tell them you love them. It's the greatest feeling to have.”
Niekro was able to tell that to his father, Phil Sr, many times in his life — especially during a remarkable period in 1985.
Niekro was chasing his 300th victory in August when his mother called him and told him to return to Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father was being given last rites by a priest.
His father was still alive four days later when Niekro was due back in New York to pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays. He didn't want to leave his father, but he determined that his father wanted him to do that when he scrawled “win happy” in nearly illegible writing on a sheet of paper.
Niekro didn't win that game. And his father didn't die. Niekro repeated that scenario — return to the hospital for four days, then fly to the Yankees' next game — until the last day of the season, October 5, when he finally notched his 300th win in an 8-0 victory in Toronto.
His father, a coal miner who had taught him how to throw the knuckler in their backyard, died in 1988 — nearly three years later, and only a few months after watching Joe pitch for the Twins in the World Series.
Find the TTMA Report archive with articles from 2012 to present