Phil Niekro, a Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher best known for playing 20 seasons with the Atlanta Braves (which includes the final two seasons in which the team was still known as the Milwaukee Braves), died Saturday after a battle with cancer. He was 81.
Niekro was a knuckleball pitcher whose 318 career wins comprise the most for anyone pitching in that style; he also ranks 16th on Major League Baseball’s list of all time career wins.
“Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation. In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
“But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime.”
Born in 1939 in Ohio, Niekro began his professional baseball career in 1959 when he was signed to a minor league team affiliated with the Milwaukee Braves. He played in the minors until 1963, served a year in the U.S. military, and then following his service made his major league debut with the Braves in 1964.
He played with the team until 1983, followed by two seasons with the New York Yankees and brief stints with the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays in 1986-87. He returned to the Braves in 1987 and retired at the end of the season; at age 48, he held the record for the oldest regular season player in MLB history.
Niekro won five Gold Glove awards, was an All Star five times and received the Roberto Clemente award among his many accolades. The Braves retired his number, 35, in 1984. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
Neikro’s younger brother, Joe, was also a Major League pitcher who played for 22 seasons.