Saying Goodbye to the Knuckleball, and Its Master

Niekro learned the pitch he used through 24 major league seasons from his father, also named Phil, a sandlot pitcher in Ohio who turned to it after hurting his arm. It worked so well for young Phil in pickup games with neighborhood kids — including John Havlicek, the future N.B.A. Hall of Famer — that he never saw the need for other pitches.

“I didn’t know there were knuckleball pitchers in the big leagues,” Niekro said a few years ago. “I didn’t even know what a knuckleball was. It was just something that I had fun with, playing catch with my dad.”

Jim Bouton, the author of “Ball Four,” loved telling the story of meeting Niekro in Kearny, Neb., in 1959, when they were both 20 years old and just starting their pro careers. Bouton noticed Niekro practicing his knuckleball in the outfield before a game, and the pitch was dancing.

Bouton threw several pitches, including a knuckleball, and asked Niekro what else he threw. Nothing else, Niekro replied, and Bouton felt pity for him. By 1963, Bouton was winning 21 games for the Yankees and starting in the World Series, while Niekro had still not surfaced in the majors.

“I remembered him and I thought, ‘Oh, that poor kid, he’s still in the minor leagues and I don’t know how he hangs on, because I’m on my way to the Hall of Fame,’” Bouton said, a few years before his death in 2019. “Well, guess what? That poor kid, limited to one pitch — he’s in the Hall of Fame now. It’s a good reminder for me of the tortoise and the hare.”

Niekro was 27 before he reached the majors for good, in August 1966, but his mastery of that one pitch gave him a staggering kind of durability. He had just 31 victories by his 30th birthday, and 287 thereafter. He logged more than 1,000 innings from 1977 through 1979, when he averaged 19 wins and 19 losses per season.

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