The Knuckle Ball: It’s Now A Pitch for Life Over Sudden Death

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Written by: Natalie Niekro at age 7

Spring Training is here and baseball is starting,
which means that my Dad and I will be parting.
His baseball career is his dream-come-true
But the time we’re apart makes me so sad and blue.
Though Winter’s a memory and flowers now bloom,
I find that my heart is filled with some gloom.
While others are planning their parties and things
I only can think of what Spring to me brings.
Our time together was great but now it must end
For the Astros have called on my very best friend.
Dad’s a wonderful pitcher…three strikes and you’re out
I sit by the television and cheer and shout.
He loves his job and I’m thankful for that
Though my heart skips a beat with every crack of the bat.
So once again I’ll adjust to being without him,
Although every second I’ll be thinking about him.


Written by: Bill McCurdy – July 3, 2009

Joe Niekro gives his daughter, Natalie a kiss after a win
Joe Niekro gives his daughter, Natalie a kiss after a win

When seven year old Natalie Niekro wrote this beautiful and sweet little poem a few years ago, she had no idea of the shock, sadness, and grief that would years later strike her hard beyond belief on an ordinary day in the future. Her dad was big and strong, and one of the heroes of the Houston Astros from 1975 to 1985. Natalie’s dad had the power of Mighty Joe Young. Nothing on earth could take him down – and no batter in baseball could escape the elusive hit-robbing magic of his fluttering knuckle ball.

Wearing # 36 during his eleven season career with the Houston Astros, Joe Niekro still holds the career record for most club pitching wins with a total of 144. (Larry Dierker is second with 137 and active pitcher Roy Oswalt now has 133 through this date.) Joe Niekro also was the first Houston Astro pitcher to put together back-to-back twenty-win seasonns in 1979 (21-11) and 1980 (20-12). Joe Niekro also pitched the decisive win over Los Angeles in 1980 that placed the Astros in great position to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1980 National League Championship Series. All told, Joe Niekro finished with 221 wins in a total 22-year career that spanned from 1967 to 1988.

How Joe Niekro’s uniform # 36 has escaped retirement by the Astros through 2009 is beyond me. Based on all he did for the franchise, and the two major club pitching records he holds, he is certainly deserving of the honor on a “better late than never” basis.

Joe Niekro was recognized locally in Houston by his November 2005 induction into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. We of the TBHOF board at that time are just thankful that we were able to duly honor Joe Niekro for his major accomplishments and contributions to baseball in our state while there was still time. A mere year later, we would all be forced to say goodbye to Joe Niekro because of a silent killer that unknowingly resided within him. It was probably there in November 2005 when this happy picture below was taken of Joe with his brother Phil Niekro and yours truly. None of us had any idea about what lay ahead for Joe on that sunshiny fall afternoon. We had all simply gathered at the J.W. Marriott near the Galleria in Houston to celebrate the glory of his life.

On October 27, 2006, Joseph Franklin Niekro, our Joe – the dad of Natalie, Lance, and J.J. – suddenly dropped dead at his home in Tampa, Florida at age 62 from what later was determined to be a burst brain aneurysm.

In case you don’t know, an aneurysm is basically a ballooning spot in an artery somewhere in the body. It causes no pain or problem, unless it breaks from high blood pressure or some undue stress on the system. You can look healthy and even be living healthy – and still have one. It’s been described as a ticking time bomb, the silent killer, and a resident villain.

Even though genetics and life style are places we look for answers, more research is needed on approaches to early detection and treatment. A lot of the time, aneurysms are treatable, even correctable, if it is known that you have them, but many people are like Joe Niekro: They have no symptoms or pain as reasons to warn them of their impending danger,

Natalie Niekro, Joe’s daughter, is a very strong and healthy adult today. She runs a couple of successful businesses in Scottsdale, Arizona and, as she learned deeply from her dad, she’s a fighter for what she thinks is right.

As a result of her father’s untimely loss, Natalie Niekro established the Joe Niekro Foundation in 2007 to support more research into the diagnosis and treatment of aneurysms and other related brain disorders. Check out the website at this link:

While you are visiting the site too, please consider attending or donating to “The Knuckle Ball,” a major 1st annual gala event to be held at Minute Maid Park in Houston on the evening of Friday, July 31st. All the proceeds from this benefit celebration of Joe Niekro’s life will go to support brain aneurysm research at the Methodist Hospital Neurological Institute in Houston, Texas.

Mentioning Methodist Hospital is where this cause gets doubly personal for me. Along wiith being one of those who was stunned and saddened by the loss of Joe Niekro, I also owe Methodist Hospital and their Dr. David Baskin my eternal gratitude for saving the life of my dear wife Norma in February of this year when they successfully removed another kind of silent killer, a brain tumor, before it could take her away. She’s doing great now, thanks to Dr. Baskin and crew – and they are the same group of professional caregivers who will benefit from The Knuckle Ball.

I’m not given to promoting things that I’m not totally behind as legitmate acts of the human heart, but The Knuckle Ball and the people it is designed to help are both the real deal. I’m all for them – and for what they are hoping to
accomplish. – I just wish we could be retiring Joe Niekro’s number 36 on that same night. That would be an honor that is both deserving and important to the memory of one of Houston’s great ballplayers.

You know what? Spiritual things really matter here too! Joe Niekro and his little girl Natalie may be temporarily separated by physical death, but they are still bound and working together in tandem as some kind of spiritual Mighty Joe Young in their dedication for doing the next right thing – and the next right thing is doing all we can in medical science to curb aneurysms as the silent destroyer of life.

In closing, all I know for sure is – we could get a lot more good stuff done in life too, if we had a lot more people like Natalie Niekro taking the helm of things that really mattered. Please help her out on this important one! And help all of us out by supporting the big July 31st Knuckle Ball in Houston!

Whatever contribution you can make is important, even if you can’t be there that night. Please keep that in mind as you explore the Knuckle Ball plan and make some kind of knuckle ball pitch of your own into the benefits kitty!.All of the information you need is on that website link I gave you earlier for The Joe Niekro Foundation.

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