Hall of Famer Phil Niekro remembers his brother Joe

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The following article was posted on The Methodist Hospital website just today and I wanted to share with all of you. It touched my heart and I hope it touches yours too.

Nothing in baseball can be as unpredictable as the knuckleball, a crazy corkscrew of a pitch that befuddles hitters and catchers alike.

The most successful practitioners of the knuckleball were Phil and Joe Niekro, who combined for 539 wins over their respective careers to become the most successful brother pitching combination in major league history.

Phil, a five-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his years with the Atlanta Braves and other teams. Joe was one of the greatest pitchers in Houston Astros history – he was the team’s first 20-game winner and today he remains the all-time leader in wins among Astros pitchers.

But like a knuckleball, life can take an unpredictable path. In 2006, Joe Niekro died of a brain aneurysm. “I think he was one of the finest human beings to ever walk the earth,” says his brother Phil. “Growing up, we fished, hunted and spent a lot of time together. We were like monkeys together.”

The knuckleball was a Niekro family tradition – Phil says everyone in the family could throw it. “Joe was about to get released from his team and hang up baseball but I worked on perfecting his knuckleball,” recalls Phil. “When he got to Houston (in 1975) Joe had the pitch, although it took him a few years to perfect it. When Joe won 20 games two years in a row (1979-80) he had mastered the knuckleball like no one else.”

After 11 seasons with the Astros, Joe Niekro played for the Yankees and pitched for the Twins in the 1987 World Series. He retired the next year to end a 22-year career with 221 wins, making him one of the most successful knuckleball pitchers of all time.

And in a career spanning 22 years, Joe Niekro hit only one home run. “He did? Joe hit a home run?” Phil asks in mock surprise.

In Atlanta on May 29, 1976, Joe stepped into the batter’s box against his brother Phil. “He had two on with two outs had never hit me before,” Phil recalls. “I threw him a knuckleball and he didn’t swing … I hollered to him that ‘you can’t hit if you don’t swing.’”

With two strikes, Joe took a low swing at a knuckler headed for his feet. Phil says “he hit it like a golf ball … I saw it going over the shortstop’s head and it went right over the fence. Joe was in such shock, halfway to second base he had to go back because he missed tagging first base.”

After that, every time Phil pitched against Houston he would look over to the opponents’ dugout and see Joe holding three bats, like he was going to pinch-hit.

“I didn’t send him a Christmas card for a few years, but I really miss that guy. I want people to remember Joe as a hell of a guy who was full of fun and life,” says Phil. “If you didn’t have a good time around him, it was your own fault.”

Phil Niekro and many other baseball greats will be at the Knuckle Ball…A Pitch for Life honoring Joe Niekro on Friday, July 31, at 6:36 p.m. in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The black-tie event will be emceed by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and it will include a night of casino gaming, a formal dinner, an auction and a musical performance by country singer Collin Raye. All proceeds benefit aneurysm research and treatment at The Methodist Hospital Neurological Institute in Houston. For more information on how to sign up to attend the event, go to the Knuckle Ball official website.

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