Rest in peace to Phil Niekro, master of the knuckleball
The box score of Phil Niekro’s extraordinary career has intrigued and astonished baseball aficionados for years, but that doesn’t reflect his great love for the outdoors or the humility which characterized his life—his ability to walk with kings and never lose the common touch.
I saw Phil pitch many times with the Braves. There were pre- and post-game interviews when I would listen to him talk pitching. The master of the knuckleball had difficulty explaining what made his knuckler “do what it did.” It was like the naïve country boy from the sticks who could not fathom how a thermos bottle kept your coffee hot in the winter and your tea cold in the summer. “How do it know?” he asked in exasperation.
It was the same with Niekro’s knuckler. Even he didn’t know where it was going. He couldn’t explain why his knuckler would seem to explode in front of a batter, going straight up or straight down. He remembered batters who swung at pitches that wound up hitting them. “I have seen batters swing at pitches that actually went behind them,” he said.
For years, I fly fished with Phil in the spring on the Chattahoochee. While he has always been an avid angler, dating back to his growing up days in Lansing, Ohio, he had never fly-fished.
I introduced him to Jimmy Harris, owner of Unicoi Outfitters in Helen, and Jimmy introduced Phil to fly-fishing. “I’m hooked,” Phil grinned after his first outing on the Chattahoochee.
Niekro was as baffled about the sport of fly-fishing as major league hitters were about his fluttering knuckleball. “It has always amazed me how those trout see those tiny flies,” he would say. “You fly fish with such a small hook and you are overwhelmed when you land a fly in the stream. The trout sees it and suddenly strikes your fly. I keep asking myself, ‘How do those trout in that swift moving water see those tiny flies?’”
Phil never got over what he considered a phenomenon, same as it was with hitters and his knuckleball, which he said would often break two and one-half feet. A Hall-of-Famer, who pitched 24 years in the Big Leagues and retired at age 48, Phil Niekro, everybody agrees, could pitch. He could also fish.
When it came to storytelling, he was, perhaps, the best. What a raconteur! His ability to weave a yarn ranked him with the elite. It was fun hearing him lay out a story even an oldie that he had told before. Like the joke he would pull on a waitress by initiating a conversation with, “What is your name?” She responds, “Mary Ann.” “Can I call you Mary Ann?” With a generous smile she says, “Certainly.” Phil then would deadpan, “What’s your number?” A round of laughs accompanied every round of drinks.
Following an afternoon on the river, he would hold court at the Holiday Inn Express in Helen, which caused our fishing party to put off dinner. Enhanced by a rum and Coke, his repertoire ranged from a full blown story with graphic details to spontaneous one-liners. This would always continue throughout the evening meal.
He would take the time to talk pitching, even when a stranger walked into his dinner group and posed a question. He treated strangers as if they were old friends. He never met a charity he didn’t patronize. He gave of himself to a public, which adored him.
There was something paradoxical about him, however. Ever the court jester, even in unfamiliar company, the times of enduring rapture for him was the time spent fishing alone. His home on Lake Lanier appropriately anchored on a cove became known as “Niekro’s Cove.”
It yielded abundant fish over time, to not only to him and his beautiful wife, Nancy, but also to other anglers. Weather permitting, he often arose in the morning and went out on the lake by himself for a couple of hours. Baseball and levity were then trumped by solitude.
He loved spring training when the Braves trained at West Palm Beach, which was only 57 miles from the rich fishing waters of Lake Okeechobee. When he played for the Yankees, and lived in Manhattan, he spent his off days at lakes within a couple of hours of his apartment.
From a vintage conversation with him, I recorded this vignette, which is the essence of Niekro the athlete, the seasoned competitor: “You go out there and knock me down five times in a row, but the next day I’m going to come back at you. I’ll get you sooner or later. I’ve had to accept a lot of losses, but when I walk off the mound to the shower in the second inning, I still won’t let myself be defeated. (The batter) was a better man that day or that at-bat, but he knows I will come back again. He knows that I’m going to get him eventually. Everybody knows what I am doing. Everybody knows I will be throwing the knuckle ball. The manager knows it, the infielders and the outfielders know it—everybody on the opposing team knows it. Even the fans know it.”
It was more fun being around Phil Niekro than any “great” athlete I have ever known. In the end, the measure of a man is his heart. Knucksie was a good-hearted man. His passing leaves many with broken hearts. The only way for you know a tear just splashed on my keyboard is for me to tell you. I am happy to confirm that just happened.