Two weekends ago, the Hall of Fame held its annual fantasy camp, an event that will forever remind me of Joe Niekro. Two years ago, Niekro made his final public appearance at the Cooperstown camp. Three weeks later, he was gone, the victim of a brain aneurysm that claimed his life at the age of 61.
Whenever we hear of someone’s passing, someone that we just saw days or weeks before, it always hits us a bit harder. On that Saturday in October, Joe Niekro seemed to be in very good health. Working as a fantasy camp coach under his Hall of Fame brother Phil, Joe threw back-to-back seven-inning games at Doubleday Field in the afternoon and then took part in a discussion panel at the Hall of Fame that night. He was one of the best people on that panel—outgoing, funny, and full of pride in his son, Lance, who had managed to make his major league debut with the Giants three years earlier. (Lance, by the way, has fittingly taken Joe’s place at the last two Hall of Fame fantasy camps, working side by side with uncle Phil.) But the overriding theme of Joe Niekro’s comments involved sincere admiration for his Hall of Fame brother. Like most people in the audience that night, I learned that he and Phil were remarkably close, closer it appeared than most sets of athletic brothers. There was not even a trace of jealousy on the part of Joe toward his more famous brother; there was simply respect and love for a big brother who happened to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.
Although Joe’s career did not achieve the same heights as Phil, he was an awfully good pitcher, too. Remarkably, Joe achieved most of his pitching glory after turning 30. He struggled in his early years, bouncing from the Cubs to the Padres to the Tigers to the Braves, just trying to establish himself as something more than a journeyman right-hander. His career began to change in 1973 and ’74, when he joined Atlanta. Having toiled primarily as a fastball-slider pitcher in the late sixties and early seventies, Joe began learning about a third pitch—the knuckleball—that he would add to his pitching repertoire. It was the same pitch that had already made his brother the ace of the Braves’ pitching staff. As teammates in 1973 and ’74, Joe learned all he could about the knuckleball from Phil, ranging from the basics of throwing it to the sophistication of making it flutter within the strike zone. Borrowing a page from big brother’s notebook, Joe began using the knuckleball more and more when he joined his next team, the Astros, in 1975. He didn’t master the knuckleball right away—no one does—but he refined it over the next few seasons, until it became the primary weapon in a highly effective pitching arsenal.
By 1978, Joe had developed enough skill in throwing the knuckleball that he moved into the Astros’ rotation on a fulltime basis. The following year, he won 21 games, tying brother Phil for the National League lead in victories. Joe was named The Sporting News National League Pitcher of the Year; some writers felt he deserved to win the more prestigious Cy Young Award. In 1980, he again reached the 20-win milestone, this time helping the Astros claim their first postseason berth in franchise history. The 20th win came in a one-game play-off tiebreaker against the Dodgers, launching the Astros into the National League Championship Series. The Astros would lose that series to the Phillies, but through no fault of Niekro. In Game Three, he pitched ten shutout innings and settled for a no-decision before watching the Astros win the game in the 11th.
Niekro pitched most of his prime seasons for the Astros, usually hurling in the shadows of more famous pitching teammates. His Houston years overlapped those of Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, and Mike Scott, who were among the most feared pitchers of the day because of their high-octane fastballs (and in the case of Scott, a devastating splitter) and convenient streaks of wildness that made some batters ponder their own good sense in stepping into the batter’s box. Yet, Niekro won more games in an Astros uniform than any of them, giving him a franchise record that hasn’t been matched in over 20 years. (Roy Oswalt could reach Joe’s total sometime in 2009.)
While lacking an overpowering level of intimidation, Niekro remained a high-quality starter for the Astros until the middle of the 1985 season, when he was traded to the Yankees and rejoined Phil for a brief spell in a New York style Niekro knuckleballing rotation. He finished out the ’85 season in pinstripes, winning two of three late-season starts as the Yankees fell short in their quest to win the AL East. Phil was released by the Yankees in the spring of ’86, but Joe pitched the entire season in New York. He mostly struggled for the Yankees, perhaps because of his departure from the Astrodome, where the pitcher-friendly environment and the neutral weather conditions had treated his knuckleball quite kindly.
When the Yankees developed a need for left-handed hitting because of a slew of injuries near the start of the 1987 season, they traded him to the Twins for backup catcher Mark Salas. (Now there’s a blast from the past.) From there, Joe went to finish out his career with the Twins. It was in Minnesota that he was suspended after umpires discovered him using an Emory board to alter the flight of his pitches.
It’s a shame that Joe is often remembered first and foremost for that incident. Yes, he cheated, and yes, he suffered the consequences. But that transgression should not define the man. I’ll prefer to remember Joe Niekro for his other accomplishments, for being a very good starting pitcher who was often overshadowed by more glamorous names on his own team. I’ll remember him for mastering a pitch that only his brother and a few other pitchers in history have ever thrown with such a contradictory combination of precision and deception.
And I’ll remember him most for what he displayed to us during that short visit to Cooperstown two years ago, when he showed himself to be a hard worker, a loving brother, and a proud father.
Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.