Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro was in Claremore recently for the 14th Annual Field of Dreams Baseball Banquet. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, following a 25-year career in the major leagues. He was best known for his wicked knuckleball pitch.
“My dad threw a knuckleball at me in the backyard one day,” he said. “He hit me and I asked him what it was and he showed me how he held it. Every day after that, we started playing catch in the backyard, I pitched four years in high school with it, went to a tryout camp with the Milwaukee Braves as a walk-on, and that’s how signed. I didn’t know there were knuckleball pitchers. We didn’t have ESPN and all that back then. I just knew it was something I could get boys and girls out with, in my hometown.”
Niekro said it wasn’t until he was in the minor leagues that he realized the knuckleball might very well be his ticket to the majors.
“I was in Jacksonville, Florida, my second year in pro ball, I was pitching for a guy named Red Murph who was our manager, and half-way through the season he said, ‘Niekro, if you can get the knuckleball over the plate you can pitch in the big leagues.’ That really lit a fire in me, so I started working on the knuckleball, getting it over the plate, and that’s what got me there,” Niekro said.
The knuckleball pitch is one of the most difficult to catch because of how it drops to a different plane several times on its way to the plate, so to find a good knuckleball catcher isn’t always easy. Niekro had a funny story to tell about one of the players who tried to catch for him.
“The Braves traded Gene Oliver to the Phillies for Bob Uecker, catcher for catcher,” Niekro said. “When Uecker came down he said, ‘I don’t think they care if I hit .100,’ because he was a good defensive catcher, so he told me, ‘I’m going to call that pitch with bases loaded, 3-and-2 or whatever count, I’m gonna miss some but you’ll be more successful if you throw it when the other guys wouldn’t call it in those situations.’ That season I led the league in ERA and he led the league in Passed Balls.”
Niekro said it was an interesting time to be playing for the Braves when teammate Hank Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
“I don’t think anyone could have handled it any better than Aaron,” Niekro said. “He was getting hate mail, he had to stay in different hotels than the team because people would be hounding him.”
Facing Willie Mays was something Niekro never enjoyed, because of the hitter’s great power.
“I would be on the mound thinking, don’t hit the ball back at me,” he said. “But, he was one of the best outfielders of that time. The best outfield would have been Mays, Aaron and Roberto Clemente.”
Niekro had previously been to the Tulsa area in May 1995, when he was managing the professional touring women’s baseball team called the Coors Silver Bullets, and they played a game at the old Drillers Stadium. The Silver Bullets didn’t have very many wins in their three years in existence, but Niekro said he enjoyed managing that team especially since he was able to work alongside his brother Joe, who was one of the team’s coaches.
Speaking of Joe Niekro, who was also a knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues, the only home run he hit in his MLB career was off his older brother Phil.
“I threw a pitch that probably would have hit the top of his shoe, but he swung at it like a golf ball, and when I saw it sail over the shortstop’s head I thought, ‘oh no way,’” said Niekro.
Who was the toughest batter to face during his career?
“Pete Rose was probably one of the toughest outs for me,” he said.
Niekro, now 78, lives in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, and is a member of the Kiz Toys Board of Advisors. He advises the company on the KizSport baseball line, reviewing product designs and development on an ongoing basis, while offering suggestions on current and future products.
ORU TRACK COACH SIGNS BOOKS
Oral Roberts University Head Track Coach Joe Dial, will be signing copies of his new biography, The Sky’s the Limit – The Joe Dial Story, at a reception and book signing, February 11, beginning at 2 p.m. in the Track Conference Room at the ONEOK Sports Complex on the ORU campus on South Lewis Ave. at 81st Street.
Dial is a former world record and American record holder in the pole vault. He set the American pole vault record nine times and won a bronze medalist at 1989 World Championships.
Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the signing.
For more information visit GoldMedalPublishingLLC.com.