By Mike Lopresti
INDIANAPOLIS, July 27, 2015 — Phil Niekro will flutter into town later this week for Signature Saturday, just like his knuckleball fluttered past befuddled and frustrated hitters for 318 victories and 3,342 strikeouts. One Indianapolis Indian above all others will be glad to see him.
“We had some strange times, and we had some good times,” said Indians’ hitting coach Butch Wynegar, who as a New York Yankee, caught Niekro for two seasons in the 1980s, including some of the most important moments of the Hall of Famer’s career.
Niekro’s 3,000th strikeout, against Texas’ Larry Parrish on July 4, 1984? Wynegar was behind the plate.
Niekro’s 300th victory; an 8-0 shutout over Toronto on Oct. 6, 1985? Wynegar was on the other end of the pitches.
Not every catcher can work with a knuckleballer, since it often means long afternoons groveling in the dirt trying to get a glove on the unpredictable pitch, and a near-certain rise in passed balls. But Wynegar and Niekro made a fine team. Their relationship started with a phone call.
“It was in the off-season from the Yankees’ front office,” Wynegar said. “They asked me if I’d ever caught a knuckleball pitcher before. I thought that was a strange question and I said, ‘No, I can’t say that I have.’ They asked if I was willing to try. I said, ‘Sure, who are we thinking about here?’ They said we had a chance to get Phil Niekro. I said ‘Get him. I’ll do everything I can.’
“I became Phil’s caddie for the next two years. He was so humble, just a country boy who was blessed to be able to do that. The perfect gentleman.”
So with Niekro coming to Victory Field Saturday night, here are 10 things to know about him, some with the help of his former catcher.
- Niekro was born in southeastern Ohio, the son of a coal miner, on April Fool’s Day in 1939. The perfect birthday, considering what his knuckleball did to major league hitters. Or as Rick Monday once said of the pitch, “It actually giggles at you as it goes by.”
- He won 21 games for last-place Atlanta in 1979, accounting for nearly a third of the Braves’ 66 victories. The next highest win total on the staff was eight.
- He was 46 years old the day of win No. 300, and became the oldest man ever to throw a shutout. But there was something else unforgettable about that day. He never threw a knuckleball until the last batter. Let Wynegar tell the story.
“Phil had always talked about one day pitching a game without his knuckleball. I thought it was just in jest. I’ll never forget that Sunday morning in the clubhouse in Toronto, and he motioned me to come over. He said ‘Today’s the day.’ I came back at him, ‘You’re right Phil, we’re going to get your 300th today.’He said, ‘No, no, no. I’m going to pitch without my knuckleball.’
“I could tell by the look in his eyes, he was serious.”
Phil Niekro pitching without his knuckleball was like a surgeon operating without a scalpel. His fastball barely ambled into the 80s, his curve and change were unexceptional. “It wasn’t big league stuff,” Wynegar said. “I’d tell Phil that to his face.”
But the knuckle-less innings went by and the Blue Jays couldn’t get to him. Finally, with two out in the ninth inning, ahead 8-0 and facing Jeff Burroughs, Niekro called Wynegar to the mound. “He looked at me and said, ‘Butch, I got 299 wins with the knuckleball. Let’s finish Jeff out with the knuckleball.’
“Three knuckleballs later, after not throwing one all day, he strikes him out.”
Wynegar was wearing the black, oversized glove that day that many catchers used in hopes of corralling the knuckler. Niekro signed it, “Butch, to a big man with a big glove.” Wynegar still has it in his trophy case.
- Something else about that day in Toronto. Niekro just recently told this story to the New York Daily News. When the Yankees returned home, a white Chrysler convertible with the license plate “300 wins” was in the parking lot. It was a gift from Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to mark the milestone. It was also a going-away present. He had decided not to resign Niekro for 1986.
- Niekro pitched 24 seasons and never went to a World Series. No one else in the history of the game can say that.
- Brother Joe won 221 games, giving the Niekros 539 victories – putting them at the top of the all-time sibling list, 10 wins ahead of Gaylord and Jim Perry. Phil was 4-5 against Joe.
- Niekro was an excellent fielder. He won five Gold Gloves and committed only 37 errors in 24 years. Wynegar again:
“My biggest thing with Phil is even though he was 40ish, he was a good athlete. It wasn’t like he was just a big lumbering knuckleball guy slow to the plate. He was quick to the plate, and he gave me a chance to throw runners out. He understood, ‘If I’m going to throw this pitch, I’d better know how to hold runners on base.’”
- While the flame throwers burned out their arms, Niekro’s knuckler was like an anti-aging elixir. His 5,404 innings are the most by any pitcher in the major leagues since Walter Johnson, who retired in 1927.
- He wore No. 35 his entire career. Among other famous No. 35s for most or all of their careers: Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Mike Cuellar, Bob Welch, and currently, Cole Hamels.
- He is No. 11 on the career strikeout list, and one of only 16 men to break 3000. Most of the rest were fireballers. About No. 3,000. It didn’t turn out quite the way the catcher imagined. One more time, Butch Wynegar:
“I waited all year for that 3,000th strikeout. I had everything planned. I was going to catch it, jump up and run to the mound and give him a big hug and hand him the ball. Larry Parrish was batting and I’ll be damned if Phil didn’t throw a knuckleball kind of up and away to Larry that took off. I couldn’t lay a glove on it, and Larry swung at it, and here I am running to the backstop. Larry got to first base. There’s his 3,000th strikeout and I got a passed ball. Everything went out the window I had planned.’’
Any catcher who worked with Niekro’s knuckleball would understand. Bob Uecker once said catching Niekro came with one big advantage.
“I get to meet a lot of important people. They all sit behind home plate.”
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.