Joe Niekro passes away at 61
Brother of Hall of Famer Phil won 221 games in 22 seasons
Joe Niekro recognized the pitch as soon as it left his brother's hand. After all, it was the pitch that their dad taught them when they were just kids growing up together in Ohio.
There it was -- the signature Niekro knuckleball -- dancing toward home plate at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on May 29, 1976. By the time Phil finished his delivery, Joe had had swung, sending the baseball over the left-field wall for a home run -- the lone long ball of his 22-year career.
Joe lived in the shadows of his older brother's career, which was honored with an induction into baseball's Hall of Fame. But on that day, it was the younger Niekro who walked away the winner. Over 22 Major League seasons, the same pitch that Phil made famous helped Joe Niekro win 221 games, including a club-record 144 for the Houston Astros.
On Friday, Joe Niekro passed away. According to The Tampa Tribune, Niekro suffered an aneurysm and was taken to South Florida Baptist Hospital before being transported to St. Joseph's hospital on Thursday. He was 61.
"It's really a shock when something like that happens," said Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who was a teammate of Niekro from 1980-85. "As a teammate, you spend a lot of time with each other and have close relationships. This news, you have to sort through it."
Niekro's big-league career began in 1967 and ended in 1988 -- a period in which he spent time with the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros, Yankees and Twins. Chicago made the right-hander a third-round draft pick in 1966, when he was 21 years old.
When Joe signed with the Cubs, he threw a fastball, curve, and a slider. He didn't rely as heavily as Phil did on the knuckleball because he had the ability to throw harder. It wasn't until his Major League career got off to a slow start that Joe began using the pitch he learned during his childhood.
Phil Niekro Sr. could throw hard at a young age, but an arm injury prompted him to develop the knuckleball before moving on from baseball. After long days of working in coal mines in Ohio, Phil Sr. would come home and play catch with his two sons, passing on his unique pitch.
Joe had yet to reach his peak when Houston purchased his contract for $35,000 from Atlanta in 1975. The Astros were non-contenders from 1975-77, giving Niekro ample time to hone his craft. He'd spend parts of 11 seasons in Houston, where he became the club's winningest pitcher and first back-to-back 20-game winner in 1979-80.
"Times were different in baseball back then. Joe was 30, 31 when he got to Houston," said Astros president Tal Smith, who was Houston's general manager from 1975-80. "It took him a couple of years until he established himself. In those days, prior to the advent of free agency, you had more time, more patience to provide opportunities.
"That gave Niekro time to perfect the knuckeball, then he produced back-to-back 20-win seasons and all of the memorable things that happened," he added. "He was such a special guy. I never heard anybody who said anything disparaging about him. He always had a smile, a quip. He kept everybody loose in the clubhouse. And he was the consummate winner."
The 1979-80 seasons were the pinnacle of Niekro's career. In '79, he led the National League with 21 victories and five shutouts, finishing second to Bruce Sutter in the Cy Young voting. He was sixth in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award and was selected to his only All-Star team. The Sporting News recognized Niekro as the Pitcher of the Year that season.
A year later, Niekro went 20-12 and was fourth in the balloting for the NL Cy Young. Also in 1980, Niekro threw a complete-game six-hitter against the Dodgers in the 163rd game of Houston's season. The victory clinched the NL West title -- the first in team history. Niekro then led Houston to its first-ever playoff win by pitching 10 shutout innings in an 11-inning win over the Phillies in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series.
"He pitched a terrific game 163," recalled Smith, who was stunned by Niekro's death. "It was a real shock. I saw him in the spring and he looked great. He looked like he was in good health."
Niekro's postseason success wasn't limited to his time in Houston. He was a member of the 1972 Tigers, who won the American League East, and the '87 Twins, who won the World Series.
During that '87 season, Joe's son Lance -- 8 years old at the time -- was a batboy for Minnesota. He was on the field during the postgame celebration and he rode with his dad in a convertible during the parade held in Minneapolis.
Now, Lance Niekro is a first baseman in the San Francisco Giants' system. He has three big-league seasons under his belt and received some advice from his dad when he was demoted to Triple-A earlier this season.
"When I was going down to Fresno, my dad called and said he had five years in the big leagues when he was sent down," Lance Niekro said. "He said it was something that can happen, and you can go about it two ways -- be mad about everything, or go down there and say you have something to prove."
Throughout his career, Joe had plenty to prove as Phil -- six years his elder -- pitched his way to 318 wins and a plaque in the hallowed halls in Cooperstown, N.Y. Joe was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in November 2005.
Joe and Phil Niekro combined for 539 wins, the most by brothers in Major League history. So Joe's name lives on in the record books and the Niekro name continues to live on in baseball through his son.
"Just to see that name on the back of a Major League uniform, on a Major League field, is a big thrill," Joe Niekro told the San Francisco Chronicle in June, 2005.
Lance Niekro found his way to the big leagues with his bat, but that doesn't mean his dad didn't pass on that famous knuckleball. Lance learned how to throw the knuckler at the age of 12.
Joe probably taught Lance how to hit one, too.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Alyson Footer and Rich Draper contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.