Ex-Astro Joe Niekro dies at 61

(c) Houston Astros

by Neil Hohlfeld
Houston Chronicle, 10/28/06

Joe Niekro, a knuckleball pitcher who came from obscurity to become the Astros' all-time leading winner, died Friday. Niekro, 61, suffered a brain aneurysm Thursday night at his home in Plant City, Fla., and died Friday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

The younger brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro pitched 22 seasons in the majors. He retired in 1988 with a lifetime record of 221-204.

The Niekro brothers had 539 combined wins and are the most successful brother combination in baseball history.

Niekro came to the Astros in 1975, purchased from the Atlanta Braves for $35,000. Before joining the Astros, Niekro had been with four clubs with a career record of 58-63. With the Astros from 1975-85, he was 144-116, passing Larry Dierker for the franchise lead in victories with his 138th win in 1985.

"In my opinion," said Alan Ashby, who was a catcher for Niekro for much of his career in Houston, "he was the heart and soul of the pitching staffs of those teams in the 1970s and '80s. This was a complete shock to hear about Joe. He was way too young and way too full of life."

Astros president Tal Smith, who was general manager of the club from 1975-80, remembered Niekro as a consummate big-game pitcher and, more importantly, a player everyone enjoyed as a teammate and friend.

"Obviously, Knucksie (Niekro) was an accomplished pitcher, but he was a super guy, everybody loved him," Smith said. "(Niekro) had a great sense of humor and was the life of the party," Smith said. "He always had a quip or a needle and had the talent of keeping people loose. I truly never heard anything disparaging about Joe. If you didn't like him, you didn't like people.

"I saw him this year at spring training and during the season. That whole group from the 1980 team made a point of staying in touch."

In 1979, when the Astros contended until the final week of the season for the National League West Division title, Niekro was 21-11, tying for the National League lead in victories with his brother, Phil. The next year, Niekro was 20-12, becoming the first Houston pitcher to win 20 games in a season twice.

The 20th victory was, at that point, the biggest win in Astros' history. Leading Los Angeles by three games with three games left in the regular season, the Astros lost three straight in L.A., forcing a one-game playoff for the NL West title.

Delivering in clutch

Niekro pitched a complete-game 7-1 win, allowing six hits and no earned runs. Though the Astros lost the NL Championship Series to Philadelphia, Niekro pitched 10 shutout innings in an 11-inning, 1-0 win in Game 3.

"We'd lost all three of those games (at Los Angeles) in the late innings on home runs," Smith said. "And here comes Knucksie with all the confidence in the world the next day. He wasn't going to let us lose.

"And then to follow it up with that great game against the Phillies in the first playoff game ever in Houston, it was a remarkable job of clutch pitching. That's what I remember; how he was sure he would win when he took the mound."

Niekro was born Nov. 7, 1944, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. He was drafted in the third round by the Chicago Cubs in 1966 and was in the majors by 1967, going 10-7 as a 22-year-old rookie.

Before Niekro was acquired by the Astros in April 1975, he had spent two seasons in Atlanta with his brother. During that time in 1973-74, Joe learned the basics of the knuckleball from Phil, who was the top knuckleball pitcher in baseball history. Before that, Joe had relied on traditional pitches.

According to Ashby, Joe Niekro's turnaround began when he started using his knuckleball as his primary pitch when he came to the Astros.

Niekro used a fastball and slider in his first few years in the majors, going 24-17 with the Cubs in 1967-68. However, he fell on hard times and was 34-46 with three clubs from 1969-74.

"I think having been a fastball-slider pitcher worked to his advantage," Ashby said. "It gave him something to fall back on when his knuckleball wasn't at its sharpest."

Smith wasn't the general manager at the time of Niekro's acquisition, but he replaced Spec Richardson in August 1975 and was responsible for giving Niekro the time it took to develop his knuckleball.

"He was 30 when he came here, and this was his fifth club," Smith said. "He was, at best, a journeyman pitcher. We gave him the time it took to perfect the pitch. It's a great example of believing in people and giving them time to get better. From that standpoint, the fact that we were not a club in contention in 1975 or '76 or '77 gave us a chance to let guys develop."

Niekro pitched as a starter and reliever from 1975-77, moving into the rotation on a full-time basis in 1978. Over the next eight seasons, he pitched at least 200 innings except in the strike-shortened 1981 seasons.

"He was, really, in many ways the ultimate ballplayer," said Dierker, who was a teammate of Niekro's in 1975-76. "He seemed to fit into the baseball life better than just about anyone I knew. Plus, he was pretty darn good at it; a good athlete and a good pitcher."

Left Houston in '85

After his heroics in 1979-80, Niekro continued to pitch well, going 17-12 with a 2.47 ERA for a 77-85 team in 1982 and 16-12 for another sub-.500 team in 1984. But in 1985, he was 40 years old and had a 9-12 record when he was traded to the New York Yankees in mid-September for three players, including pitcher Jim Deshaies.

Niekro was with the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins before retiring at age 44 in 1988. While with the Twins in 1987, he was caught with a nail file in his back pocket while inspected by umpires on the pitcher's mound. He said he had been filing his nails and stuck it in his pocket by mistake.

The story was not believed, and Niekro was suspended by the American League for 10 games.

Later that season, he pitched in a World Series game for the only time in his career, working two shutout innings in Game 4 against St. Louis. In his career in three postseason games with the Astros and Twins, Niekro worked 20 innings and allowed no earned runs.

Niekro's son, Lance, 27, is a first baseman with the San Francisco Giants. After seeing his son in a major-league uniform for the first time, Joe Niekro was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying: "Just to see that name on the back of a major-league uniform, on a major- league field, is a big thrill."

In addition to Lance, Niekro is survived by a daughter, Natalie, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is planning to be married on Dec. 9. In addition, Niekro is survived by his second wife, Debbie, and a 9-year-old son.

Mixed feelings: Cardinals' win & Niekro's passing

by Larry Dierker
Houston Chronicle, 10/27/06

Neil Hohlfeld called me last night, just after the Cardinals, his childhood team, won the World Series. But Neil wasn't happy. He was looking for a quote on Joe Niekro. 61 years old. Aneurism -- gone. Just like that. Somehow the Series didn't seem so important.

He pulled it off and ended up sipping champagne when he won the western division title game in 1980, going all the way on the last day of the season in Los Angeles. Joe went on to pass me in total wins as an Astro and I used to kid him about it because he won many more games after he left Houston. "Why didn't you take off a year earlier," I said. "And just leave my record alone." But I think Joe was most proud of the record he and Phil set together -- most wins by brothers in major league history.

But records don't mean much tonight.

I didn't have an aneurysm, but I did have something like it and was saved in brain surgery. I was 50 then. I just turned 60. He was 61. I have been grudgingly admitting that I'm past the halfway point, perhaps even in last third of the journey. Now, again, I am forced to consider that any day could be my last.

One time, when we were in Pittsburgh, I went down to West Virginia with him to visit his parents. They were humbled by poor circumstances and failing health. And he was always checking in with them, especially his dad, who hung on every pitch he and Phil threw.

I wasn't a running-buddy of Joe's, but he was such a great teammate, in many ways, the ultimate ballplayer. He was tough on the field but he was always in on the shenanigans in the clubhouse, almost always wearing that wry smile. Babe Ruth called everyone "keed." That way he didn't have to remember names. Joe called everyone "buddy."

At one point, he was trying to get the pitching coach job in Houston. They wanted him to start in the minors; he wouldn't do it. I think he would have been a good pitching coach with no minor league apprenticeship. He was savvy enough and honest enough to have given a lot of good advice. And he had that mischievous twinkle in his eye. He could tell you stunk and make you laugh about it.

When something like this happens it's hard to separate yourself from the death. When my dad died, I kept having thoughts about my own mortality and then felt guilty for thinking about myself. This didn't hit so close to home, but it brought back some of the same feelings.

One of the few bad things about being a professional athlete is that you have to die twice. When you are on your game, you are invincible. And, precarious as it is, that heroic image defines you. It is your essence. Then you get hurt or become ineffective and you are no longer a pro and your essence is gone and you don't know what to do. It is a ritual death and some guys never get over it.

Joe cleared that hurdle and was so happy to share the stage with his son, Lance the last two years. Like all of us, he had to do the last dance alone. Right now I am comforted thinking of Knucksie dancing in his carefree way, moving closer and closer to that soothing white light.

See ya buddy.

Ex-major league pitcher Joe Niekro dies at age 61

Associated Press
October 28, 2006

TAMPA, Fla. -- Former major league pitcher Joe Niekro, Houston's career victory leader, died Friday, Astros president Tal Smith said. He was 61.

The two-time 20-game winner suffered a brain aneurysm Thursday and was taken to South Florida Baptist Hospital in nearby Plant City, where he lived. He later was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died.

"It came as a real shock to us," Smith said. "He was a great guy. He had a real spark and a great sense of humor."

Smith said Niekro did not have an active role with the Astros but kept in contact with many of his former Houston teammates.

Niekro, father of San Francisco Giants first baseman Lance Niekro, won 221 games in his career but never became as well known as his Hall of Fame brother, Phil.

Like his older brother, who won 318 games, Joe Niekro found success after developing the knuckleball and pitched into his 40s. They had a combined 539 major league victories, a record for brothers.

Smith said he was told of Niekro's death by Enos Cabell, one of the Niekro's Astros teammates.

"Enos said he just visited with him a few weeks ago in Cooperstown," Smith said. "Enos said he seemed healthy and full of life. This just came as a sudden shock."

Niekro won a franchise-best 144 games in 11 seasons with the Astros from 1975 to 1985, when he was traded to the New York Yankees. He was an All-Star in 1979, when he went 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA and followed up with a 20-12 record in 1980.

He beat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff that clinched Houston's first postseason berth in 1980. Seven years later, in his 21st season, he finally appeared in the World Series with the Minnesota Twins.

"You are always in shock when you hear something like that, mainly when it hits close to home, a teammate who you have spent a lot of years with," Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, a former teammate of Niekro's, told Houston's KRIV-TV.

"It certainly surprises you when it happens to somebody who has kept themselves in shape and lives a very active life. The last time I saw Joe he looked like he was a picture of health," Ryan said.

Niekro was born Nov. 7, 1944 in Martins Ferry, Ohio. A third-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1966, he broke into the majors in 1967 and appeared in 702 games, including 500 starts, in 22 years with the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros, Yankees and Twins.

Niekro, who once was suspended for getting caught on the mound with a nail file in his back pocket, pitched his final game in April 1988 -- at age 43. He finished 221-204 with a 3.59 ERA, including 144-116 with a 3.22 ERA for the Astros.

Smith said the team was waiting on funeral arrangements before deciding how to honor Niekro.

"He played a very prominent role in our first trip to the playoffs [in 1980]," Smith said. "He was very popular with our fans, and he was truly one of our all-time greats."

Joe Niekro passes away at 61

by Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
October 28, 2006

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.