National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro — a longtime pitcher for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves who was known for his blistering knuckleball — died in his sleep after a long battle with cancer, the team announced Sunday. He was 81.
Niekro, who spent the majority of his 24 years in MLB playing for the Braves, pitched in 740 games — the most of any pitcher in the franchise, the team said in a statement. From full-season debut in 1967 until his retirement in 1987, Niekro pitched 5,404 innings — the most by any pitcher in the modern era. Niekro won a Gold Glove Award five times.
Nicknamed "Knucksie," he also won the most games of any knuckleball pitcher. (A knuckleball is a rare and difficult pitch, delivered with virtually no spin, leading to an erratic motion through the air.)
When he retired at age 48, Niekro was the oldest player in major league history to play regularly.
"We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend," the Braves said. "Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities."
As a child, Niekro learned his unique pitching style from his father — and then he decided to throw that pitch exclusively while in the minor leagues, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, to which Niekro was inducted in 1997.
In 2013, the Baltimore Orioles hired Niekro to teach its minor league pitchers how to throw the knuckleball. As NPR's Mark Memmott explained at the time, the relatively slow speed of the knuckleball places less stress on a pitcher's arm — and therefore can help prolong a pitcher's career.
"Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation," MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr., said in a statement. "But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game's most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed."