Throwing Knucklers With Knucksie

Prior to last Sunday’s Hall of Fame Classic, I talked to Phil “Knucksie” Niekro, a member of the Hall of Fame since 1997. A three time 20-game winner and onetime ERA champion, Niekro finished second to Tom Seaver in the 1969 National League Cy Young Award balloting. Phil and his younger brother, Joe, combined to win 539 games in their careers, surpassing Gaylord and Jim Perry for the most wins by big league brothers.

Phil expressed opinions on a variety of topics, including the relevance of baseball cards and memorabilia, reflections on his brother Joe, and thoughts on the Little League pitcher who learned to throw the knuckleball from his brother shortly before his passing in 2006.

Markusen: Were you interested in baseball cards as a youngster?

Niekro: I never really collected them. I collected them for the bubble gum that was inside when I was young. I think as the years went by you started seeing the increase in interest in collecting them [the actual cards]. It’s big business. I think it’s still a pretty big deal today.

Markusen: When you were a player, and your Topps card came out, was that something that was a big deal to you?

Niekro: I was extremely proud to be on there. I think the thing that bothers me most, not about the bubble gum cards themselves, but it’s that there are so many pictures out there, especially the 8 x 10’s, that are not licensed by Major League Baseball. Someone will take a picture somewhere of you, then blow it up and sell it, and none of that goes back to the [alumni] association or the players. When someone asks me to sign one of those pictures, I try to be nice and say, “Hey, this isn’t authorized.” A lot of those people probably make a lot of money off us, and in return, nothing comes back to us. Or to the alumni association in any way.

Markusen: I’ve heard that Sy Berger of Topps used to go around every year in spring training to get players’ approval for their cards.

Niekro. Yeah, yes. They may still do that. I think, as soon as you get into the minor leagues, that’s where they get you now. I’m not sure if they still get guys in spring training. I haven’t been to spring training in so long, I can’t remember!

Markusen: Let’s take you back to a great personal memory for me in 2006, when you and Joe were at a fantasy camp here at the Hall of Fame. You guys did a Legends Event the Saturday night of that weekend, and it was tremendous seeing the love that you expressed for each other. And then, of course, we had the tragedy just three weeks later, when Joe passed away [from a brain aneurism]. Looking back at that, how were you able to get through that? What did you do to get through that difficult time in your life?

Niekro: Well, I’m still having a difficult time. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I tell people that there are really no guarantees in life, none at all. You can be here one day, and gone the next.

I do remember that Joe and I, we had such love in the whole family. We’d see each other for three days, then wouldn’t see each other for another month, always the first three words that came out of our mouths was, “I love you.” And I remember the greatest gift he gave me. When I won my 300th game, he gave me a 300-win belt buckle made out of diamonds! But really the greatest gift he gave me was the last three words he said to me, “I love you.” I tell people, if you get a chance to tell people you love them, do it, because you just don’t know.

Markusen: For those who never met Joe, and you’d want to give them an impression of him–I know it’s difficult to do in a few words–how would you describe Joe to those who want to know more about him?

Niekro: He was the kind of guy that was going to make sure than when you were in his company you were going to enjoy life. He always had a smile. He always had time for anybody. And when people left him, they said, “That was a nice couple, three minutes there.”

Markusen: There’s a great story developing this year. A young girl that you know about, Chelsea Baker, has thrown two perfect games in Little League. She was taught the knuckleball by Joe Niekro. Tell us your thoughts on that story.

Niekro: I’ve heard about her and seen some articles, but I haven’t seen her pitch yet. I know that she pitched against my nephew, Joe’s son. That’s his youngest boy, he’s 12, playing in that same league. He knows her. But I haven’t seen her. I’m also pretty interested in this young Japanese girl who’s [a knuckleballer and] in California pitching for a team out there. So maybe the knuckleball is still part of the game, hopefully.

Markusen: Would you like to meet Chelsea?

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Niekro: I would… And I’d like to meet the Japanese pitcher, too.

Markusen: I believe her name’s Eri Yoshida and she’s pitching in the Golden Baseball League, throwing the knuckleball. Do a lot of people ask you to teach them the knuckleball?

Niekro: Oh yeah, a lot. A lot by mail. And you can’t do it by mail! [laughing] I have to be there. It’s a commitment, it’s time. It’s something that you really have to want to do. They think that if they learn the knuckleball, they can pitch in high school and college, and then go to the big leagues. But I was still learning the knuckleball when I retired from the major leagues in 1987.

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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Thank you for this interesting interview!