Joe Niekro’s 1973 Topps card is probably not the image by which you remember him. His hair is still short, and has not yet turned gray, like it would during his prime years in the National League. The uniform might look a bit strange, too. Most fans will remember him as a member of the Houston Astros, when he reinvented himself in his thirties and became one of the game’s most effective pitchers.
Of his 22 big league seasons, Joe Niekro pitched only three for the Detroit Tigers, but he will always mean a lot to me, principally because of events that happened seven years ago. It was in 2006 that Joe Niekro revealed his true character here in Cooperstown.
Before we get to that, let’s go back to the beginning of Niekro’s major league journey. It began in 1966, when he was drafted in the third round by the Chicago Cubs. After a one-game rookie ball stint for a team named the Treasure Valley Cubs, followed by a short tenure at Class-A, he moved up to Double-A in 1967. He pitched so efficiently over the first half of the Texas League season that the Cubs brought him to the big leagues that summer. Inserting him into the starting rotation, the Cubs watched him win 10 of 17 decisions while showing pinpoint control (a mere 32 walks in 169 innings).
With a decent fastball and slider and the ability to throw strikes at will, the Cubs thought they had a fixture in their rotation. So they were surprised to see Niekro struggle in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. His ERA soared to 4.31, almost a full run higher than his rookie performance, while his control abandoned him.
Now wondering what they had in the young Niekro, the Cubs cut bait with him early in 1969. After only three starts, the Cubs traded him and two minor leaguers to the San Diego Padres for hard-throwing reliever Dick Selma. While the Cubs were a pennant contender, the Padres were an expansion team, and a bad one at that. So it should have come as no surprise that Niekro would win only eight games against a staggering 17 losses, despite an ERA of 3.70.
Like the Cubs, the Padres harbored some concerns about Niekro because he lacked an overpowering fastball. That winter, the Padres decided to move on, sending the young right-hander to the Tigers for infielder Dave Campbell (the future ESPN broadcaster) and righty Pat Dobson, a key member of the 1968 world championship team.
The Tigers didn’t seem to mind that Niekro lacked a dominant repertoire. Instead, they liked his control, his knowledge of pitching, and his ability to eat up innings. Over each of the previous two seasons, he had thrown over 200 innings. Manager Mayo Smith put him right into the rotation and watched him throw a six-hit shutout in his Tigers’ debut. Niekro joined Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson in the rotation, as the Tigers waited out the suspension given to Denny McLain by commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Though he was hardly dominant, Niekro again logged over 200 innings and made more starts than any other Tiger, with the exception of the usual workhorse Lolich. Niekro’s ERA of 4.06 was a bit higher than what Detroit would have wanted, but he also gave the Tigers valuable innings that helped make up for the losses of the suspended McLain and Wilson (who ended up being traded to the Padres).
A managerial change in 1971 affected Niekro’s impact on the team. The arrival of Billy Martin meant that the Tigers would need fewer starters. Martin liked to concentrate most of his innings onto his best pitchers, so Niekro made only 15 starts and spent a good portion of the summer in the bullpen. Niekro struggled with a less defined role, allowed his ERA to balloon to 4.49, and saw his walks exceed his strikeouts.
The situation only worsened in 1972, as Niekro spent time on the disabled and found himself at Triple-A Toledo for a while. For the season, Niekro made only 18 appearances with the Tigers, and while he pitched fairly effectively, he had little consequence on the team’s division-winning season. He also did not pitch in the memorable Championship Series against the A’s.
By now it had become evident that Martin didn’t much care for Niekro and his pitching style. So the veteran right-hander spent most of the summer at Triple-A. When the Tigers tried to slip him through waivers, the Atlanta Braves, who desperately needed pitching depth, jumped at the opportunity. They signed Niekro for the waiver price. The move united Joe with his older brother, Phil, who would help him refine the knuckleball that their father had initially taught to both of them.
Pitching out of the Braves’ bullpen, Niekro came to depend more and more on the knuckler. As he threw it more, it became more effective. The following spring, the Astros would benefit from his change in identity as a pitcher. The Astros purchased his contract from the Braves for a mere $35,000 and put him in the bullpen, where he became an effective middle reliever and spot starter. Two and a half years later, he would move into the starting rotation, where he would become an anchor for Houston over the better part of the next decade. On two different occasions, he finished among the top four in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting. He also helped the Astros to their first divisional championship in 1980.
After his hey day in Houston, Niekro pitched a spell for the New York Yankees and then endured a brutally ineffective and controversial tenure for the Minnesota Twins, where he was caught using an emery board to doctor baseballs, a clear violation of the rules. It was the kind of embarrassment that some have chosen to remember Niekro by, but it pales in comparison to my own experience with the late right-hander.
So let’s move ahead to the fall of 2006, long after Joe had ended his career with 221 wins. Joe was working a fantasy camp in Cooperstown, helping out his brother, Phil. I went to Doubleday Field on the Saturday afternoon of the camp and saw Joe throw back-to-back seven-inning games at Doubleday Field in the afternoon. Though he wasn’t exactly throwing with maximum effort, he appeared to be in excellent condition. Seemingly tireless, he pitched those two games as if he were still in the prime of his major league career.
That night, Joe, Phil, and about a half-dozen other retired players (including former Tigers Dave Bergman, Enos Cabell, and Jon Warden) took part in a discussion panel in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. Joe was one of the best people on that panel that night; he was outgoing, down-to-earth, and genuinely funny. He was also full of pride in his son Lance, a young first baseman who had made his way onto the roster of the Giants only three years earlier.
The highlight of the night came when Joe began to talk about Phil. Like everyone in attendance that night, I learned that he and Phil were remarkably close, perhaps closer than most pairs of athletic brothers. There seemed to be no rivalry between them. There was not a trace of jealousy shown by Joe toward his more famous brother. There was simply respect and admiration for a big brother who just happened to be a member of the Hall of Fame.
Nobody realized it that day, but that weekend in Cooperstown would turn out to be Joe’s last public appearance. Only three weeks later, Joe collapsed from a brain aneurism. He died in the hospital one day later. He was only 61.
I remember hearing the news about Niekro’s passing. It floored me. He had looked so healthy and vital during that time in Cooperstown. And then, less than a month later, he was gone.
I’m glad I had a chance to see the younger Niekro and his brother that weekend in 2006. In just a few short hours, Joe made an impact on me, as I’m sure he did with many others along the way.
One of those people was a young girl named Chelsea Baker, who learned the knuckleball from Joe and used it in throwing two perfect games at the Little League level. Now known as the “Knuckleball Princess,” the teenaged Baker has already received an offer to play women’s baseball in Japan.
It’s nice to see his legacy living on. Clearly, Joe Niekro was one of the good guys.