Phil and his brother Joe Niekro amassed 539 wins between them, the most combined wins by brothers in baseball history. Phil Niekro's 121 career victories after the age of 40 is a major league record, and his longevity is attributed to the knuckleball, which is a difficult pitch to master but is easy on the arm and often baffles hitters due to its unpredictable trajectory. He is also the uncle of former first baseman and pitcherLance Niekro.
Niekro was the last MLB pitcher to have both won and lost 20 or more games in the same season; with the 1979 Braves, Niekro finished with 21 wins and 20 losses. His third and final 20-win season came in 1979; it was also the second and final year that he lost 20 games.
Niekro was born in Blaine, Ohio, attended Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Ohio, and was a boyhood friend of Basketball Hall-of-Famer John Havlicek. The baseball field on which he played at Bridgeport High School's Perkins Field athletic complex was renamed "The Niekro Diamond" in 2008 after both Phil and his brother, Joe. Niekro was the son of a coal miner; his father had pitched semipro baseball and had learned to throw a knuckleball from another coal miner. Phil and his younger brother, fellow major league pitcher Joe Niekro, learned the pitch from their father in their backyard as kids. Phil and his family have continued to support the students of Bridgeport High School with the proceeds from the annual golf tournament "The Niekro Classic".
Niekro was signed to the Milwaukee Braves by scout Bill Maughn in 1959 for $250. He pitched for minor league teams at several levels for the next few years, appearing mostly as a relief pitcher. While he was briefly promoted to the Class AAA Louisville Colonels in 1960, he spent the entire next season with the Class AA Austin Senators. He returned to Louisville in 1962 and recorded a 9-6 win-loss record. He missed the 1963 season due to military service.
Niekro debuted with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964. He pitched a partial season in MLB from 1964, pitching 15 major league innings and spending time with the team's class AAA minor league affiliate. He stayed with the major league team all year in 1965, appearing in 742⁄3 innings in 41 games and recording six saves. In 1966, Niekro split time again between the Braves and their minor league system. Niekro led the league with a 1.87 earned run average (ERA) in 1967, earning an 11-9 record with 10 complete games and 9 saves. He had begun the year as a relief pitcher but had earned a job in the starting rotation during the season.
Before the 1968 season, sportswriter Fred Down described the Braves' pitching staff as "chaotic" and reported that team leadership was planning to use Niekro as both a starter and a reliever in the coming season. He appeared in 37 games, finishing with a 14-12 record and 15 complete games. He appeared in relief three times, earning two saves. In 1969, he had a 23–13 season with a 2.56 ERA. He finished second in Cy Young balloting. The Braves went to the playoffs, where Niekro was 0-1 with four earned runs in an eight-inning appearance against the New York Mets. Niekro's playoff loss came against Cy Young Award winner Tom Seaver. The team was eliminated from the playoffs after losing the next two games.
Niekro led the league in several pitching categories in 1974, including wins, complete games and innings pitched. He finished third in the voting for the Cy Young Award that year. Between 1977 and 1979, Niekro was the league leader in complete games, innings pitched and batters faced. In 1979, the 40-year-old Niekro led the league in both wins (21) and losses (20). He finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting in both 1978 and 1979.
In 1982, at the age of 43, Niekro led the team with a 17–4 season. On October 1, with the Braves clinging to a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Niekro beat the San Diego Padres almost single-handedly by throwing a complete game shutout and hitting a two-run home run. Niekro started Game One of the subsequent NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched well, but the game was called on account of rain just before it became official. He pitched six innings of Game Two and left with a 3–2 lead. However, the Cardinals scored 2 late runs after Niekro left the game and would eventually sweep the series.
He was popular in the city of Atlanta for remaining loyal to a team that often had a losing record, as well as for his contributions to Atlanta charities. On August 5, 1973, Niekro threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. The no-hitter was the first for the Braves after moving to Atlanta. He was often the only star on the Braves teams. In 1979, for example, Niekro tied his brother for the league lead with 21 wins while playing for a team that only won 66.
The Braves released Niekro after the 1983 season and he signed with the New York Yankees and went on to win 16 games and make the last of his five All-Star appearances. It was while pitching for the Yankees that Niekro gained entry into the 300 win club with a shutout win over the Toronto Blue Jays on October 6, 1985. At 46 years, 188 days, Niekro became the oldest pitcher to pitch a shutout in the major leagues; this record stood for nearly 25 years before Jamie Moyer (47 years, 170 days) bested the feat in May 2010; for Niekro, this complete-game shutout would be his 300th win. He did not throw his trademark knuckleball until the final hitter, former AL MVPJeff Burroughs. Prior to facing Burroughs, Niekro's teammate and brother Joe visited the mound in the role of "substitute pitching coach" and jokingly suggested that an intentional walk was in order. Instead, Niekro struck Burroughs out to end the game.
After two seasons in New York, Niekro pitched for the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays in 1986 and 1987. The Blue Jays released him after he pitched ineffectively, and the Braves brought him back for one last start to wrap up his career late in the 1987 season. At the age of 48, Niekro was the oldest player in major league history to play regularly until Julio Franco, and his 24 seasons in the major leagues without a World Series appearance is a major league record. His total of 5,404⅓ innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 live-ball era. He only appeared in the postseason twice, making a playoff start in 1969 and again in 1982, both for Braves teams that lost the series.
His pitching featured the knuckleball, which frustrated major league hitters. Ralph Kiner compared Niekro's special pitch to "watching Mario Andretti park a car."Pete Rose said, "I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil messes it up in one night... Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living." Catcher Bob Uecker was also frustrated by the pitch at times, saying, "Niekro struck out a hitter once and I never touched the ball. It hit me in the shinguard, bounced out to Clete Boyer at third base and he threw out the runner at first. Talk about a weird assist: 2-5-3 on a strikeout."
Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, his fifth year of eligibility. He was the only player elected that year; Tony Pérez and Don Sutton were among the notable players who were not elected. After he was notified, Niekro said, "Giving a description of today's phone call is impossible. I've been stunned before. I just didn't prepare myself this year. I was not going to get myself so high." Niekro had received the most Hall of Fame votes in 1996 but had not received the required 75 percent of votes for election.
Niekro is a member of the Kiz Toys Board of Advisors. Kiz Toys is a toy company based out of Cumming, Georgia, and Niekro advises the company on the KizSport baseball line, reviewing product designs and development on an ongoing basis and offering suggestions on current and future products.
The Gwinnett Braves' stadium has a restaurant named Niekros after him; it features the Knucksie Sandwich made of barbecue and cole slaw atop a corn muffin, said to be his favorite.