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Phil Niekro died in his sleep on Saturday following a “long battle with cancer,” the Atlanta Braves said

By Maria Pasquini
December 27, 2020 04:00 PM
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phil niekro
Phil Niekro
| Credit: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Former Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro, known for his trademark knuckleball, has died. He was 81.

The Hall of Famer died on Saturday in his sleep following a “long battle with cancer,” the team announced in a statement the following day.

We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend,” the Braves said in a statement on Sunday. “We will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”

A beloved player, Niekro spent 21 years of his 24-year career in the majors with the Braves, during which time he helped the team win their first division title since relocating from Milwaukee and pitched the franchise’s 12th no-hitter in 1973.

As a sign of respect, the team retired his No. 34 jersey in 1984 — when Niekro started a brief stint with the New York Yankees — and the star was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 1999.

After leaving the Braves, Niekro spent the rest of his four years in the majors playing for a number of teams. After his stint with the Yankees, he went on to play for the Cleveland Indians (who recently announced they will be changing their name) and the Toronto Blue Jays.

He retired at the age of 48, rejoining the Braves to play a final game on Sept. 27, 1987.

To date, Niekro holds the franchise record for most games pitched (740) and ranks fourth in all of baseball for innings pitched. In 1997, the five-time All-Star and five-time Golden Globe member was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

After retiring, in the late 1990s, he also managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-women team.

“Phil Niekro’s record on the field ranks him as one of the game’s finest pitchers,” Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum said in a statement. “As a mentor, leader and friend, Phil brought out the best in all of us in Cooperstown. Over more than a decade of serving as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame, his wisdom, his compassion, and his love for the game proved to be invaluable in helping us shape our decisions."

Dale Murphy, a former teammate of the pitcher's, also mourned his friend's death.

"Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the news today of the passing of Phil Niekro. Knucksie was one of a kind. Friend, teammate, father and husband. Our hearts go out to Nancy Niekro, the kids and grandkids. So thankful for our memories and time together," he wrote. "We'll miss you, Knucksie."

"Ugh heartbroken! An amazing pitcher but an even better man! Thank you Phil for all the laughs and wonderful memories over the years! #RIPKnucksie," added Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. 

In lieu of flowers, the Niekro family has asked for any donations to be directed to the Edmondson Telford Child Advocacy Center.