Inside Pitch

Jan. 6, 1997: Phil Niekro elected to Hall of Fame


January 4, 2010

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Phil Niekro’s big league career was never about speed.

He spent six long years in the minor leagues, and once he got to the majors his fluttering knuckleball never let up the radar gun. Then, after 318 victories, Niekro had to wait 10 years before he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Phil Niekro was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 6, 1997. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

But – as always – Niekro found his way to the top.

Thirteen years ago this week – Jan 6, 1997 – Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame on his fifth try on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Niekro received 80.3 percent of the BBWAA vote and was enshrined that summer with Veterans Committee electees Nellie Fox, Tommy Lasorda and Willie Wells.

After beginning his big league career as a reliever – and winning the 1967 National League earned-run average title with a mark of 1.87 despite making only 20 starts – Niekro burst onto the national scene with a 23-13 mark in 1969, finishing second in the NL Cy Young Award voting behind Tom Seaver.

Over the next 11 seasons, Niekro averaged 16 wins and 287 innings pitched per season for a Braves team that finished better than .500 just three times. Niekro pitched until he was 48 years old, baffling hitters with his dancing knuckler.

His final record: 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA, five All-Star Game selections and two 20-win seasons.

"I got to meet a lot of important people catching Phil Niekro," said 2003 Ford C. Frick Award winner and former big league backstop Bob Uecker, who – like most catchers – struggled to corral Niekro's knuckleball. "They all sit behind home plate."

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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