Braves great Phil Niekro passes away at 81

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, 81, died in his sleep overnight, the Atlanta Braves announced in a statement on Sunday.

Niekro had battled cancer, but a cause of death was not reported.

“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro,” a statement from the team begins. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.

“He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country and 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.”

Phil Niekro
Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Niekro, Atlanta Braves legend

Niekro spent 21 his 24 major-league seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. He returned to the Braves in 1987 to pitch his career finale at age 48.

Niekro was famed for his use of the knuckleball, which helped prolong a career that spanned 864 games (716 starts). He finished his career with a 318-274 record and a lifetime 3.35 ERA.

“Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said. “In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown.

“But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game’s most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime.”

He and his younger brother Joe Niekro, who died in 2006 at 61 after suffering a brain aneurysm, hold the record for combined Major League wins by siblings with 539.

Though he left Atlanta in 1984, the Braves retired Phil Niekro’s No. 35 that same season. He was inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame in 1999 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Niekro played for the Yankees (1984-85), Cleveland Indians (1986-87) and Toronto Blue Jays (1987) over his last four seasons.

–Field Level Media (@FieldLevelMedia)