Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who pitched well into his 40s with a knuckleball that baffled big league hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Atlanta Braves, has died after a long fight with cancer, the team announced Sunday. He was 81, the AP reports. Niekro won 318 games over his 24-year career, which ended in 1987 at age 48 after he made one final start with the Braves. He was a five-time All-Star who had three 20-win seasons with Atlanta. His signature pitch—which he said also was his only pitch—baffled everyone involved; the batter, catcher, and pitcher didn't know where it would end up. He embraced it in Milwaukee in 1967 at the suggestion of Bob Uecker, a backup catcher.
Niekro mastered the pitch, posting a career record of 318-274, with an ERA of 3.35. "He simply destroys your timing with that knuckleball," said Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, per ESPN. "It comes flying in there dipping and hopping like crazy, and you just can't hit it." It was tough to catch, too; catchers wore an oversize mitt. Former outfielder Rick Monday said, "It actually giggles at you as it goes by." Phil and his brother Joe were taught the knuckleball by their father while growing up in Ohio. Joe Niekro, who died in 2006, also made the big leagues, and the brothers set the Major League record for combined victories by siblings, with 539. ESPN posted video of Niekro pitching here.
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