November 7 – Happy Birthday Joe Niekro
The Yankee organization of the mid 1980′s had not yet completely given up home-growing their own pitchers. One of them, a quickly aging Ron Guidry was still their ace starter and another, Dave Righetti had become the master closer in the team’s bullpen. When the 1985 season opened, New York’s front office was still counting heavily on prospects like Bob Tewksbury and Doug Drabek. While they were waiting for those prospects to fully develop however, New York patched their starting rotation with veteran pitchers like Phil Niekro and Ed Whitson. The knuckle-balling Niekro had been a particularly successful pickup. He was a 16-game winner for the Yankees in both 1984 and ’85 and his final win of that ’85 season was also his 300th career victory.
It was the success his older sibling was enjoying in New York and the opportunity to continue pitching on the same team as him that had convinced Joe Niekro to sign a two-year deal to keep pitching in pinstripes. The Yankees had acquired the younger Niekro from Houston the previous September and he had won two of his three year-end decisions for New York. Though he had spent the first ten years of his career pitching deep in the shadow of his older brother, he had found his own groove with the Houston Astros in 1977. Not coincidentally, it was right around that same time that Joe decided to join Phil and begin using the knuckleball their Dad had taught them both as kids, as his primary pitch. For the next ten years he was one of the most effective starters in the National League. He won 20 games twice during that span and helped the Astros reach the franchise’s first two postseasons.
I can distinctly remember thinking (more accurately hoping) as the Yankee 1986 spring training camp opened, that the Niekro boys were going to make a big contribution to that year’s team. Instead, in what was a bitter disappointment for both brothers, Yankee skipper Lou Piniella waited till the very end of that exhibition season to inform Phil Niekro he was being released. New York had decided to go with the youngsters Tewksbury and Drabek in their season opening rotation, leaving Joe’s brother as the odd man out. A violently angry Joe Niekro demanded to be traded and when his request was not fulfilled, he spent the next-season-and-a-half pitching unhappily in pinstripes. He went 9-10 in 1986 and was 3-4 for New York, in June of 1987, when he was traded to the Twins for catcher Mark Salas.
Joe Niekro retired after the 1988 season with a lifetime record of 221 – 204. When added to Phil’s 318 career wins, the Niekro brothers’ combined victory total of 539 set the record for big-league siblings (10 more than the Perry brothers won.) Joe Niekro died of a brain aneurism at the age of 61 in 2006.
This former Yankee catcher and this one-time Yankee relief pitcher and YES game announcer share Niekro’s November 7th birthday.