In 1977 the Atlanta Braves were awful! They finished 6th place (last) in the National League West and owned the worst record in the NL. Phil Niekro was their Ace starter (16-20) and it is fitting that he would lead the league in losses in 1977. He would ultimately pace the NL in that ominous category for 4 straight years, losing 76 games over that span. Despite his penchant for losses, he was the Braves best and most reliable starter, generally accounting for more than a quarter of their wins for the season. Aside from winning percentage (Eddie Solomon was 6-6) he led the team’s starters in every pitching category, good and bad. 1977 was manager Dave Bristol’s final year at the helm for the Braves, in 1978 Bobby Cox would take over and eventually turn things around. Unfortunately he only stuck around until 1981 and didn’t turn things around on that first stint. He returned in 1990 (after Niekro was retired), and a ton of NL Pennants and a World Series win later, Cox is still the man with the plan in Atlanta. 1974 AL MVP Jeff Burroughs had a MVP type season with big Triple Crown numbers in his first year with the Braves in ’77 (.271/41/114) but there were few other bright spots for the last place squad. They were bad and they had been bad for a while. Aside from pacing the league in the bad categories-he was tops in losses, earned runs, hits, wild pitches and walks, he led the NL with a career high 262 strikeouts, 48 more than JR Richard in 2nd place. He finished 20 of his 43 starts to lead the league in both of those categories, and he was also first in innings pitched with 330. He did all of this at 38 years of age and he was just getting warmed up. In 1979, at 40, and under Bobby Cox the Braves still finished in last place, and Niekro accounted for nearly 1/3 of the teams 66 wins that year. Phil Niekro would lead the league in losses again, but also tie for the league in wins with his brother Joe who was 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA. The younger Niekro, Joe, would finish second in Cy Young voting that year behind reliever Bruce Sutter. This 1980 Topps card, #205, is one of my favorites because it shows the two brothers dominating their league in wins. I always found it astonishing that Phil Niekro was able to top the NL in both wins and losses in the same season, but when you pitch as much as Phil did, it’s possible. In 1979 he set personal career highs in starts (44), complete games (23) and innings with a whopping 342 and by the way, he was 40 years old! This kind of stuff was par for the course for this knuckleballer who would be dominant, steady, reliable and tireless over 3 separate decades. In 24 big league seasons he averaged 31 starts and 11 complete games each year and he pitched till he was 48 years old and more often than not was pitching for inferior teams. With everything he would accomplish over his long career, he never made it to the World Series and only saw the postseason twice, in ’69 and ’82. The fans did appreciate Niekro’s loyalty though; his number 35 is retired by the team. Sadly, Braves management wasn’t as loyal to him. After a total of 26 seasons with the Braves organization, beginning in the minors, through Milwaukee and onto Atlanta, he was released after the 1983 season. At 44 years of age Niekro would go 11-10 with a 3.08 ERA en route to a second place finish under Joe Torre. The prior season Niekro was 17-4 and the Braves won the west before losing to St. Louis in the ALCS.
Niekro wouldn’t be out of a job for long, he signed on with the New York Yankees and assumed the role as their staff ace at the ripe age of 45, he was the Yankees opening day starter. The Yanks would finish 3rd in the AL East and Niekro would lead the staff in starts, innings, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts. He made his 5th and final All Star appearance that year and finished the season with a 16-8 record and a 3.09 ERA. At 46 the Yankees finished just two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays, but Ron Guidry had replaced Niekro as ace. He still managed a 16-12 record and he wasn’t done pitching either. He continued to hang on and made stops playing in Cleveland and Toronto before finishing his career where it began, on a last place Braves team. Niekro made one final start for the Braves in 1987 at 48 years old. He lasted just 3 innings and gave up 5 runs and finally decided to call it quits in the game of baseball. When I first got this card Niekro looked like an old man to me, he was much older than my Dad and he just didn’t look like a baseball player and I initially thought he was a coach. At this point he had pitched for 14 years and owned 178 career wins, but I had no idea that he had only just begun. He accomplished more after 40 than most pitchers do in their entire careers. He would become a running joke with my friends and me, about how long he would pitch and if the Braves would put a rocking chair in the dugout for him. Satchel Paige pitched far longer, but he did have the bullpen rocker and Niekro was the closest to Satchel that my generation would see. He did play for 10 years after this card was printed and he would win 140 more games. When he notched career win number 300 on October 6, 1985 (and I can remember watching on TV) he did so in a Yankees uniform against the Blue Jays and he hit that milestone in style. At 46 years old he went the distance and shut out the Jays to become not only the oldest player to throw a shutout, but the first member of the 300-win-club to join in that fashion. It would be the 45th shutout (29th All Time) of his career and barring his no-hitter in 1973, it was probably his most memorable. In his 24 seasons in the majors he never did make it to the World Series or win ROY or Cy Young or an MVP, but he did manage to lead the league in every single pitching category (good and bad) at one point or another in his storied career. He was a 5-time All Star and also won 5 Gold Gloves, but it almost stands out more that he had 19 seasons where he wasn’t an All Star. He was a nightmare to hit and Bobby Murcer spoke the greatest quote to describe his stuff when he said “Trying to hit him is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.” That said, it was his reliability and longevity that made him an Immortal. His success was as great as his futility, but for 24 seasons, he was always there to start a ballgame (30-plus times) each year. Now, onto….
The Nitty Gritty
Name/Number: Phil Niekro #35
Position: Starting pitcher, Braves Ace
Age-Now and Then: Was 38, he is now 70 and finally stopped pitching…
Team’s 1977 Record: 61-101, 6th place in NL West
Topps Rookie Card: 1965 Topps, card #541 with Phil Roof Number of Topps Base Cards: 25
1977 Stats Line: 16-20 with a 4.03 ERA.
Awards in 1977: Led league in losses, but also in strikeouts, innings, starts and complete games.
Distinguishing Feature: His trench coat.
Similar Modern Player: Who else but Tim Wakefield…
What I said about this card then: Is this guy a coach?
What I think about this card now: Sweet! Hall of Famer!
Back of the card memorable moment: No room for one, too many stats! Back of the card “fun fact”: I’ll have to make one up; his nickname is “Knucksie” for reasons unknown, at 38 years young he isn’t thinking about retiring…
The condition: Ex-Mt, centered 60/40
Grooviness factor: The bushy hair, the long jacket, the “where am I” look all scream the 70s.
Wow! Factor: Would win 140 more games.
What’s weird about this card: The Marlboro man in the background?
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame in 1997. 318 wins (16th All Time) and 3,342 Ks-11th All Time.
Best Season: So many… Had a league leading 1.87 ERA in 1967. Was 20-13 with a 2.38 ERA in 1974.
Nitty Gritty Fun Facts: Won his 300th game with a shutout at 46 years of age.
Where are they now? He was the manager for the Colorado Silver Bullets (now defunct) female baseball team.
Phil Niekro was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1997; he and his brother Joe are the winningest brother combo in baseball history. This card is the first of 33 different Hall of Famer cards in this set… Card #11, Rick Manning, your on deck! 31 years, LATER!