Move to Yankees showed Niekro had plenty of pitches remaining
At the end of the 1983 season, Phil Niekro was 44 years old and no longer a member of the Atlanta Braves.
But some of Niekro’s most memorable moments still lay ahead.
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On Jan. 5, 1984, Niekro signed a two-year free agent deal with the Yankees worth a reported $1.4 million. Coming off an 11-10 record with Atlanta in 1983 – his 20th season with the Braves – Niekro was released by the only franchise he had ever known.
Atlanta led the NL West for much of the 1983 season, but a 14-24 stretch to end the season left the Braves in second place and owner Ted Turner looking to make changes.
“I don’t think (the Braves will) ever convince me that I’m not as good as some of the best pitchers in their camp,” Niekro told the Philadelphia Inquirer during Spring Training of 1984.
Despite the Braves’ end-of-the-season slump in 1983, Niekro was 9-4 with a 3.26 ERA in his final 20 appearances. His legendary knuckleball helped him post a 3.97 ERA over 201.2 innings. For his career, Niekro’s record stood at 268-230 with a 3.20 ERA.
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind could have turned this down,” Niekro told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m happy. The Yankees are happy. They have a contenting club, and they’re paying me a whale of a compliment.
“I’ve never seen Yankee Stadium. I’ve never pitched in Fenway Park. It should be a fun experience.”
Niekro wasted no time getting comfortable in New York, starting the Yankees’ second game of the 1984 season and winning his first four decisions. After working eight scoreless innings in New York’s 5-0 win over Texas on July 4 and improving his record to 11-4 with a 1.84 ERA, the 45-year-old Niekro was the talk of the baseball world and an All-Star for the fifth time.
He finished the season at 16-8 with a 3.09 ERA, then followed that with a 16-12 record and a 4.09 ERA in 1985. On the final day of that season, Niekro won his 300th career game – using his famous knuckleball only once, on the last pitch of the contest.
After being released by the Yankees at the end of Spring Training in 1986, Niekro signed with the Indians and went 11-11 with a 4.32 ERA, working 210.1 innings in his age-47 season. He would spent the 1987 season with the Indians and Blue Jays before returning to the Braves for his last appearance on Sept. 27.
Niekro finished his career with a record of 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997.
“I still say the mound is 60 feet, six inches from the plate,” Niekro said on the day he signed with the Yankees. “You still have a home plate, a backstop, nine men on the field. You still get four balls and three strikes. The game doesn’t change, the show goes on.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum