Niekro makes his pitch for 300th win
It had been a long four weeks for Phil Niekro, sitting on 299 wins.
During that time, the 46-year-old future Hall of Famer had made four starts, going 0-3 while the Yankees battled to stay in the race for the American League East title. He had even been joined in the Yankees clubhouse by his brother Joe Niekro, who was acquired by New York from the Astros for the stretch drive.
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But it wasn’t until Phil made a radical decision – turning his back on the pitch that made him famous – that the milestone victory arrived.
On Oct. 6, 1985, Niekro started the Yankees’ final game of the season against the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. The Jays had clinched the AL East title the day before with a 5-1 victory, rendering the final day’s result meaningless in the standings.
But for Niekro, the game meant a chance to enter the record books as the 18th 300-game winner in history.
Niekro won his 299th game on Sept. 8 against Oakland, improving his record to 15-9 on the season. The Yankees found themselves one-and-a-half games behind the Blue Jays following games on that day, and for the next four weeks the teams battled down the stretch.
But Niekro lost his starts on Sept. 13 against the Blue Jays (despite allowing no earned runs over nine innings), Sept. 18 at Detroit and Sept. 24 against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium. He earned a no-decision when the Yankees rallied for a 5-4 win over Baltimore on Sept. 30, a win that left New York five games behind the Blue Jays with six days left on the schedule.
By the start of play on Saturday, Oct. 5, the Yankees had cut the deficit to two games – with each team having one makeup game to play if New York won on both Saturday and Sunday. But Toronto’s win on Saturday left Niekro’s quest for 300 the main story on the regular season’s final day.
So Niekro decided on a little experiment. He would pitch the game without throwing his legendary knuckleball.
“I always wanted to pitch a game without throwing a knuckleball,” Niekro told the Associated Press after the game.
So for the first 26 outs – as New York built a 5-0 advantage after five innings and led 8-0 going into the bottom of the ninth – Niekro used a variety of change-ups, curveballs and even a screwball to hold the Blue Jays to four walks and three hits. But with former Braves teammate Jeff Burroughs at the plate with two outs, Niekro called on his trusted friend.
“I figured if there’s any way I’m going to win my 300th by striking the guy out, I was going to do it with the pitch that won the first game for me,” Niekro told the Hartford Courant.
So after a first-pitch fastball for a strike, Niekro offered up three straight knuckleballs. Burroughs took one for a ball and the next for a strike, then swung through the third one to give Niekro his historic win.
“Maybe it will set an example for some people who don’t have the ability to throw the fastball or curveball,” Niekro told the Courant. “If you do have a pitch you can get over the plate, you can win.”
Niekro got more good news following the game when Joe informed him that their father, who had been ill in a West Virginia hospital, had been taken out of intensive care.
“He was as much a part of these 300 wins as I was,” said Niekro, who was taught the knuckleball by his father.
The victory also made Niekro the oldest pitcher in history to throw a shutout (a record that was surpassed by Jamie Moyer in 2010). At 46 years and 188 days, Niekro was 113 days older than Satchel Paige when he shut out the White Sox on Sept. 20, 1952.
Niekro pitched two more seasons in the big leagues with the Indians and Braves following his 300th win, adding 18 more wins to his victory total. He retired with a record of 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA over 24 seasons.
Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum