Phil Niekro

September 22, 2010

Yesterday evening, as I was waiting for a train on the Blue Line at an outdoor station overlooking a highway, I saw a trailer come loose from a large dump truck and careen down the road, the disconnected attachment shooting up an angry plume of sparks as it scraped against the pavement. My train was arriving just as this was happening, so the last I saw was the dump truck moving over and slowing down to the speed of the unhinged trailer, the two wheeled vehicles side by side, one with a driver, one without, traffic already starting to congeal in their wake. On the train ride home, I looked up from my book just once, and it was in time to see two freshly crumpled cars on the side of the highway, the drivers exchanging insurance information grimly. After the train ride, I went to the post office, where all the computers were down and all the priority mail envelopes were gone and all the chained pens were out of ink and a ragged disgruntled line stretched all the way out the door to the parking lot. On my walk home, I watched a black girl in a crowded car scream at a couple white-helmeted Caucasians on bicycles, “Get the fuck out the street!” A few minutes later, a tan woman in a gigantic SUV nearly ran me over while barreling out of an alley and babbling on her cell phone.

So this morning, naturally, I decided I’m going to write about the 1978 Atlanta Braves one card at a time, in order of their appearance in the Topps numbering system for that year. Phil Niekro comes first: Topps 1978 card number 10. His card is one of the few Braves cards for that year given special treatment by the Topps hierarchical numbering system. The scarcity of Braves with cards ending in a zero or a five (an honor bestowed on stars and near-stars) was a big hint that the Braves would be in trouble in the coming year. There were other fairly thunderous omens to that effect. The team was coming off a dismal 101-loss season in 1977 and had been adrift for some years, ever since their anchor Hank Aaron had meandered back to Milwaukee to log a couple last seasons as a designated hitter. What happens when things have been falling apart for so long it starts to feel like the way of the world?

Maybe Phil Niekro knows. By 1978, Niekro had been around for a long time. He was older than all but a handful of players in the game. He had just completed a season in which his prodigious efforts were transformed by the decay of the team into a muddy swamp in which distinctions of good and bad were impossible to discern. In 1977, he had led the league in innings pitched (330) and complete games (20) and collected 16 wins and struck out a career high 262 batters; he also led the league in losses (20), hits allowed (315), walks (164), earned runs (148), and wild pitches (17).

Niekro’s league-topping totals, good, bad, and ugly, derived from a mixture of his peerless durability and consistency, his reliance on the magic and mayhem of the knuckleball, and the putrid nature of the 1977 Braves, who needed Niekro to absorb an abnormally large share of the punishment for their general ineptitude. He was pretty much all they had, like one good soldier in a besieged fort otherwise manned by half-wits and invalids. Soon enough, he’d draw all enemy fire. Soon enough, the walls would cave in.

Niekro’s reaction to all this, at least as far as can be surmised from his photo in this 1978 card, was to stolidly hang in there and take it. The stadium is empty and the future is bleak. But Phil Niekro is not quitting. Phil Niekro will endure.


(Love versus Hate update: Phil Niekro’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


  1. Ah, Candlestick Park with artificial turf. If Phil Niekro can endure that kind of abomination, he can endure anything.

  2. As a new Giants’ fan in the 70’s, I often wondered why so many players from opposing teams had their baseball card pictures taken at my ‘Stick. It must have been the raw beauty of the venue, I concluded 😉

  3. Maybe 15 years ago after the Sox game I went to, we stuck around to watch Phil Niekro’s all female baseball team play a college team; his team was fundamentally sound, but had some difficulty fielding the hard hit balls. I felt kind of bad in that some of Boston’s finest stuck around to jeer the ladies. I recall thinking that Phil looked like a classy kind of guy.

  4. Eewww…Candlestick had astroturf?!? Glad they didn’t keep it like that.

    Neikro’s always interesting. Love this card. You’re right about it’s atmosphere… like he’s just taking the beating that was Atlanta back then, after playing with guys like Aaron and Matthews and Spahn….must’ve been tough.

  5. Never could decide if the ’78 design was blah or appealing in its simplicity. It was the first year I bought the entire set from a mail-order dealer and it felt like I’d sold out. I lost an essential part of collecting, pulling random surprises from a pack.

    Niekro’s career is a lesson for kids who lack a 90 mph fastball. Work on that knuckler. You’ll live long and prosper.

  6. In 1991, after rosters expanded and AAA Richmond’s season was over, Phil Niekro joined the Braves as a coach. Those were giddy times in Atlanta, so the story about how Bobby Cox would pick up the phone in the dugout and Niekro would answer “Braves bullpen” politely on the other end no doubt played to big laughs. I remember thinking, though, how dignified the salutation was, and how Niekro was the perfect guy to offer it.

    And now I’m thinking how bizarre the whole concept of bullpen phones must be in our current era of communication technology. Not as bizarre as bullpen cars, but still pretty damn wacky.

  7. I’m sort of mesmerized by Phil’s warmup jacket. The number is so far down on the jacket. It’s really disconcerting to my eyes.

    On another note, I guess I can look through my ’78 set at the Braves cards to see who will finally win the ongoing contest. I won’t tell, I promise.

  8. I worked with Phil Niekro in the Braves system in the early 90’s and he was such a polite, genuine man.

  9. turftoe: Yes, the conclusion to the battle between Love and Hate will be one of the elements of this tour through the ’78 Braves (unless it goes into extra innings, I guess). I haven’t looked ahead either. Love’s got a rally going in the bottom of the eighth.

    hendu42: I think Bill James once pondered whether superstars were more prone to be nice guys or jerks (or something like that–I remember Brooks Robinson being an example of a nice superstar). What I’m wondering is if guys who throw the knuckleball are more prone to be nice guys. Wakefield certainly has that reputation. I mean, it’s got to teach you something about humility to attach your life to such a thing as a knuckleball.

  10. It was OK for a Phillies fan to like the Braves a bit back then. They had cool uniforms (I even had one of their faux helmets) and they played in the NL West. And they had the league’s premier knuckleballer! The Braves of that period immediately make me think of two things: 1) Veterans Stadium PA announcer Dan Bakers’s joy of introducing Biff [pause] Poc-a-ROBA!!! and 2) a poorly attended extra-inning game at the Vet in which my brother and I got to move down to the first row of field box seats, across from third base, where we and a bunch of other kids who were allowed to move down heckled Braves’ thirdbaseman Jerry Royster. He eventually made an error that we felt responsible for and which led to the winning run.

  11. Brian, I, too, felt a bit of a letdown the first year I bought an entire set (1980). I wasn’t sorry because I got to experience all the cards, but the whole enterprise was over in April. Not quite the same.

    I never really took to the ’78 set–with the goofy cursive writing–and as an AL fan, the NL cards were especially foreign, no team more than the Braves, devoid as they were of stars. Even Niekro’s 20 wins were compromised by the inevitable 20 losses which accompanied them. And all the stadiums looked like the one in this card, empty and plastic. I’ll bet NL fans didn’t see that way, but I sure did.

  12. I saw Phil Niekro pitch almost 9 innings in the first game I ever saw and it was that 1977 season. And, yes, the Vet was one of many plastic and concrete bowls that defined NL baseball in the 70s. I was young enough that I didn’t even know the Braves were no good. Downtown Ollie Brown ended the game with a 3 run shot in the 12th. Last HR of his unheralded career.

  13. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Phil Niekro at a minor league all-star game and he was warm and gracious to everyone.

  14. Phil Niekro has a restaurant at the stadium in the Atlanta suburbs where the Braves’ recently relocated AAA-affiliate Gwinnett Braves play; he also has an open-faced sandwih named after him that is WICKED good:


    I believe the big club has added it to their fare at Turner Field as well, but they’ve got SO MANY different places to buy grub “down there” that I never have time to hunt it down while I’m at major league games.

    Niekro was definitely the “face of the franchise” after Hank Aaron left and remained so until thet let him sign (with the Yankees, I think) as a free agent.

    He was also pitching batting practice for the Atlanta Braves during the 1992 NLCS to try to better prepare the Braves against a young stud of a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates (seriously) named…wait for it…Tim Wakefield. It didn’t help. The only Brave who hit Wake with any regularity at all that series was David Justice. Wake won Games 3 and 6 for the Pirates, and TO THIS DAY I believe that if Leyland started him in Game 7 or at least brought him in from the bullpen to close (Lord knows he wasn’t tired), the Francisco Cabrera/Sid Bream moment never would have happened.

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