JOSEPH NIEKRO, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL STAR
October 30, 2006 - Wheeling News-Register & Intelligencer
NIEKRO, Joseph, 61, of Plant City, Fla., passed away on Friday, October 27, 2006. Mr. Niekro was born in Ohio, and moved here from Lakeland fourteen years ago.
Mr. Niekro was a former major-league pitcher, he pitched 22 seasons in the majors before retiring in 1988 with a lifetime record of 221-204. He was an All-Star in 1979 when he won 21 games for Houston, then followed it with 20 victories in 1980. In addition to the Astros, Niekro pitched for six other teams, Chicago Cubs, San Diego, Detroit, Atlanta, New York Yankees and Minnesota.
He was predeceased by his father, Phil Niekro Sr.
Survivors include his wife, Debra Niekro of Plant City; sons, Lance Niekro of Lakeland and J.J. Niekro of Plant City; daughter, Natalie Niekro of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and mother, Henrietta Nielcro, of Lansing, Ohio; brother, Phil Niekro and wife, Nancy, of Flowery Branch, Ga.; sister, Phyllis and husband, Ed Dillmore, of Evans, Ga.; several nieces and nephews.
The family will receive friends on Monday, October 30, 2006, from 5-8 p.m. at Wells Memorial Chapel.
A Funeral Mass will be held on Tuesday, October, 31, 2006 at 10 a.m. at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico. Memorial contributions can be made to St. Stephen Catholic School at 5409 Bell Shoals Road Valrico, FL. 33594 or to a charity of your choice.
October 30, 2006 - Wheeling News-Register & Intelligencer
JOE NIEKRO DIES
By JIM ELLIOTT and GABE WELLS Staff Writers
LANSING — Before Joe Niekro was a professional baseball all-star, he was a boy growing up in Lansing — then part of the national championship team at West Liberty State College.
A former coach and a pair of former teammates of the late Niekro remember a family man who loved the Ohio Valley.
Niekro posted more than 200 victories in 20 seasons as a major league pitcher, but not until after he was a teammate of Wheeling resident Floyd Shuler and Wellsburg’s Frank Ujcich at West Liberty State College.
In 1964, that West Liberty team claimed an NAIA national championship — something Ujcich said was basically unheard of from a group of local guys.
“We had 16 guys from the area and two from Pittsburgh,” said Ujcich, who went on to play in the New York Mets organization. “When we used to play other places like Kent State, we’d get made fun of because we had on our winter greys and they had 25 guys in their summer uniforms, but we competed.”
That was, in part, because of Niekro, who set an NAIA World Series record for assists by a pitcher (6) in a 2-1 complete-game, 10-inning victory against Sam Houston State in an elimination game. More than four decades later, that record still stands.
Shuler remembered Niekro as a great athlete who also played basketball as a Hilltopper. Although Niekro spent his retirement years in Lakeland, Fla., the Ohio Valley was always special to the Niekro family, according to Shuler.
“He never forgot about the valley and the friends he had in valley,” Shuler said. “He always stayed in touch. He never forgot about his roots. It’s a sad day for all of us, and a sad day for everyone who knew Joe.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Ujcich.
“Joe was a very good friend,” said Ujcich, who was a year ahead of Niekro at West Liberty but later could be found having dinner with the Major League pitcher while he was playing in the Northern League. “He and I got along real well together.
“It was quite a shock for me this morning,” Ujcich said Saturday.
Ujcich attended a 40-year reunion of that team in 2004, where they played golf together at Williams Country Club and, later, met up for dinner at Stratford Springs in Wheeling.
Shuler had met up with Niekro more recently.
“I saw Joe in the spring,” Shuler added. “We had been going to get together and go fishing, but we never got around to it. We had played golf in the past few years. It just shows how fragile life is.”
Joe Niekro and his older brother Phil — a Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer with more than 300 mound victories to his credit — graduated from Bridgeport High School.
Al Blatnik, their high school baseball coach, said he remembers Joe as a hard worker on the field and a family man off of it.
“He was the kind of player that left nothing to chance,” Blatnik said. “He was a hard worker. His family was extremely important to him, and he wanted to succeed for them.”
Joe was a third-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs out of West Liberty. He rocketed through three of the Cubs’ minor league teams in 1966 and made the 1967 Cubs team in spring training. He made his major league debut in a ninth-inning relief appearance against the Pirates at Forbes Field on April 16, 1967. Manager Leo Durocher moved him into Chicago’s starting rotation a couple of weeks later.
Joe got his first start against brother Phil later that season in the first game of a July 4 doubleheader at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Joe was lifted after giving up solo home runs to Mack Jones and Rico Carty in the third inning. Phil went the distance, giving up just four hits, in an 8-3 victory.
But it was Joe who wound up getting the last laugh by the end of their careers. He was 5-4 against Phil in their head-to-head matchups and Joe also hit his only career home run off Phil on May 29, 1976, when he launched a game-tying shot off Phil in the bottom of the seventh.
“Occasionally, he’d get a little dig in about that,” Ujcich said.
The Astros, for whom Joe was pitching, went on to a 4-3 victory.
Joe and Phil each spent more than two decades in the majors and were teammates twice. They were together with the Braves in 1973-74 and also spent time with the Yankees in 1985.
They combined for 539 major league victories, the all-time record for brothers. They broke the record of 529 wins set by the Perry brothers (Jim and Gaylord).
Both Niekros were late bloomers. Of their 539 combined wins, 450 of them came after each had celebrated his 30th birthday.
Joe never threw a no-hitter, but he came close a couple of times. Pitching for the Tigers on July 2, 1970, he carried a no-hitter through eight innings only to see the New York Yankees Horace Clarke break it up with a single in the top of the ninth.
He also lost a no-hit bid on June 4, 1986, when the California Angels Gary Pettis doubled with two out in the eighth.
Now famous for their knuckleballs, Blatnik said the pitch was not the result of his tutelage. He said the knuckleball came from the Niekros’ father – Phil Sr.
Joe came up as a traditional fastball/slider pitcher but after winning 44 games as a starter in his first four big-league seasons, he began to struggle and was relegated to the bullpen with the Tigers. He pitched sparingly out of the bullpen during his two seasons with the Braves but was convinced by Phil to spend more time working on the knuckleball.
Joe was traded to Houston in 1975 and spent the next two seasons polishing the floater before getting another chance as a starter in 1977.
Two years later, he emerged as one of the premier pitchers in the National League at age 34.
He went 21-11 in 1979, leading the National League with five shutouts. His 21 victories were tied for first in the National League with his brother.
Joe just missed winning the 1979 National League Cy Young Award. He finished a close second to Cardinals reliever Bruce Sutter. Niekro had 66 votes to 72 for Sutter. Joe was also sixth that year in voting for the National League MVP.
In 1980, Joe became the first Astros pitcher ever to post back-to-back 20-win seasons with a 20-12 record. His 20th victory was a complete-game six-hitter against Los Angeles that clinched the NL West title for the Astros— the team’s first pennant of any kind. After the Phillies had beaten Houston in the first two games of the NLCS, Joe led the Astros to their first-ever postseason victory by hurling 10 shutout innings in Game 3.
Joe played from 1967-88 with the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros and Yankees.
He’s the winningest pitcher in Astros history (144-116) and compiled a lifetime major league record of 221-204.
Joe had a knack for shining the brightest when the spotlight was on. In three postseason appearances with the Astros and Twins, he hurled 20 scoreless innings, scattering 14 hits and 5 walks.
The highlight of his career — when at age 42 — he tossed two scoreless innings for the Twins in Game 4 of the 1987 World Series.
His 8-year-old son, Lance, now a first baseman with the San Francisco Giants, was a batboy for the Twins during the series and got to celebrate on the field with his dad after the Twins beat the Cardinals, 4-2, in Game 7 at the Metrodome.
After retiring, Joe spent as much time as possible working with Lance to help him realize his major league dream. He was a pitching coach for many of Lance’s youth league teams and even helped out on the coaching staff at Florida Southern during Lance’s college career.
Joe talked about teaching Lance how to throw the knuckleball and Lance actually had some success with it while pitching for his high school team in Florida, but Joe said all along the best chance Lance had of making a career out of baseball was with both hands wrapped around a bat instead of two fingertips cradling a ball.
Lance Niekro hit .246 in with five home runs and 31 RBIs 199 at-bats this season for the Giants.