Niekro learned the field, which he used in 24 major league seasons, from his father, also known as Phil, a sand lot thrower in Ohio, who turned to him after an arm injury. It worked so well for young Phil in pickup games with neighborhood kids – including John Havlicek, the future N.B.A. Hall of Famer – that he never saw the need for other parking spaces.
“I didn’t know there were knuckle ball pitchers in the big leagues,” said Niekro a few years ago. “I didn’t even know what an ankle ball was. It was just something I had fun with and played tag with my dad.”
Jim Bouton, the author of “Ball Four” loved telling the story of how they met Niekro in Kearny, Neb., in 1959 when they were both 20 years old and just starting their professional careers. Bouton noticed that Niekro was practicing his ankle ball in the outfield before a game, and dancing the field.
Bouton threw several pitches, including an ankle ball, and asked Niekro what else he was throwing. Nothing else, replied Niekro, and Bouton felt sorry for him. By 1963, Bouton won 21 games for the Yankees and started in the World Series, while Niekro had not yet appeared in the majors.
“I remembered him and thought, ‘Oh, that poor kid, he’s still in the minor leagues and I don’t know how he hangs because I’m on my way to the Hall of Fame,'” Bouton said. a few years before his death in 2019. “You know what? The poor kid, confined to one seat – he’s in the Hall of Fame now. It is a good memory for me of the turtle and the rabbit. “
Niekro was 27 years old before he finally made the majors in August 1966, but his mastery of that one place gave him an amazing kind of durability. By his 30th birthday he had only 31 wins and 287 thereafter. He recorded more than 1,000 innings from 1977 to 1979, when he averaged 19 wins and 19 losses per season.