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Major League Baseball has lost another legend. Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro passed away overnight following a long battle with cancer, the Atlanta Braves and the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Sunday. He was 81.

"Phil Niekro's record on the field ranks him as one of the game's finest pitchers," Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said in a statement. "As a mentor, leader and friend, Phil brought out the best in all of us in Cooperstown. Over more than a decade of serving as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame, his wisdom, his compassion, and his love for the game proved to be invaluable in helping us shape our decisions. On behalf of the Board of Directors and the staff of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I would like to send our heartfelt condolences to Nancy Niekro and the Niekro family."  

Niekro was born and raised in Ohio and he was a conventional pitching prospect early in his life. His father taught him the knuckleball as a child and he made the switch to full-time knuckleballer while in the minor leagues with the Braves in the early 1960s. Niekro made his MLB debut in 1964 and played 24 seasons in the big leagues, including 21 with the Braves.

During a career that spanned from 1964-87, Niekro went 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA and 3,342 strikeouts. He threw a no-hitter in 1973 and is one of only 10 men in history with 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts. His 5,404 innings pitched are the fourth most in history and the most among pitchers who started their careers in the live ball era (1920 to present).

  1. Cy Young: 7,356 innings (1890-1911)
  2. Pud Galvin: 6,003 1/3 innings (1875-92)
  3. Walter Johnson: 5,914 1/3 innings (1907-27)
  4. Phil Niekro: 5,404 innings (1964-87)
  5. Nolan Ryan: 5,386 innings ( 1966-93)

Niekro left the Braves as a free agent and signed with the Yankees in 1984. After two seasons in New York, he was traded to Cleveland, then he closed out his career with the Blue Jays and a brief return to Atlanta at age 48 in 1987. Niekro is the last pitcher to throw 300 innings in consecutive seasons (1977-79).

Although he never won a Cy Young, Niekro finished in the top six of the voting five times, and was the runner-up to Tom Seaver in 1969. During his peak from 1967-84, Niekro won 278 games and posted a 3.18 ERA in nearly 4,700 innings. He never did win a World Series, but he was a four-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, and he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.

"Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil's 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown. 

"But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game's most genial people," Manfred continued. "He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missed. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil's family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime."  

Off the field, Niekro won the Roberto Clemente Award and Lou Gehrig Award for his charitable endeavors and humanitarian efforts during his career. He also managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, and all-women's baseball team, in the late 1990s.

Niekro's late brother, Joe, pitched 22 years in the big leagues from 1967-88, winning 221 games. The Niekros combined to win 539 games, the most by two brothers in MLB history.

Niekro is the seventh Hall of Famer to pass away in 2020. Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, and Tom Seaver all died earlier this year.