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Joseph Franklin Niekro (November 7 1944October 27 2006) was an American starting pitcher in Major League Baseball, the younger brother of pitcher Phil Niekro, and the father of first baseman Lance Niekro. A native of Blaine, Ohio, Niekro attended Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Ohio. He batted and threw right-handed. He debuted on 16 April 1967 and went on to play in 22 major league seasons, half with the Houston Astros and the rest with 6 other teams.


Much more traveled than his brother Phil, Niekro pitched for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers with only occasional success before joining Phil with the Atlanta Braves in 1973. Joe used a fastball and a slider early in his career, with mixed results. He spent two seasons in Atlanta with Phil and got re-acquainted with the knuckleball that their father taught them. The knuckleball became an essential part of his arsenal though never his sole pitch. Joe threw harder than Phil and could set up batters nearly as effectively with his fastball in combination with his excellent change-up.

The Houston Astros purchased Niekro's contract from the Braves for $35,000 in 1975. He blossomed into a dominant pitcher as he perfected his knuckleball in Houston, going 21-11 in 1979 and 20-12 in 1980, to became the first Astros pitcher to win 20 games in consecutive seasons. He also made the National League All-Star team in 1979, a season in which he led the league with his 21 wins and five shutouts, won the TSN Pitcher of the Year Award, and ended second in voting for the Cy Young Award behind Bruce Sutter.

In 1980, Houston had a three-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, then lost their last three games of the regular season in Los Angeles, to force a one-game playoff. Niekro allowed six hits in a 7–1 Houston victory that propelled the Astros to their first postseason. He then pitched 10 shutout innings in Game 3 of the NLCS and the Astros won 1–0, though they lost the series to the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-2.

In 1985, Houston traded the 40-year-old Niekro to the New York Yankees, where he briefly reunited again with Phil. Niekro finished his career with the Minnesota Twins, where he pitched in the World Series for the only time, in 1987. Earlier that season, Niekro was suspended for 10 games when umpire Steve Palermo discovered a nail file in his pocket. The video clip of Niekro reaching into his pockets, pulling out his hands, and throwing them in the air while the nail file fluttered to the ground made a lot of sports-highlight shows and is a common "blooper" clip today. Niekro said he was filing his nails in the dugout, but American League president Dr. Bobby Brown didn't believe him, and ordered the suspension. Niekro played his final game on May 4, 1988, ending his 22-year majors career.

On October 26 2006, Niekro suffered a brain aneurysm and was taken to South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City, Florida. He was later transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Florida, where he died the following day at age 61.


  • His 221 career wins make him one of the most successful knuckleball pitchers of all time. The Niekro brothers combined for 539 total wins, making them the most successful brother combination in major league history.
  • On May 29, 1976, Joe hit the only big league home run of his career (973 lifetime at bats). The home run came off his brother Phil.[1]
  • When Niekro appeared in the 1987 World Series with Minnesota, he set a record for the longest period of time elapsed between a player's major league debut and his first appearance in the Series.
  • Niekro is the second member of Minnesota's 1987 World Championship team to have died, the first, Kirby Puckett, died March 6 of the same year. Coincidentally, Puckett died of a hemorrhagic stroke brought on by hypertension.

Career statistics[]

221 204 .520 3.59 702 500 107 29 16 3584 3466 1431 1620 276 1262 1747 172 65

Nail file humour[]

  • He had a memorable appearance on Late Night with David Letterman on August 15, 1987 during the time he was serving his suspension for having a nail file on the mound. He walked on stage wearing a carpenter's apron and carrying a power sander. [2]
  • When the Minnesota Twins released a bobblehead set of the 1987 World Series team, the bobblehead for Niekro included the nail file in his back pocket.

See also[]


  1. Retrosheet Boxscore: Houston Astros 4, Atlanta Braves 3
  2. "SPORTS PEOPLE; Suspended Animation". New York Times. August 16, 1987. Retrieved October 28, 2006.

External links[]

Preceded by:
Gaylord Perry
National League Wins Champion
(with Phil Niekro)
Succeeded by:
Steve Carlton