Sunday, May 15, 2022

Niekro Brothers

Imagine this situation:
You're an aspiring young pitcher from Ohio who makes it to the big leagues in 1964. You don't get many starts those first couple of years, but by 1967 two pretty cool things happen: You get a whole lot of starts for the Atlanta Braves and pitch rather well (11 W, 9 L, 1.87 ERA), and your little brother Joe, also a pitcher, makes it to the majors with the Chicago Cubs.

The boosts you get from those events really set you off. Over the next 10 years you pitch to a winning record almost every season, and gain the nickname "Knucksie" around the baseball world for the baffling knuckleball you've developed.

During that same time period, however, little brother Joe struggles a bit. He bounces from Chicago to San Diego to Detroit, and just can't seem to get it going. He doesn't start a whole lot of games, and doesn't turn many heads despite a good fastball and slider.

Then, after three teams in six seasons he's on the move again. In 1973 he's claimed off waivers by...

...the Atlanta Braves.

You'd be together on a major league roster!

And during this time, little brother Joe would start working the knuckleball into his repertoire, too. (Your dad taught the pitch to both of you back home in Ohio.) It didn't quite pay off during his stay in Atlanta, but soon he'd be heading over to Houston, and that knuckleball would start to pay dividends.
Here are the two brothers around that time, captured on some good looking-cardboard.
1976 Topps #273 Joe Niekro and #435 Phil Niekro
In 1979, a few short years after those cards were released, you and little bro would have career years. In fact, you'd find yourselves in a race to see who would win 20 games first.
With Houston, little brother Joe would streak out to a record of 13–3 by the first week of July, while you'd be middling at 11–10 with Atlanta. Joe would stay relatively hot into September, hitting the 20-win mark on the 22nd against Cincinnati, giving him a record of 20–10. You, on the other hand, would stay in that middling state, trading wins and losses pretty regularly and reaching a record of 19–20 on the same day with a win against San Francisco.

Your team still had another 10 games to go before the season ended, and you'd have your first shot at 20 wins on September 26th, a home game. And guess what?
The game was against the Houston Astros.
And guess what else?
Little brother Joe was their scheduled starter! 
It would be Niekro vs. Niekro. Would you and your team beat up on little bro, giving you 20 wins? Or would little brother hit 21 wins and leave you at 19, with only one more start in the season to hit 20?
You pitch well to start the game, allowing only 2 hits over the first 4 innings. The Astros take one off you in the 5th inning to make it a 4-1 score (Joe only lasted 2.1 innings, giving up 4 runs on 6 hits), but in the bottom of the same inning your guys put up 3 runs of their own, and then add another 2 runs in the 6th to make the score 9-1. With the comfortable lead, you keep pitching well. You allow 1 more run in the 8th to make it 9-2, and then 2 runs in the 9th with 2 outs, but then you close the deal for the complete game victory. The final score is 9-4, and you have win number 20!
I wonder if both brothers had a little moment to celebrate after the game.
Here are career totals for both brothers. Pedro Martinez







(22 seasons)


(24 seasons)

























Phil was a 5x all-star and 5x Gold Glove Award winner, was the ERA leader in 1967 with a 1.87, and racked up 3,000+ career strikeouts. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. He took the mound for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Yankees, Indians, and Blue Jays.
Joe was a 1x all-star and was a World Series champion with Minnesota in 1987. He pitched for the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros, Yankees, and Twins.
Also of note, both brothers held their own at the plate. Have a look at these numbers:
Phil: 1537 AB, 260 H, 42 2B, 1 3B, 7 HR, 109 RBI, .169/.183/.211
Joe: 865 AB, 132 H, 21 2B, 0 3B, 1 HR, 72 RBI, .156/.188/.188
So here's to the knuckleballing Niekros. Lots of wins, strikeouts, wild pitches, passed balls, and a great 20-win season for both of them in 1979.


  1. Must have been pretty cool to get #20 against your brother. But I'm sure it was even cooler just to have the opportunity to play on the same team with him. Crazy to think Phil went 21-20 in 1979. 41 decisions in one season. I wonder who was the last pitcher to do that.

    1. Yes, that's definitely a good question, Fuji. My guess would be a pitcher from the 1980s. I couldn't imagine it would be more recent than that.

  2. I remember that season! ... I interviewed both of them on the same phone call.

    1. Legendary interview, Night Owl! That's so cool.

  3. Love Knucksy and his brother. Great recap of a really cool moment. always wish I had gotten to see Phil pitch. Fun post.

    1. Thanks very much, Bulldog! I'm sure you can find some videos on YouTube that show Phil pitching. Probably even full games -- at least from the 1980s.

  4. I've always wondered what the dialogue was between brothers who both made it to the big leagues - especially if they ended up pitching against one another. Must've made for some interesting conversations!

    1. Right? I get that image of both guys sitting at payphones, or on their hotel room phones, just chatting about baseball or ribbing each other when they pitched poorly.

  5. Pretty cool to have two brothers able to pitch at that level. IIRC, Joe was left off the playoff roster during the Twins run in 1987 (along with Steve Carlton), but he did earn an appearance on David Letterman.

    1. Agreed. I can't imagine how proud their parents must have been. And according to baseball-reference, Joe pitched a couple of innings in the 1987 World Series. I wonder if it was a nice gesture by the Twins just to get him into a game so he could earn a championship ring. He pitched well in those two innings, allowing just one hit and striking out one batter. (He also hit a batter. I wonder if it was a knuckleball gone wild, hahah.)

  6. Interesting post, I hadn't known about them going head to head in that game for Phil's 20th win. A cool story.

    1. Thanks very much, Sean! It would make for a fun short film, don't you think?