With his sad eyes, self-deprecating Polish jokes and legendary sleeping habits—he once snored through a brawl on a team charter—Niekro is appropriately phlegmatic. He keeps no books on hitters, cares not which park or what weather he is pitching in and never takes his losses out of the clubhouse. Niekro also forgoes all superstitions, which is no small feat for a man born with one green eye and one blue eye on April Fool's Day. "A woman who lives nearby brings over a four-leaf clover every time I pitch at home, and a man insists on having a beer at my house," he says. "It's not something I would do, but I appreciate their help."
Niekro prefers helping himself in more tangible ways—with his good hitting, bunting, fielding and pickoff moves. He is also extraordinarily helpful to others, spending countless unpaid hours at a host of charitable activities ranging from the Big Brothers to the March of Dimes. When Niekro was given a special day by Lansing, Ohio, the mining town of 950 where he and John Havlicek shared the limelight as three-sport high school heroes, he reciprocated by writing a 44-line poem of tribute that was published in a local newspaper.
It may be because Niekro is so considerate of others that he refuses to so much as smirk at hitters who swing wildly at his fierce floaters. But then again, it may be because he is no dummy. The knuckleball, as he knows too well, always has the last laugh.