TO MANY the enduring image of Joe Niekro is the 42-year-old's getting busted with an emery board in his back pocket during a 1987 game. Niekro, who died last Friday of a brain aneurysm at age 61, swore that he was using the file for his nails and not to scuff the ball. There was reason to believe him: He'd already tried cheating, and it hadn't panned out. In '72 Niekro was a slider pitcher struggling to keep his job with the Tigers—never mind moving out of the shadow of his older brother, Phil. Detroit manager Billy Martin, tired of losing to spitballer Gaylord Perry, tried to get Niekro to master the spitter. Niekro couldn't, and he was waived twice in the next three years.
The supremely laid-back Niekro ("It takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes," a Houston exec once said) was claimed by the Astros in 1975. He ultimately perfected the knuckleball, the pitch his father, a coal miner, taught him and Phil in their backyard in Lansing, Ohio. From '77 through '84 Niekro averaged 16 wins per year. In '87 he and Phil broke the record for career wins by brothers, surpassing the mark of 529 set by Perry and his brother Jim.
Niekro retired in 1988, though he never ventured far from the game: His son Lance, 27, is a first baseman with the Giants. "He took great delight in Lance's baseball success," said Astros president Tal Smith. "I think he was a good mentor to Lance because things didn't come easily to Joe."