Four teams expressed serious interest in Niekro—the Cardinals, the Pirates, the A's and the Yankees. The money offered by all four clubs was equitable, but the Yankees seemed most sincere to Niekro. "The Pirates would've been nice, because they're close to my hometown [Lansing, Ohio], but they wouldn't give me a no-trade contract," Niekro says. "The A's were on the other coast, which meant I couldn't fly home to Atlanta on off-days. The Cards wouldn't give me a no-trade, either, and they also wouldn't give me a single room on the road—I haven't roomed with anybody since Ron Reed in 1969. But the Yankees really seemed to want me—they offered me a two-year contract [at $700,000 a year] and told me they wanted me to be the No. 2 man in the rotation, behind Ron Guidry."
The man who pushed hardest to bring Niekro to the Yankees was Clyde King, who managed him in 1974-75. King, the Yankees' General Manager of the Month, was a special assignment scout at the time, and he sold owner George Steinbrenner on Niekro at the winter meetings in Nashville in early December. "All these years I'd been telling George we had too many older players," says King, "so when I recommended Niekro, he naturally wondered what was going on, me wanting us to sign a 45-year-old pitcher. But I knew he could still pitch and win maybe 14 games, and there's a lot of Catfish Hunter in Phil, so even if he didn't win a game, he was going to be a great influence on our younger pitchers."
Niekro signed with the Yankees on Jan. 6, and on Feb. 18 said goodby to his wife, Nancy, and their three sons, ready to begin his new life. "The first few weeks were a little tough," says Niekro, "and I'd drive up to West Palm to go fishing or eat with friends, but after a while I came to the realization I had to let go." Niekro was all business in spring training. Says Jeff Torborg, one of the Yankees' two pitching coaches, "We do these boring, monotonous drills with the pitchers on covering the bases in certain situations, and Phil was so good, and so enthusiastic, even after all these years, that we used him as our example."
Niekro is a notoriously slow starter, partly because his knuckleball doesn't really start to dance until the warm weather. His April record for seven seasons before this one had been 5-18. So why did he get off to such a great start this year? One reason is that he acclimated Yankee catchers Butch Wynegar and Rick Cerone to the knuckleball by throwing more in spring training than ever before. He's also using his other pitches—a good slider, a modest 80-mph fastball and a screwball—more than he did in Atlanta because Gibson and Torre discouraged him from throwing them. "Here, I'm not going to get chewed out for giving up a homer on a slider," says Niekro. "The Yankees know that because I've played as long as I have, I should have enough intelligence to know what to throw."
In the American League, Niekro doesn't have to bat and run the bases, which can take its toll on a man his age. He's also free of the distractions he had in Atlanta. Niekro is very active in charities, and he has a hard time saying no. "When he was home, the phone never stopped ringing," says Nancy. His favorite charity benefits spina bifida, and for the fourth year in a row he has a golf tournament planned this summer to aid the fight against this birth defect. Unfortunately, the tournament is scheduled for the All-Star break, and Niekro may have to make a rare appearance—he has pitched only 1⅓ innings in four All-Star Games.
Niekro, typically, says he's been lucky. "It just happens that one pitcher on the staff usually gets all the breaks." (Actually, he hasn't gotten all the breaks. The Yankees didn't help him at all in 1-0 and and 4-0 defeats, and he pitched 10 innings of a 6-5 13-inning win over Milwaukee and didn't get the decision.) Niekro also gives a lot of credit to Wynegar, whom he says is a natural at catching the knuckleball. "Even with a runner on third who can score on a wild pitch or passed ball, he's not afraid to call it," says Niekro. Wynegar, for his part, says, "It's been fun catching him. He's crafty, he's competitive, and he's got that damn pitch—who the hell thought that up?"
The Yankees have had knuckleballers in the past. Berra remembers calling for a few from Bud Daley and Tom Sturdivant, and he says Mickey Mantle had a great one on the sidelines. When Niekro arrived, Pete Sheehy, the 73-year-old clubhouse man, dug up an oversized mitt last worn to catch Bob Tiefenauer in 1965. It was used during spring training, but now Wynegar is wearing a new glove that Torborg ordered from MacGregor.
The Yanks are so impressed with Niekro's success that they dispatched pitcher Matt Keough to Nashville to work with Hoyt Wilhelm, their minor league pitching coach, whose own knuckleball should have already earned him entry into the Hall of Fame. Keough says he prefers the three-fingered knuckler to the two-fingered butterfly that Wilhelm and Niekro favor, and King says the progress reports are good. Niekro, by the way, is the one who convinced Keough to go all the way down to Class AA.
The knuckler is such a bizarre pitch that even Niekro claims he doesn't understand it. "Nobody has ever given me a good, definite explanation as to why the ball does what it does," he says. "I've heard all about that aerodynamic stuff, and the Reynolds [Osborne, not Allie] number. [This states that a sphere with a three-inch diameter makes its maximum movement between 50 and 75 mph.] I've had people film it at 28,000 frames a second. I've had a guy do his college thesis on my knuckleball, but nobody's made me understand it.
"The thing that I feel sort of guilty about is that with every other pitch, you try to make the ball do something, spin it to make it curve or sink or sail. All I try to do is make the ball do nothing." Every once in a while, Niekro will throw the perfect knuckler, a ball with no rotation whatsoever, a ball so erratic that it "explodes," he says. "If every pitch I made was like that, every game would be a no-hitter."