Knuckleball pitchers are like snow-flakes: No two are exactly alike. Brother Joe uses a slightly different grip on his knuckleball, and he can throw it faster than Phil. Phil throws it at three different speeds from four different motions: over the top, three-quarters, sidearm and submarine. "I've hit off a lot of knuckleballers," says the Angels' Reggie Jackson. "Wilbur Wood, Eddie Fisher, Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough. But Phil Niekro, more than any of them, pitches rather than throws the knuckleball. He showed me three different kinds. And you can see the competitiveness on his face."
Some knuckleballers take meticulous care of their fingernails and eat lots of gelatin to strengthen them. Niekro, though, bites his nails, and the only extraordinary dietary measure he takes is to eat seafood on the afternoons of his starts. At 604 starts (11th on the alltime list), Niekro has had more fish than Arthur Treacher.
Hey Niekro, hey Niekro,
Throw that knuckleball.
Strike 'em out and we'll all go home,
But we'll stop at the Polish Hall.
We'll sit and talk and have a few
And dance around the floor.
We'll all come back tomorrow night
To drink and dance some more.
Phil Niekro Sr. worked the Lorain Coal and Dock mine in Blaine, Ohio. Every day he would go six or seven miles deep into the hills with his lunch pail, from 7 a.m. to four in the afternoon, for $2 a day. "He'd be totally black," says Phil Jr. "We'd be sitting in the driveway with our gloves, waiting for him to come home. He'd put his bucket down, and we'd play catch. Summer nights, we didn't eat till 9 p.m., and Mom and Phyllis and Joe, until he was old enough to play, would sit on the porch and watch us. Sometimes Dad was so tired he'd just fall asleep on the floor. But he always had time for us."
Phil Sr., 70, who still lives in Lansing with his wife of 47 years, Ivy, was quite a pitcher in his day. "He used to pitch in the Mine Workers League," says Phil Jr., "and I remember seeing and hearing accounts of him striking out 18, 19 guys in a game. He was a good first baseman, too." But one day Phil's dad threw his arm out. Another miner (and former minor league catcher), named Nick McKay, taught him the knuckleball so he could continue pitching. And Phil Sr. passed the pitch on to Phil Jr. and later, to Joe. "We had a game to try and see how many knucklers we could make each other miss," says Phil Jr.
McKay is alive and well at 73 and living just down the road in Shadyside, Ohio. "I taught it to Phil Sr. back in '39 when I was the catcher on his sandlot team," says McKay, who once played D ball in Bluefield, W. Va. "I picked it up when I was 12, just sort of learned it all by myself." In the summer of 1941 McKay also played baseball for the Army's 37th Division, while stationed at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss. "We had a pitcher who could really throw heat. His name was George Fingers. Maybe you've heard of his son, Rollie."
To this day, McKay says, he can still throw the knuckleball. "Two fingers, just like always, no rotation. I show it to neighborhood kids every once in a while. I'm in pretty good shape."
Lansing was and still is a small town of 850—no stoplights, no police, no mayor, three beer joints, a post office and a grocery store that was owned, when Phil was growing up, by a Czechoslovak family named Havlicek. The Havliceks, who lived five houses down and across Route 40 from the Niekros, had a boy a year younger than Phil named John, and the two of them were inseparable. "If I wasn't sleeping at John's house," says Niekro, "he was sleeping at mine, and if I wasn't eating at his house, he was eating at mine."
Someone would do well to bottle the water in Lansing. From that town have come Havlicek, recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame; Phil Niekro, who will surely end up in Cooperstown; Joe Niekro, who has 180 major league wins of his own; Bill Jobko, a linebacker who played nine years in the NFL; and Johnny Blatnik, an outfielder with the Phillies and Cardinals in the late '40s.
The bond between Havlicek and Phil remains strong. "We sort of fed off each other," says Phil. "My family was always talking sports, and because John's folks came from the old country, he didn't get much of that around his house. My benefit came from hanging around a fantastic athlete, and John was that."