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They played all sports together, and Havlicek remembers that Phil was a pretty good shooter in basketball: "He wasn't the fastest guy in the world or the tallest, but he could shoot. In baseball, he loved to bat and pitch, but he didn't like to field, which seems funny now because he has all those Gold Gloves [five].
"In football he did have an unusual talent," Havlicek continues. "I remember one time in practice Phil suddenly collapsed in the middle of the huddle. The coaches all came running out, thinking it was a delayed reaction to a hit on the previous play. But Phil had just fallen asleep. Boy, could he sleep. When he slept over at our house, we had to shake up the smelling salts to wake him up." The Braves claim he has never seen a takeoff or a landing.
Havlicek and Niekro also share a love of fishing. When Phil left the Braves last fall, he bought bass boats for two of his friends, trainer Dave Pursley and traveling secretary Bill Acree. Years earlier, Havlicek's graduation gift to Phil had been a pair of waders. "The night I gave them to him," Havlicek says, "he went out to the pond at the country club and kept stuffing bass in the waders because he didn't have a stringer."
Phil used his knuckleball all through his years at Bridgeport High School, and the only game he ever lost was in the Eastern District championship game his freshman season. The opposing pitcher for Warren Consolidated High of Tiltonsville in that game was a senior named Bill Mazeroski. Occasionally, a bird dog would watch Niekro pitch, but none ever tried to sign him. "I didn't even know pitchers in the big leagues threw the knuckleball," he says.
In July of 1958, when he was 19, Niekro attended a Braves open tryout with about 150 other players on an island in the Ohio River, between Bridgeport and Wheeling, W Va., called simply The Island. Says Niekro, "The scout who ran it, Bill Maughn, signed two guys out of there, me and a first baseman from West Virginia named Pete Zeck. They gave me $500, but I had to fight for that."
Except for a disastrous start at Wellsville (7.46 ERA in 35 innings) in '59, Niekro was a fairly effective, albeit wild, minor league reliever. "But I knew J wasn't going anywhere," he says, "because, at the time, the Braves had all this money to burn from the years they were in the Series, and I was pitching with guys who signed $30,000, $40,000 bonuses. Why should they pay attention to someone they signed for $500? I later found out that the only guy in the organization who fought for me was Birdie Tebbetts. He kept telling the Braves, 'Stay with the kid, stay with the kid.' "
Niekro pitched in 10 games for Milwaukee in '64, but it wasn't until '65 that he won his first major league game, at the age of 26. That day, May 13, Niekro pitched five innings of scoreless relief against the Pirates at Forbes Field. That was also the date of birth of Jose Rijo, Niekro's next-door neighbor in the Yankee clubhouse and the savior of two of Niekro's first three victories.
That same year Niekro also met Nancy, a stewardess on the Braves' charter flights. After a long-distance, long-letter courtship, they married in '66. "The airlines were on strike at the time," she says kiddingly, "so I didn't have anything else to do."
General manager Paul Richards, who helped to design the oversized catcher's mitt while managing Wilhelm in Baltimore, made Niekro a starter in June of 1967, and except for the strike year, 1981, he has pitched at least 200 innings and won at least 11 games every season. And for many years the Braves weren't very good. He's won 20 games three times, most recently in 1979, when he was 21-20. He pitched a no-hitter against the Padres in '73, and he has tied or established nearly every record for wild pitches.
In addition, Phil helped save Joe's career by convincing him that he had to throw the knuckleball as his primary pitch. Joe, who has much the better arm, was a journeyman fastball-curveball pitcher with the Cubs, Padres and Tigers before the Braves picked him up on waivers in '73. He was a full-time knuckleballer by then, but when the Braves asked him to go down to Richmond in '75 and Joe refused, he was sold to the Astros and became one of their most consistent winners.