Braves legend Phil Niekro dies at age 81

ATLANTA — Legendary Atlanta Braves knuckleballer Phil Niekro died Saturday evening in his sleep following a long battle with cancer. He was 81.

“We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro,” the Braves said in a statement. “Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.

“He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma.”

Niekro spent 21 of his 24 years in the majors with the Braves, pitching in a franchise record 740 games for Milwaukee and Atlanta. Niekro, who pitched from 1964 through 1987, went 268-230 with a 3.20 ERA and 226 complete games in 595 starts for the franchise. The five-time All-Star also pitched for the Yankees, Blue Jays and Indians.

Niekro, who pitched until age 48, is fourth all-time with 5,404 innings pitched. He’s 11th in strikeouts (3,342) and 16th in wins (318). Beginning in 1967, he had a run of 14 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins and 200-plus innings. He led the National League in wins twice (1974, 1979), ERA once (1967) and strikeouts once (1977). He also won five Gold Glove awards. Niekro pitched a no hitter on Aug. 5, 1973, striking out four and walking three in the Braves’ 9-0 victory over the Pirates.

The Braves retired Niekro’s No. 35 in 1984. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. He was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame two years later.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred: “Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation. In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club and, ultimately, to Cooperstown.

“But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remember as one of our game’s most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well, and he will be deeply missd. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil’s family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime.”

The organization shared in its statement: “In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for any donations to be directed to the Edmondson Telford Child Advocacy Center, 603 Washington Street SW, Gainesville, GA, 30501.”