Sunday, April 21, 2013

Into the Sunset, Pt. 17: Phil Niekro

After around 100 years of existence, the knuckleball looks to be a dying fad in today's game.

As of right now, current Blue Jay and last year's National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey is the one of the few who throw the pitch in baseball.

I'm not aware of any highly-touted minor league knuckleballers these days. And, sadly, The Next Knuckler winner Josh Booty was recently released by the Diamondbacks.

For that very reason, I hope Dickey continues to pitch well into his 40s, which would follow in the footsteps of his knuckleballing forefathers.

My main man Hoyt Wilhelm pitched his last game in the bigs on July 10, 1972, just 16 days shy of his 50th birthday.

Charlie Hough, one of the more consistent pitchers in history, retired in 1994 at the age of 46.

Phil Niekro, arguably the most famous knuckleballer of all-time, pitched into his age 48 season in 1987.

I've always found his '69 Topps issue to be his best. To me, that open-mouthed facial expression screams "100-MPH fastball". Which is funny, considering the absurdly slow speeds at which most knuckleballs tend to travel.

As it happens, Mr. Niekro also enjoyed one of the more interesting "sunset" seasons on record, something that makes him a perfect candidate for this theme.

As far as the three major card brands at the time are concerned, all of Phil Niekro's "sunset" cards came during the 1987 season.

Although he'd pitch a full year in '87, Donruss, Fleer, and Topps chose to omit "Knucksie" from their 1988 checklists.

While he'd been enjoying moderate success for the Indians during the mid-80s, things finally fell apart for Niekro in 1987.

He went 7-11 with a 5.89 ERA in 22 games with the Indians that year.

Photography-wise, most of Niekro's major-brand "sunset" cards are basically similar. As a result, most of my personal preferences come from the various card designs in '87.

Early in this blog's history, I repeatedly expressed my distaste towards black-bordered cardboard. I've changed my tune on the topic, though. I'm an avid black border supporter these days.

Even so, I could never bring myself to get that excited over Donruss's 1987 design.

It just doesn't do it for me.

Fleer's 1987 release is pretty much the same story.

Much like black borders, I'm normally a huge fan of any blue-themed cardboard. Still, something about 1987 Fleer always struck me as somewhat dull.

It's not a bad set, by any stretch of the imagination.

As far as I'm concerned, though, it's purely middle-of-the-pack quality.

In the end, it was Topps who saved 1987 from being a boring year of cardboard.

I've seen many collectors who rank '87 as the absolute best year in Topps history. Personally, I wouldn't go that far with the set. 

However, it's most certainly a "Top 10" set in terms of Topps's designs over the years. Heck, it's possibly even a "Top 5" candidate.

Because of that, Topps easily ranks higher than Donruss and Fleer in terms of Phil Niekro's "sunset" cards in 1987.

However, his tenure with the Indians that year only featured a fraction of Niekro's final year in the bigs.

More accurately, it only tells one-third of the story.

After his struggles in Cleveland, the Indians traded Niekro to the Blue Jays in August of '87.

He'd go on to pitch all of three games in Toronto, going 0-2 with a bloated 8.25 ERA during that time. The Jays released him only three weeks into his tenure with the franchise.

Until I made it part of a recent impulse buy, Niekro's 1988 Classic Red issue was a longtime member of my "Dime Box Dozen" list. 

As far as I know, it's the only card to feature him as a Toronto Blue Jay. Of course, that made it a must-have piece for my collection.

Still, Niekro's "sunset" season didn't end there.

As far as I know, Phil Niekro is the only player in history to ever "sunset" issues released with three different franchises.

And, although this is a guess on my part, I'd bet he's the only Hall of Famer to play for three different teams during his final year in the bigs.

While he looks like he's about 80 in this shot, the 48 year-old Niekro closed the door on his hallowed career with a final start for the Braves on September 27, 1987.

They'd signed him as a free agent just four days prior, giving "Knucksie" a chance to end his career with the franchise that had propelled him to his HOF career.

He'd give up five runs in three innings to the Giants that day, earning a no-decision in the process.

Although I know of another card that features Niekro during his second stint in Atlanta, his '88 Score issue is the only true "sunset" piece in my collection at the moment.

In the end, I guess it's just another reason why Score might have been the most underrated brand of the overproduction era.

If these "sunset" cards are any indication, Phil Niekro's career produced quite a few neat nuggets of trivia.

For example, he'll almost certainly be the last pitcher to both win and lose 20 games in a season, as evidenced by his 21-20 mark in 1979.

And, as much as I'd like to deny it, Mr. Niekro will probably go down in history as the last knuckleballer to be inducted into Cooperstown.

I sure hope I'm wrong, though.

The world of baseball would sure be a lot better with more knuckleballers.


Swing And A Pop-up said...

The Red Sox have a knuckleballer on the current roster. Steven Wright was brought up on April 16th when Joel Hanrahan (our closer) went on the DL.

hiflew said...

I always liked Phil Niekro. It was mostly because I was raised by my grandparents and he was the closest to my grandpa's age in current (at the time) sets. He's three years younger than my Gramps, but seeing a guy born in the 1930s was enough for me as a kid.

I was thinking Steve Carlton had 3 teams in his last year, but it was 5 teams in his last 3 years. Rickey Henderson also came to mind, but he came up short too. Knucksie might be the only one.

Bo said...

I wasn't aware of Steven Wright when I did this post last week on The Hall of Very Good. And - no one has entered the contest yet! I'd like somebody to win the DVD...