Quick with a joke or a smile, Joe Niekro was the life of the Houston Astros clubhouse for more than a decade. He also became their most successful pitcher, earning a franchise-record 144 victories in 11 seasons. Niekro died Friday October 27th in Florida from a brain aneurysm at age 61.
Astros president Tal Smith, the general manager for part of Niekro's stint in Houston, saw Niekro last season and said he still had the sense of humor Smith remembered when Niekro was an Astro. "You always knew Joe was around," Smith said. "He would always make his presence known by agitating somebody. But he was a fun-loving guy and always the center of activity."
Niekro pitched for seven teams between 1967-1988 and finished with a record of 221-204. He and his older brother Phil, won 539 games, a major league record for brothers. While Phil Niekro rode his knuckleball into the Hall of Fame, Joe used a fastball and a slider early in his career, with mixed results. He spent two seasons in Atlanta with Phil in the 1970s and got re-acquainted with the knuckler that their father taught them.
The Astros purchased Joe Niekro's contract from the Braves for $35,000 in 1975, taking a chance on the "journeyman," as Smith described him. Smith said Niekro blossomed into a dominant pitcher as he perfected his knuckleball in Houston. "That was his primary weapon, his 'out' pitch, and he had a great one, but he didn't have to use it exclusively," Smith said. "He had enough other stuff to keep hitters honest."
Alan Ashby, who caught many of Niekro's games with the Astros, said Joe's knuckler had more speed than Phil's and was nearly impossible to catch. "I used to throw up a cross in front of him to ward him off every time I'd come face-to-face with him," Ashby said.
But it worked. Niekro went 21-11 for Houston in 1979 and 20-12 in 1980, becoming the first Astro to win 20 games in consecutive seasons. In 1980, the Astros had a three-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, then lost their last three games of the regular season in Los Angeles, to force a one-game playoff.
Niekro allowed six hits in a 7-1 Houston win that propelled the Astros to their first postseason. He then pitched 10 shutout innings in Game 3 of the NL championship series and the Astros won 1-0, though they lost the series 3-2. "He was the guy we wanted on the mound when it was all on the line," Ashby said.
The Houston pitching staff also had aces Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard and Ashby said Niekro usually took the mound with something to prove. "He perceived that he was overlooked with those big names on the staff," Ashby said. "In my opinion, Joe was the heart and soul of that pitching staff."
He also had his quirks. Ashby, who played 17 seasons, said Niekro was the most superstitious teammate he ever had. He laughs when he remembers them, but won't divulge specifics. "But his life would've been like walking through a mine field, given all the ones he had," Ashby said. "It was comical to watch him co-exist with those."
Ashby said Niekro also would send sports writers scrambling by starting a false rumor within earshot."He'd be walking along and he would suddenly say, 'Hey, what do you think of so-and-so getting traded?' just to see if he could bait the writers into writing a story," Ashby said. "He always had something witty like that going on."
In 1985, the Astros traded the 40-year-old Niekro to the New York Yankees, where he was reunited with his brother Phil, who won his 300th game with Joe in the dugout.
Joe Niekro finished his career in Minnesota, where he pitched in the World Series for the only time, in 1987. Earlier that season, Niekro was suspended for 10 games when umpires discovered a nail file in his pocket. Niekro said he was filing his nails in the dugout, but baseball officials didn't believe him.
More recently, Smith said Niekro beamed with pride when he talked about his 27-year-old son, Lance, now a first baseman with the San Francisco Giants. "He took great delight in Lance's baseball success," Smith said. "I think he was a good mentor to Lance because things didn't come easily to Joe."