In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
On the final day of the regular season, Phil Niekro of the New York Yankees wins his 300th game. Niekro earns his 300th win with an 8-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium. The Knuckleballer goes the distance, with his brother Joe Niekro sitting in the Yankees’ dugout. Phil Niekro would retire following the 1987 season with a record of 318-274.
Born on April 1, 1939, in Blaine, Ohio, Phil Niekro was no fool, but with his knuckleball, he often made opposing hitters look foolish. After toiling in the minors for several years, Niekro made his debut with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964. After spending most of his first three seasons in the bullpen, Phil Niekro got his chance to start in 1967, after the team moved to Atlanta. That year he led the league with a 1.87 ERA.
Phil Niekro had a career-best season in 1969, posting a record of 23-13 as he made his first All-Star appearance and helped the Braves win the National League West. Niekro topped 20 wins three times in his career, including in 1979, when he posted a record of 21-20 at the age of 40. Phil Niekro is the last pitcher to win 20 games and lose 20 games in the same season. Phil Niekro led the National League in losses in 1979 and tied with brother Joe for the lead in wins.
Phil Niekro remained a consistent winner in the 80s as his knuckleball continued to have a bite on it. Following the 1983 season, Niekro was released by the Braves after 20 seasons. He would sign a two-year contract with the New York Yankees. Phil Niekro posted a record of 16-8 and had his fifth and final All-Star Game selection. Phil Niekro had another fine season in 1985 and was joined by his brother Joe, whom the Yankees acquired from the Houston Astros on September 15th. The Niekro Brothers previously were teammates for two seasons with the Braves (1973-1974).
The New York Yankees managed by Bill Martin and the Toronto Blue Jays managed by Bobby Cox battled for the American League East until the final days of the season. Toronto clinched the division with a 5-1 win over the Yankees in the penultimate game of the season. One day later, the Yankees had Phil Niekro on the mound seeking his 300th win, while the Blue Jays had a post clinch lineup and John Cerutti on the mound.
After clinching the Eastern Division, the Blue Jays went into the final game of the season with a record of 99-61, seeking their 100th win, while the Yankees tasting disappointment had a record of 96-64, looking to get Phil Niekro his 300th win. John Cerutti, a rookie September, call up was making his first major league start as Niekro sought to make history.
The Yankees loaded the bases in the first inning and scored the first run when a pitch hit Willie Randolph. They scored two more runs on a single by Henry Cotto. With a 3-0 lead, Phil Niekro took the mound in Toronto and stayed away from the knuckleball as he got the Toronto post-clinch lineup in order in the first inning. Niekro stayed away from the knuckleball most of the afternoon, as he did not allow a base runner until the fourth inning.
In the fifth inning, the Yankees added two runs on a home run by Mike Pagliarulo in the fifth inning. Cotto added a home run in the eighth, while Don Mattingly homered in the ninth to stretch the lead to 8-0. Phil Niekro allowed just three hits with three walks without using the knuckler as he took the mound for the ninth inning. Niekro quickly retired the first two batters, before Tony Fernandez pinch-hitting for Cecil Felder hit double. Jeff Burroughs was the next batter, as Joe Niekro came to the mound acting as a pitching coach, bringing chuckles from catcher Butch Wynegar. Phil Niekro would unleash his best knuckleball against Burroughs for a strikeout that ended the game as Niekro finished the year with a record of 16-12 and 300 career wins.
At the age of 46, Phil Niekro not only had 300 wins, as he became the oldest pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout, striking out five batters along the way. That record would stand until 2010 when Jamie Moyer threw a shutout at the age of 47 with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Niekro brothers would set the record for wins among siblings at 539. The Yankees would release Phil Niekro before the start of the 1986 season. He spent a season and a half with the Cleveland Indians before briefly playing with the Blue Jays in 1987. Niekro would finish the 1987 and his career-making one last appearance with the Atlanta Braves, finishing his career with a record of 318-274, with an ERA of 3.35 and 3,342 strikeouts.