On This Date in Sports August 3, 1987: Caught Red Handed

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Minnesota Twins knuckleballer Joe Niekro gets caught red-handed scuffing the baseballs against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium. With one out and the score tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, home plate Umpire Tim Tschida comes out to the mound and begins searching Niekro, suspecting he is scuffing the ball. While umpires examined his glove, Joe Niekro attempts to toss an emery board that was in his back pocket. Upon discovering the discarded nail file, umpires eject Niekro. The Twins win the game 11-3, as Joe Niekro receives a ten-day suspension.

Joe Niekro was born on November 7, 1944, in Ohio. He and his older brother Phil had 20-year careers in the majors throwing the knuckleball, which they were taught how to throw by their father. Phil Niekro played most of his 24-year career with the Atlanta Braves. In 1985 with his brother on his team, Phil recorded his 300th win on the final day of the regular season before moving on to play with the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. Joe Niekro was much more traveled during his 22 seasons in the majors. Joe played with Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers, and Atlanta Braves, where he was a teammate of brother Phil before spending a decade with the Houston Astros. Joe Niekro spent his final seasons with the Yankees and Twins. Phil Niekro, a member of the Hall of Fame, won 318 career games, while Joe Niekro won 221 games. The Niekro brothers combined 539 wins is the most by a pair of siblings. In 1979 the two Niekro brothers tied for the National League lead with 21 wins, while Joe Niekro’s only career home run came on May 29, 1976, against his brother.

Joe Niekro began the 1987 season, his 21st season in the majors with the New York Yankees. He was traded the Minnesota Twins for Catcher Mark Salas on June 7th, after posting a 3-4 record with a 3.55 ERA with the Yankees over the first two months of the season. The Twins in 1987 spent most of the season in first place, as the entire division was awash in mediocrity. The Twins entered the night against the California Angels, holding a one-game lead with a record of 56-50. With the score tied 2-2 and one out in the fourth inning, Umpire Tim Tschida, after looking at the third pitch to Brian Downing, walked out to the mound and asked to see Joe Niekro’s glove. Soon all four umpires were on the mound as Tschida frisked Niekro. Asked to empty his pockets, Joe Niekro casually tossed the offending emery board in his back pocket. All four umpires thought, saw the file fly, and quickly ejected the knuckleballer. The Twins would win the game 11-3, but the story was Joe Niekro being caught scuffing the baseball. After the game, Niekro claimed he used the emery board to keep his nails short in order to grip the ball tighter. However, American League President Dr. Bobby Brown was not convinced as he handed the knuckleballer a ten-day suspension.

Even in a day before social media, the video of Joe Niekro tossing the emery board was seen across the country, as it became one of baseball’s classic bloopers. Instead of being harmed by doctoring the baseball, Joe Niekro gained some notoriety as he successfully laughed it off. While serving his suspension, Joe Niekro made an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” he came out to the interview wearing a utility belt, complete with a power sander. A year later, the incident was lampooned in the hit comedy “The Naked Gun.” Joe Niekro would post a 4-9 record with a 6.26 ERA pitching with the Twins in 1987. Minnesota, powered by the best home field in baseball, won the Western Division with a record of 85-77. That postseason would see Joe Niekro pitch two innings in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the only time either of the Niekro brothers pitched in the Fall Classic as the Twins would the series in seven games. In 2017, the Twins celebrating the 30th Anniversary of their first championship released a set of bobbleheads; the Joe Niekro bobblehead comes complete with a nail file in his back pocket.