Phil Niekro, Hall of Fame knuckleballer, dies at 81

Tim O'Donnell

Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame pitcher who perplexed hitters with one of the game's greatest knuckleballs, died Saturday, the Atlanta Braves announced Sunday. He was 81. The Braves said Niekro passed away in his sleep after a long battle with cancer. Niekro spent the vast majority of his multi-decade career with the Braves franchise, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta after the team moved south prior to the 1966 season.

Like many pitchers who specialized in throwing the knuckleball, Niekro avoided the wear and tear on his arm experienced by more typical pitchers and was able to pitch in the Major Leagues until he was 48 years old despite throwing well over 200 innings many seasons. In 1979, his age 40 season, he led MLB with a now-unheard-of 342 innings pitched.

Niekro wasn't just known for his longevity or signature pitch, however. He was gifted on the mound and made five All Star teams, finished in the top five in Cy Young voting three times, and compiled a lifetime 3.35 ERA to go along with 318 career wins.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred called Niekro one of the "most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation" and said he'll be "remembered as one of our game's most genial people." Read more at ESPN.

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