You’d figure that a pitcher who won 221 games at the Major League level would be able to brag about his accomplishment at a family get-together, but Joe’s brother Phil won over 300 career games at the highest level. The Niekro Brothers combined for 539 career victories–easily the highest sibling total in baseball history. While Phil was an All-Star pitcher for the Braves, Joe’s career was a bit more nomadic. He eventually settled in with the Astros during the 1970s and posted two 20-win seasons in Houston.
Originally signed by the Cubs, Joe made his debut with Chicago in 1967 and pitched quite effectively. He posted a 3.34 ERA with a .588 winning percentage as a rookie. When he regressed as a sophomore, the Cubs traded him to the lowly Padres where he lost 17 games. Saved from the Padres in 1970, Joe was traded to Detroit and was inserted into their rotation. Unable to establish himself in Detroit, Joe joined brother Phil in Atlanta but the reunion wasn’t meant to be as Joe worked intermittently with limited success. At the age of 30, Niekro’s career had stalled out, but working with his brother he was able to perfect the knuckleball and resurrected his career in the Lone Star State.
Joe joined the Astros in 1975 and had a solid year out of the bullpen. There were a great many knuckleball pitchers used as starters in the game’s earlier decades but thanks to Hoyt Wilhelm’s success as a fireman, most pitchers who employed the pet pitch were used as firemen during Joe’s day. The Astros used Joe accordingly at first but in 1976 and ’77 they began using him more and more in the rotation. By 1978 he was officially converted to the rotation and he won 14 games for Houston that season. But his best years were just around the corner.
In 1979, Joe led the National League in wins and shutouts. Niekro went 21-11 for the Astros and made 38 starts, which allowed him to log 264 innings. When the Cy Young Award was handed out, it was given to a pitcher with about half as many innings pitched, Bruce Sutter, as many people thought Joe was the one deserving of the award. Undeterred by the Cy Young snub, Joe just went about work as usual and had another 20-win season in 1980. The knuckleballer carried Houston to its first ever postseason appearance and Joe worked ten extra-inning shutout frames against the Phillies. But Philadelphia captured the pennant and beat the Royals in the World Series.
Houston made the postseason in the strike shortened 1981 campaign and Joe was brilliant again. He pitched eight innings against the Dodgers and went unscored upon. Over the course of Joe’s career, he tossed 20 innings in the postseason and never allowed an earned run. Niekro set a personal best in ERA in 1982 when he went 17-12 with a 2.47 ERA. Joe’s dancing knuckleball baffled hitters all year as he surrendered just 224 base hits in 270 innings of work. Although he was pushing forty in the mid 1980s, Houston gave the ball to Joe regularly with confidence. In 1983 and ’84, Joe led the National League in games started with 38 each campaign.
Late in the 1985 season Houston made a shrewd trade when they sent their aging pitching star to the Yankees for prospect Jim Deshaies. Deshaies had several solid years in Houston while Joe never got settled in at New York. After one losing season with the Yankees, New York dealt Joe to the Twins for catcher Mark Salas. The Metrodome wasn’t to Joe’s liking and his ERA swelled to an all-time high of 6.26. Although it was a forgettable season on a personal note, the Twins romped to a World Series title and Joe worked two scoreless frames in the World Series. He pitched briefly with the Twins in 1988 before calling it a career.
W 221/L 204/PCT .520/ERA 3.59/G 702/CG 107/SHO 29/IP 3,584/H 3,466/BB 1,262/SO 1,747