I never got to see Phil Niekro pitch during his career, even though he pitched for five-plus seasons after I went to my first baseball game. But in 2017, I got to watch him throw batting practice to fellow Hall of Famer Wade Boggs at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.
As I remember it, Boggs stepped to the plate during BP before the home run derby preceding the annual Hall of Fame Classic. When the 77-year-old Knucksie saw this, he went out to the mound.
Boggs took him deep once, sending a ball into the right-field bleachers. It just might be the first and only home run Boggs ever hit off Niekro. They faced each other 30 times as active players — not counting any potential Spring Training matchups — and Boggs hit .407/.467/.519 for a.985 OPS against the knuckleballer. He had three doubles and two RBIs, walked three times and struck out four.
But Niekro wasn’t done there; in fact he might have planned to pitch some BP all along, because when the game between two teams of former players began, Niekro took the mound for the side he managed and pitched to Juan Pierre before handing off — not just the ball, but also the glove had borrowed — to Tim Redding.
Where else would you get to see two Hall of Famers face off like that? Maybe at the Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day, but it seems like the Hall of Famers are just there to wave, leaving the scrimmage action to the younger retired players. Plus, you’re not going to be nearly as close to the action at Yankee Stadium as you are at Doubleday Field. Even if this was planned beforehand, it didn’t feel like it; it felt spontaneous, something that came about when Boggs, on a whim, picked up a bat and stepped to the plate, which prompted Niekro to take the ball. On that warm May day at Doubleday, I remember thinking that this was something to watch closely, a special, rare event that could only happen in Cooperstown.
This was what first came to mind when I saw the news that Niekro had died last night at 81. (Another anecdote was one told by the great Claire Smith at the SABR Convention a few months later in New York. Cecilia Tan recounts that story in this post.)
That makes seven Hall of Famers who died in 2020, four of them pitchers. With Niekro, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford in the rotation, you might not need a fifth starter — or much of a bullpen.
Rest in peace, Knucksie.