It’s safe to say that Phil Niekro was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in spite of his performance as a Toronto Blue Jay. Enshrined in 1997, the ageless knuckleballer won 318 big league games, was selected to five all-star teams and won five Gold Gloves during his 24-year career.
“Trying to hit him (Niekro) is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks,” Bobby Murcer once lamented.
While pitching for the Cleveland Indians on July 31, 1987, Niekro had held the Jays to three hits and one run over six innings. Ten days later, Toronto general manager Pat Gillick swung a deal for the venerable veteran. With Charlie Moore catching his knuckler, Niekro made his Jays debut against the Chicago White Sox on August 13, 1987. He would allow three earned runs in 5-2/3 innings in a Jays’ 10-3 loss.
His pitching line was similar in his start against Anaheim eight days later. The crafty right-hander again permitted three runs over 5-2/3 innings in a 3-1 loss. His last start with the Jays was disastrous. With Ernie Whitt catching and his team battling the A’s at Exhibition Stadium on August 29, Niekro was shelled for five earned runs in just 2/3 of an inning. This thumping – which left his Jays record at 0-2 with a 8.25 ERA – earned him his release on August 31.
“Knucksie” was signed by the Braves in September and made one final big league start on September 26. Pitching in Atlanta, where he had achieved the bulk of his big league success, provided a fitting end to his Hall of Fame career.