Phil Niekro has never forgotten the Ohio Valley
• More than 125 individuals show they never forgot him on his 20th HoF anniversary
BRIDGEPORT — During his two decades in Major League Baseball, Phil Niekro never forgot his roots. No matter what stadium he was pitching in or for what uniform he was wearing.
Thursday night inside The Skyliner, more than 125 individuals — some from near and some from far away — came to pay tribute to “Lansing’s Own” on the 20th anniversary of his induction into Major League Baseball’s coveted Hall of Fame.
“A lot of people from quite a ways away came here tonight. A lot of my relatives and nephews were here,” Niekro said. “It was good to see my relatives and all the people in the Ohio Valley.”
Niekro, along with his deceased younger brother, Joe, hold the MLB record for most games won by a set of brothers with 539. Phil won 318 of those games, including an astounding 121 after turning 40 years of age. His win total is the most by a knuckleball pitcher in MLB History, and he attributed his success to the knuckleball, which was taught to him by his father in their backyard.
His career, which was mostly with the Atlanta Braves, also included stops with the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. His 3,342 strikeouts are still the 11th most in MLB history.
He threw his only no-hitter against San Diego on Aug. 5, 1973 and was named to five All-Star teams. He also was awarded five Golden Gloves.
“Baseball has been my whole life. It really has,” Niekro reflected back. “My whole baseball career was Lansing, Ohio. It was Bridgeport High School.”
After pitching four years for the Bulldogs, Niekro attended a professional tryout camp on Wheeling Island. That’s where he first got noticed.
“A scout from the Milwaukee Braves came down after it was over. He asked me my name, my phone number and where I lived,” Niekro recalled. “That got me a little excited and I got home about the same time as my father did from the coal mine. My mother had cooked up a little polish meal for the scout, and after it was all over, the scout sitting in our kitchen with me, my mom, dad, brother and sister told my dad that the Braves are interested to signing your son to a professional baseball contract. The court said, ‘how does $500 sound to you?’ If I remember right, my dad said something like he didn’t have that kind of money.
“The scout said, ‘No. No. We’re going to give your son $500 right now. The scout wrote me out a check right then,” Niekro remembered back. “I went on to pitch a couple of more times for Blaine. The next spring I got on a train and headed for Waycross, Ga. That was the start of my career in baseball.”
He went on to thank everyone in the Ohio Valley, especially all of his coaches that made his dream a reality.
Niekro’s sister Phyllis, a former Bridgeport High School Homecoming Queen, and her family was in attendance.
“She was a tough girl,” Niekro said of his sister. “If there was a Major League Hall of Fame for sisters, she’d be in it. She caught my knuckleball probably more than anyone else in our backyard.”
“Phil is from Lansing and we all grew up hearing his name around Lansing,” Mike Dalto, a member of the Lansing Sportsmen’s Club, said. “He grew up next to the Club and anything we can do to help out Phil or anyone from the community, we do it.” The Sportsmen’s Club was a major contributor to the event.
A highlight of the event came just moments after Niekro got the microphone. Before he could get all his thank yous and welcomes in, Jon Warden, a former pitcher with the Detroit Tigers who won a World Series ring in 1968, came strolling into the room in a disguise and being somewhat obnoxious (friendly, though). Once Niekro recognized his long-time friend, the two went back-and-forth with jokes for several minutes, much to the amusement of the crowd.
“I enjoy coming down to the Ohio Valley,” Warden said. “This is a hot-bed for great athletes like Phil and Joe Niekro, Dick Reasbeck and Allan Hornyak, John Havlicek, Bill Mazeroski and Lou Groza. There’s a lot of history down here.
“Phil is a dear friend of mine and I am more than happy to be here to celebrate this anniversary with him.”
“I had no idea he was coming,” Niekro said of Warden. “That was a total surprise to me. He is quite the jokester.”
Prior to the gala event, Niekro was presented with a proclamation from Bridgeport Village Council honoring his 20th anniversary.
“I guess I’m used to getting stuff like this in the south, but to receive something like this from Bridgeport really means something special to me. I truly appreciate it. Thank you,” he told council members and Mayor Dave Smith.