Former major league pitcher Joe Niekro, Houston’s career victory leader, died Friday, Astros president Tal Smith said. He was 61.
The two-time 20-game winner suffered a brain aneurysm Thursday and was taken to South Florida Baptist Hospital in nearby Plant City, where he lived. He later was transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he died.
“It came as a real shock to us,” Smith said. “He was a great guy. He had a real spark and a great sense of humor.” Smith said Niekro did not have an active role with the Astros but kept in contact with many of his former Houston teammates.
Niekro, father of San Francisco Giants first baseman Lance Niekro, won 221 games in his career but never became as well known as his Hall of Fame brother, Phil.
Like his older brother, who won 318 games, Joe Niekro found success after developing the knuckleball and pitched into his 40s. They had a combined 539 major league victories, a record for brothers.
Niekro won a franchise-best 144 games in 11 seasons with the Astros from 1975 to 1985, when he was traded to the New York Yankees. He was an All-Star in 1979, when he went 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA and followed up with a 20-12 record in 1980. He beat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff that clinched Houston’s first postseason berth in 1980. Seven years later, in his 21st season, he finally appeared in the World Series with the Minnesota Twins.
“You are always in shock when you hear something like that, mainly when it hits close to home, a teammate who you have spent a lot of years with,” Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, a former teammate of Niekro’s, told Houston’s KRIV-TV. “It certainly surprises you when it happens to somebody who has kept themselves in shape and lives a very active life. The last time I saw Joe he looked like he was a picture of health,” Ryan said.
Niekro was born Nov. 7, 1944 in Martins Ferry, Ohio. A third-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1966, he broke into the majors in 1967 and appeared in 702 games, including 500 starts, in 22 years with the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros, Yankees and Twins. Niekro, who once was suspended for getting caught on the mound with a nail file in his back pocket, pitched his final game in April 1988 — at age 43. He finished 221-204 with a 3.59 ERA, including 144-116 with a 3.22 ERA for the Astros.
Truly a shame.
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