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Just plain ol' Knucksie

Hall of Famer Niekro now earns awards with community service

POSTED: April 9, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS The Times/

Former Atlanta Brave and Major League Baseball Hall of Fame member Phil Niekro will soon see this empty lot at Alberta Banks Park in Flowery Branch become a Field of Dreams allowing children with special needs to play baseball.

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At the beginning of the speech he gave while being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, former Atlanta Braves' pitcher and current Flowery Branch resident Phil Niekro used a telling quote: "If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it didn't get there by itself."

Niekro used those simple words, given to him by then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, to set up the introductions of family and friends who helped him get from small-town Ohio to Cooperstown, N.Y.
Over the course of his life, Niekro has unconsciously been the turtle and, with an indelible sense of humility, acknowledged that nothing accomplished is done so alone.

That approach led him from humble beginnings to baseball's most revered shrine, and today to community work in Hall County so extensive he was chosen to receive the Gainesville Kiwanis Club's Youth Service Award earlier this month.

To longtime Atlanta Braves fans, he is "Knucksie," an icon known for his signature pitch, the knuckleball.

But to Hall Countians today, he is a neighbor who cares, and who puts more than just his name on the charitable efforts that he supports.

A strong foundation
Niekro, who turns 69 on Tuesday, 
grew up in Lansing, Ohio, an unincorporated coal mining community just across the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.Va.

"Everything goes back to Lansing," Niekro said. "Everything in that area was baseball, basketball, football, hunting and fishing."

He grew up across the street from John Havlicek, former Boston Celtics legend and member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

"If he wasn't sleeping and eating at my house, I was sleeping and eating at his," Niekro said. "His mom was my second mom and my mom his. Everything we did we did together."

Niekro's father was a coal miner and, according to his eldest child, didn't make a lot of money.

"We had the outhouse out back and didn't have showers," he said. "We took a bath once or twice a week in a tub in the basement. But everybody in the town worked hard for a living and everybody helped everybody else out. It was like one big family in my little, small hometown."

They planted gardens and lived off the land, canning tomatoes and corn in the offseason. The town didn't have a red light but, according to Niekro, "had five or six beer joints where all the coal miners went before and after they went into the coal mine."

The life lived in the small Ohio town profoundly shaped the man who would become a 300-game winner in the major leagues, a five-time all star and five-time Gold Glove winner.

"I never forget to realize how blessed and fortunate I was to have lived the life I have with family, my mother (Henrietta) and dad (Phil) and my sister (Phyllis) and my brother (Joe) with the love and the close relationship we had back there."

Niekro was raised to be appreciative, to give and to love. And in that upbringing he was taught that there are people with less, whether it be less love or less money.

"To this day I never take anything for granted," Niekro said, "and it goes back to Lansing. Life goes by too quick to take things for granted. We forget to realize how fortunate we are, how blessed we are to be able to do things we do in life because so many people can't."

It started with a game of catch
His father would arrive home in the summer months from the coal mines to find his eldest, Phil, and youngest, Joe, sitting on the family's front porch with gloves and ball in tow. The boys were patiently waiting to play catch with their father.

"He would be covered in soot and would have his lunch bucket," Niekro said. "He always saved a pear or a Twinkie or an apple for me and Joe and we'd eat that and go to the backyard and play in the summer until it got dark."

Niekro's mother would sit on the steps until the last of the sunlight dimmed and then call her family in for dinner.

"We always had to do the dishes and clean up," Niekro said. "And my dad would lay on the floor and listen to the Cleveland Indians on the radio."

At the conclusion of the game, Niekro's father would settle in for the night, preparing for the next day when the family would do it all over again.

It was during those summer months in the backyard that Niekro learned from his father the knuckleball, a pitch that would not only earn him a catchy nickname "Knucksie" in the years to come, but also enshrine him in baseball lore.

"I didn't know what the hell it was," Niekro said of the knuckleball. "It was just something we had fun in the backyard playing catch with.

"When I went to high school, I had a knuckleball and went out for the team and made it and pitched four years of high school ball."

After high school, Niekro caught wind of a tryout camp the Milwaukee Braves were putting on in Wheeling, W.Va., which was a scant six miles from his hometown of Lansing. He told his father he wanted to go, his father agreed he should and so the 19-year-old pitcher packed his glove and spikes and hitched a ride.

"When it was over, a scout came up to me and said, ‘What's your name and what's your telephone number?' I told him but I didn't understand why he was asking me that," Niekro said.

By the time he got home, the scout had already contacted his parents and was coming for a visit the next night.

"My mother fixed up a nice big, Polish meal and when it was over the scout said that the Milwaukee Braves wanted to sign me to a professional baseball contract," Niekro said. "The scout said, ‘How does $500 sound to you?' I looked at my dad who was nodding his head saying, ‘Yeah, yea take it.' So I signed the contract and that was the start."

The middle and the end
He was told by his first minor league manager, Red Murph, who happened to be the same guy that signed Nolan Ryan, that if he could just manage to get the knuckleball over the plate he could play in the big leagues.

Niekro worked diligently to get what would become his signature pitch over the plate and, in doing so, played his first major league game on April 15, 1964.

"My objective was to get to the big leagues," Niekro said. "I knew that if I could just get there one day and get my picture taken and send it back to Ohio so they could say, ‘Phil Niekro' - well, they call me Sonny back home - ‘Got to the big leagues.'"

And then he got there. In his first game, Niekro recalls, his thoughts were simple: Get the guys out so that he could maybe play again the next day.

There was no free agency at the time, no six-year contracts. Teams signed a player for a year and if he produced, the team found it suitable to sign him for one more year.

"I knew everyone in Ohio was going to read about it (my debut) the next day," Niekro said, "So I just wanted to get people out."

Get people out he did. Over the course of Niekro's 23-year career, he amassed a record of 318-274 while striking out 3,342 batters.

Batters began calling him, "knucklehead," "knuckle arm," and "knuckle brain," and the catchers who caught Niekro were simply befuddled by him.

"I never knew where the ball was going so I sure couldn't tell them," Niekro said.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997 and chalks it up, not to incredible pitching prowess, but to the knuckleball.

"That's all it was," Niekro said. "If it wasn't for the knuckleball I'd be back home working in the coal mine or be at DNR or something with hunting and fishing. That's what I'd be doing.

"It's (being inducted into the Hall of Fame) something they can never take away from you and when you look at that, when I got inducted into the Hall of Fame and the thousands of people that were out there and Teddy Williams sitting behind me and (Tom) Seaver and Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra and they're up there for you, it really makes you feel like you're the best player to ever play the game. But, you're a good one out of quite a few great ones and most of them are sitting behind you."

Reaching out to others
Niekro has the heart for helping others, a lesson learned in his hometown where neighbors became like family and a town dweller didn't think twice before lending a hand.

When talking about his charity work, Niekro admits that people want to use his name recognition, and he feels that's just fine as long as it gets something accomplished.

According to its Web site, The Edmondson-Telford Center for Children helps children younger than 18 who are victims of sexual or severe physical abuse or neglect, including providing support throughout the investigation and court process.

"I didn't know much about the center, but had been contacted by Lydia Sartain," Niekro said, "who was in charge of putting something together to raise some money for the center because there wasn't a lot of money there."

According to Niekro, the fundraising committee led by Sartain decided to have a golf tournament to benefit the center and raised about $6,000 the first year. That tournament has grown in the past 10 years into the Phil Niekro Classic and, played over two courses, has raised well in excess of $650,000 for the center.

Through the work of the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children, and its Executive Director Heather Hayes, Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic and Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper, more than 1,200 children and their families have received help in the past 10 years. More than 500 forensic interviews of sexually abused victims have been coordinated with law enforcement and social service agencies and all the services are provided free of charge to victims.

If you build it, they will come
One day, Niekro got a call from a friend, Kirby Scheimann, while sitting at his home in Flowery Branch. Scheimann, Butch Miller and Bob Brady were mulling an idea and wanted Niekro's input. The men wanted to build a baseball field for handicapped children, a field where those who are limited physical ability still would be able play. A field of dreams.

"Nobody was in a financial position to just do it so it got hot and it got cold and it got hot and it got cold," Niekro said.

The men would meet on the subject, talk about it and dream about it. Then word on their idea started getting around Hall County.

"(Former County Commissioner) Deborah Lynn caught hold of it and before she got out of office she got behind it," Niekro said. "The county gave us the field (at Alberta Park in Flowery Branch). It wasn't being used and it meant we didn't have to go buy land and buy a field."

According to Scott Jeager of The Jeager Co., the architectural firm hired to do the blueprints for The Field of Dreams, the entire field will be a rubber surface that will be colored green and brown like a real baseball field.

"The field will be scaled down," Jeager said. "It will be a tee-ball or Little League-size field with a concession stand and restrooms that will be fully handicapped accessible."

The field will also feature a handicapped-accessible playground.

"Probably every little kid growing up wants to be a big league ballplayer but they'll never get a chance to," Niekro said. "They sit at home and dream about it.

"This project gives them a chance to go out and put a uniform on, hit a ball off a tee, go play a position and have teams, have a scoreboard, have fans there and an umpire saying, ‘play ball.' The excitement that I can see them having ... you can't explain the feeling they're going to have."

For Niekro and the others behind the building of the Field of Dreams, as it came to be called, it boils down to one thing: "Some of them can't speak, can't do anything but they'll have a bat in their hands," Niekro said. "I can't wait until the day these kids get to play, they're going to be baseball players."

The Field of Dreams at Alberta Park is scheduled to be completed in July.

"I've played in charity-type things were you play with the blind," Niekro said. "The ball on the tee has a beeper on it, first base has a beeper, kids have to find the ball where it's beeping.

"To me I'm saying, ‘This is what it's like to want to play the game but not be able to play the game.'"

What's in a name?
Niekro is a former major league player and Hall of Famer, and still Knucksie to many. But to Niekro, his most important roles are being a husband, father and giver.

His discomfort with accepting credit and his humility in talking about the projects in which he is involved communicate greater passion for life than any words convey.

He hopes to leave Hall County a better place than it was when he arrived.

"The center, the Field of Dreams, Hall County needs these places," Niekro said. "There are so many working to help because there's nothing like those two anywhere around here.

"My name is my name and they use it, but really it's just a name and little can be accomplished by a name. It's the people doing the day-to-day that really make all the things happen and that's where the credit should be given."



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