Jimmy Lawler will always remember his encounter with Phil Niekro, long after the Hall of Fame knuckleballer retired and had settled down in Flowery Branch. It was a great example of Niekro’s giving spirit and willingness to be involved in the community.
It was the late 1990s and Lawler, now the athletics director at Flowery Branch High, was baseball coach at Johnson High. Lawler had a friend, Steve Free, who was the father of one of his players and owned an indoor facility where they could set up cages for batting practice. So, during a period where it rained almost every day, the Knights’ coach asked if they could use it to hit.
Lawler’s friend said that wouldn’t be a problem.
Then came the real surprise.
When Johnson’s team showed up, Niekro, who was a mutual friend with Free, was standing there ready to throw batting practice. And 90 minutes later, after everyone had the chance to take about 30 swings each against Niekro, the 24-year pitching veteran in the majors, then about 60, was still not even tired.
“I think it was more of a thrill for me because I grew up such a big fan of him, going to games, when I was a kid in the 1970s,” Lawler said. “Phil was always such a nice man and treated everyone with respect.”
Niekro died Saturday night after a long battle with cancer at age 81.
The news of Niekro’s death was hard to digest for Lawler.
“It’s very sad when one of your sports heroes dies,” Lawler said. “He’s someone I always pulled for. It’s almost like having a family member die. Phil was a part of so many of my sports memories.”
Niekro, who won 317 games in his career, spent most of that time with the Atlanta Braves. But before retiring at age 48 in 1987, he played with the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays.
He was selected to five All-Star teams and had three 20-win seasons.
Niekro was in the Class of 1997 to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
However, after his career, Niekro threw himself into helping with numerous efforts to help the community and rarely, if ever, said no. He started the Phil Niekro Golf Classic, in 1996, to support the Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center, in Gainesville. He would come out every year as a celebrity server at the Mellow Mushroom, in Gainesville, one of the center’s yearly fundraiser events.
And if Flowery Branch mayor Mike Miller ever called on Niekro for help, he was always ready to jump right in to do whatever he could.
“He made you feel special. It didn’t matter who you were. You felt like you had known him all your life,” Miller said. “He wanted everybody to always have a good time. He was always the dominant personality in the room, and if you were around Phil and you didn’t laugh, you didn’t have a heartbeat.”
Miller said Niekro was always willing to help with community charity events, including contributing autographed memorabilia for the city’s Shop with a Cop program, which pairs law enforcement with local families to help with holiday gifts.
“Anytime anyone with the city of Flowery Branch ever asked him to help with something, it was always, ‘What more can I do?’” Miller said.
Helping children was one of the things that Niekro felt strongly about and found a perfect place to match his desire with Edmondson-Telford, which helps fund forensic medical exams and interviews of child victims and works with law enforcement and the judicial system in abuse cases.
Edmondson-Telford executive director Heather Hayes said Niekro had ‘a real heart for children’ and an endearing personality to match.
After his career ended, Niekro never expected to be treated like a baseball star.
He was a caring member of the community and had the resources and connections to make a difference.
“His personality was very fun — fun-loving, always joking, always pranking, always had a funny thing to say or a funny story,” she said. “It was just a joy. … His whole family is a joy to know and to work with. I really can’t even describe his footprint that he’ll leave on the center, the memories he’ll impart on everyone who knew him.”
And baseball always remained one of Niekro’s passions.
In 2008, Niekro partnered with the Hall County Parks and Leisure Services and Hall County Board of Commissioners to create Phil Niekro Field, part of the Field of Dreams, which included an adjoining playground, specifically designed for children with disabilities.
“I’m very proud to be part of this,” Niekro said, in 2008. “All of those kids who would’ve liked to be in the big leagues can now put on uniforms and play on teams.
“I think there will be more people watching games on this field than the regular field.”
As a kid, Lawler said he had the pleasure of going to “30 or 40” games each year to see the Atlanta Braves play in the 1970s at Fulton County Stadium.
Even during the period of Hank Aaron and Dusty Baker, Niekro was one of his favorite players to see in action.
With seats three rows behind the dugout, which Lawler’s family got through his father’s business, he reveled in how much command Niekro had on the deceptive knuckler.
“I remember how foolish he could make hitters look with that knuckleball,” Lawler said.
When Lawler opened the Flowery Branch High baseball program, in 2002, Niekro would pop in from time to time, even catching games every now at then at their field on Hog Mountain Road.
Miller, who grew up a fan of Niekro as a child trying to replicate the knuckleball, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Right when he was admiring Niekro’s plaque, Miller looked down at his phone to see a call from Niekro coming through.
“That’s one of the coolest moments of my life,” he said.
Miller added that Niekro’s impact will remain part of the community for many years to come.
“Not just Flowery Branch, the greater Atlanta community and the baseball community, have lost a legend,” Miller said.