Baseball always has been a family affair for Phil and Joe Niekro. Their love of the game began during their childhood in Southeastern Ohio, when father Phil Sr. would always find time for a regular game of catch.
“Joe and I owe a lot to Dad,” says Phil Niekro, at 48 the oldest player in the major leagues. “And to Mom, too. They provided inspiration and guidance to us, and still do. We Niekros are close-knit.”
The Niekros, both right-handed knuckleballers, have combined for 527 lifetime victories and are on the verge of surpassing Gaylord and Jim Perry as the winningest brothers in baseball history.
The Perrys accumulated 529 victories between them. Gaylord finished 314-265 in a 22-year career with San Francisco, Cleveland, Texas, the New York Yankees, San Diego, Atlanta, Seattle and Kansas City. He won 20 games five times.
Jim went 215-174 in 17 seasons with Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit and Oakland. He was a 20-game winner twice.
Both won Cy Young awards. Gaylord is the only pitcher in history to win the Cy Young in each league, capturing the award with Cleveland of the American League in 1972 and with San Diego of the National League in 1978. Jim won the AL Cy Young Award with Minnesota in 1970.
Phil Niekro is 2-2 to date with Cleveland while Joe is 1-2 for the New York Yankees.
“Joe and I have got T-shirts that we both wear,” says Phil Niekro. “They’ve read ‘Four to go’ and ‘Three to go.’ Now we’re both wearing ‘Two to go.”’
What will both be sporting when the record is broken?
“I’ve got something special planned for then, but I won’t tell you what it is,” said Phil.
Joe Niekro says his brother is the architect of the planned celebration.
“Our own family party might have to wait until the All-Star break or August (when the Yankees visit Cleveland),” he said. “It’ll be wonderful. Every day I think about it. Phil and I talked about it a lot during the off season.”
Phil Niekro has posted a 313-262 record and has three 20-victory seasons. He broke into the majors with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964 and played 18 seasons with the Braves after the team moved to Atlanta.
He was signed as a free agent by the Yankees in 1984 and was claimed on waivers by the Indians at the end of 1986 spring training.
Joe Niekro is 214-192 lifetime. The 42-year-old reached the majors in 1967 with the Chicago Cubs, and played for San Diego, Detroit and Atlanta before an 11-season stint with Houston that ended when he was traded to the Yankees late in the 1985 campaign.
“It may not be a record that means much to some people, but it means a lot to my brother and me,” Phil continued, “and it’s more of a family thing.
“Think about it. How many families produce two kids who make it to the major leagues, let alone two pitchers like Joe and I who have been around for a long time and won as many games as we have?”
Phil Niekro says he has never felt he and his brother “have been involved in any sort of personal competition.”
“Joe and I have always been very close,” he says. “There’s never been any comparisons made.”
Joe, who has had two 20-victory campaigns, reiterated the family aspect of the record.
“It’s definitely something to be proud of but it’s not whoever pitches the tie-breaking game, it’s for the whole Niekro family,” he said. “Mom and Dad are thrilled, I know.”
Joe added that he has been in touch with the Perry brothers.
“I know Gaylord better than Jim and saw him about three weeks ago,” he said. “He told me ‘You guys keep getting our names in the paper.”’
Phil Niekro believes their upcoming record “has a good chance of lasting.”
"(It’s) a record that going to be awfully difficult to break. Ken and Bob Forsch are the closest to us. They’re about 200 wins away and Ken isn’t even playing anymore,” he said.
“When it happens, Joe and I will be on the phone together immediately. That’s the way it should be.”