MLB Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Niekro dead at 81

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Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro has died at age 81, the Hall announced Sunday

Phil Niekro, a crafty pitcher who used his trademark knuckleball to baffle batters for 24 seasons, has died at age 81, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced Sunday.

Niekro, a five-time Major League Baseball All-Star who was inducted into the Hall in 1997, died in his sleep Saturday night after battling cancer for the past few years.

In a career that spanned from 1964 through 1987, Niekro collected a major-league record 121 victories after turning 40 and together with brother Joe combined for 539, the most by any major league siblings.

Niekro pitched for the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays.

"Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said.

"In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil's 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown.

“But even more than his signature pitch and trademark durability, Phil will be remembered as one of our game's most genial people. He always represented his sport extraordinarily well and he will be deeply missed."

Niekro learned the unique pitch from his coal miner father and made the ball dance unpredictably to mystify batters starting with Atlanta in 1964 even though it would be 1968 before he became a full-time starter.

Niekro pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1973 and finished his career with a record of 318-274 and a 3.35 earned-run average.

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