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Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro dies at 81

Phil Niekro, shown in 2014 in Cooperstown, N.Y., died in his sleep after a long battle with cancer. The famous knuckleballer was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Phil Niekro, shown in 2014 in Cooperstown, N.Y., died in his sleep after a long battle with cancer. The famous knuckleballer was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, known for his signature knuckleball, died Saturday night in his sleep after a lengthy battle with cancer, it was announced Sunday. He was 81.

Niekro, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, won 318 games in a career that spanned 24 seasons, including 21 with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.

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"We are heartbroken on the passing of our treasured friend, Phil Niekro," the Braves said in a statement Sunday. "Knucksie was woven into the Braves fabric, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta. Phil baffled batters on the field and later was always the first to join in our community activities. It was during those community and fan activities where he would communicate with fans as if they were long lost friends.

"He was a constant presence over the years, in our clubhouse, our alumni activities and throughout Braves Country and we will forever be grateful for having him be such an important part of our organization. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael and his two grandchildren Chase and Emma."

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The right-handed Niekro was a five-time All-Star selection and a five-time Gold Glove Award winner. He won the league's Roberto Clemente Award in 1980.

Niekro, born in Blaine, Ohio, on April 1, 1939, led the National League in wins twice (1974, 1979) and led the NL in strikeouts in 1977.

"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.

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"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. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Phil's family, friends and the many fans he earned throughout his life in our National Pastime."

Niekro made his debut for the Braves in 1964. He also played for the New York Yankees (1984-85), Cleveland Indians (1986-87) and Toronto Blue Jays (1987) before ending his career in Atlanta (1987).

Niekro was preceded in death by his younger brother and former MLB pitcher, Joe Niekro, who suffered a fatal brain aneurysm in 2006. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, sons Philip, John and Michael, and two grandchildren, Chase and Emma.

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