- Joe Niekro was overshadowed by his Hall of Fame brother Phil, but he was a good knuckleball pitcher in his own right. Joe pitched in the majors for 22 seasons and had a lifetime record of 221-204 with a 3.59 ERA.
- Joe was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1966. He pitched at three different levels in the minors in 1966 and then made the Chicago pitching staff in 1967. Niekro went 10-7 with a 3.34 ERA in '67. He didn't do quite as well in 1968 (14-10, 4.32 ERA in a pitcher's year). Joe started the 1969 season with the Cubs and was traded on April 25 to the San Diego Padres. For the two teams, Joe was 8-18 with a 3.70 ERA. After the 1969 season Joe was traded to the Detroit Tigers.
- Niekro spent three seasons (1970-1972) with the Tigers. He was in the starting rotation in 1970 (12-13, 4.06 ERA in 33 starts) and was used as a spot starter and reliever in the other two seasons. In 1971 Niekro was 6-7 with a 4.49 ERA in 31 games (15 starts). Joe missed the first month of the 1972 season and also missed a month from early August to early September. He was 3-2 with a 3.83 ERA in 18 games (7 starts). Niekro made two starts in the minors in 1972 -- probably a rehab assignment.
- He spent a good portion of the 1973 season in the minors and the Tigers waived him on August 7. The Atlanta Braves selected Joe off of waivers and he was able to become a teammate of his brother Phil. Joe pitched in 20 games (all in relief) for the Braves in '73 and was 2-4 with three saves and an ERA of 4.12.
- Joe started the 1974 season with AAA Richmond and after making 30 appearances for Richmond was brought back to the Braves in early June. Joe was used mostly as a reliever by the Braves (27 games, 2 starts) and was 3-2 with a 3.56 ERA. During spring training in 1975 Joe was purchased by the Houston Astros.
- Niekro's most memorable seasons occurred with the Astros. He spent the bulk of his career (1975-1985) with the club. From 1975-1977 Joe was a fifth starter/reliever type of pitcher. He had good seasons in that role (6-4, 3.07 ERA in '75, 4-8, 3.36 ERA in '76, 13-8, 3.04 ERA in '77). From 1978 through the end of his career, Niekro was a starting pitcher. He went 14-14 with a 3.86 ERA in 1978.
- Joe's best season was in 1979. He made the NL All Star team, finished second in Cy Young Award voting, and was 6th in NL MVP voting. He was 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA and a league-leading five shutouts. Niekro was almost as good in 1980 -- he was 20-12 with a 3.55 ERA and finished 4th in Cy Young voting. He was the winning pitcher in the one-game playoff against the LA Dodgers that decided the NL West title. Joe pitched a memorable game 3 in the NLCS -- he allowed no runs in 10 innings of work before giving way for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 10th. The Astros won the game in the 11th inning.
- Niekro's W/L record wasn't as good in 1981 (9-9), but he had another great start in the playoffs. Joe started game 2 of the Divisional Series and pitched eight shutout innings. The Astros also won the game in the 11th inning.
- Joe pitched well for the Astros for the rest of his tenure there -- 17-12, 2.47 ERA in '82; 15-14, 3.48 ERA in '83; 16-12, 3.04 ERA in '84. In 1985 Niekro didn't have as good of a record for the Astros (9-12, 3.72 ERA) and on September 15 he was traded to the New York Yankees for Jim Deshaies and two minor leaguers. Joe started three games for the Yankees and was 2-1 with a 5.84 ERA.
- In 1986 Joe started 25 games for the Yankees and was 9-10 with a 4.87 ERA. He started eight games (3-4, 3.55 ERA) for the Yanks in 1987 and then was traded to the Minnesota Twins for Mark Salas. He started 18 games for the Twins during their improbable World Championship run and was 4-9 with a 6.26 ERA. Joe served a suspension during the 1987 season for having a fingernail file in his pocket while on the mound. He pitched two innings in the 1987 World Series, again allowing no runs.
Letterman's "Top 10 Excuses" when Niekro appeared on the show - August 6, 1987:
10. The emory board is a new super-grip popsicle stick.
9. I only used it to apply Vaseline to the ball.
8. I needed it to scrape dried wads of chewing tobacco off the bullpen telephone.
7. Delicate double-knit uniforms easily snagged on rough nails.
6. I was using it to make a statue of commissioner Ueberroth.
5. I used it as a bookmark for my dugout copy of Shirley MacLaine's autobiography.
4. Rules of fair play are for saps and squares.
3. I've been hypnotized by evil dogs.
2. It was all William Casey's idea.
1. I like to give pedicures to ballboys.
- Niekro finished his career in 1988. He was released on May 4 after going 1-1 with a 10.03 ERA in five games (two starts).
- Joe is the father of Lance Niekro, who played first base for the Giants for a few years and is now trying to make it as a knuckleballing pitcher.
Joe Niekro suffered a brain aneurysm on October 26, 2006 and died the following day. The Joe Niekro Foundation aids in the research and treatment of brain aneuryisms. Here is a 2009 New York Times article about Joe's legacy.
- Liked to face: Dan Driessen (.205 in 88 AB); Dusty Baker (.174 in 69 AB); Gary Carter (.138 in 58 AB); Garry Templeton (.186 in 55 AB)
- Hated to face: Chris Chambliss (.338 in 71 AB); Tony Perez (.368 in 76 AB); Willie Stargell (.421 in 57 AB); Reggie Smith (.449 in 49 AB)
Here is a tribute to Joe Niekro: