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Phil Niekro, Hall of Fame pitcher who mastered the knuckleball, dies at 81

The 20th-century knuckleball master has died after a battle with cancer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Sunday.

Phil Niekro, left, holds his Hall of Fame plaque next to fellow inductee Tommy Lasorda at the end of ceremonies in 1997.
David Jennings/AP Photo (file)

Phil Niekro, the legendary pitcher who mastered the knuckleball as part of a Hall of Fame career primarily with the Atlanta Braves, has died after a battle with cancer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Sunday. He was 81 years old.

Niekro, who made his debut in 1964 when the Braves played in Milwaukee, carved out a lengthy career by dedicating his game to a pitch that few others even attempted. The knuckleball helped made Niekro unhittable at times, allowing him to pitch 5,404 innings over 24 years at the big league level – a feat no other pitcher has reached in the live ball era.

“Phil Niekro’s record on the field ranks him as one of the game’s finest pitchers,” Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “As a mentor, leader and friend, Phil brought out the best in all of us in Cooperstown.”

A five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, Niekro earned the Lou Gehrig Award, Roberto Clemente Award and Brian Piccolo Award for his humanitarian service off the field. He had also served on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors since 2009.