ATLANTA - It was a long, frustrating wait for Phil Niekro, but in the end tears of joy shone in his eyes.
Five years after becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame, the former Atlanta Braves pitcher made it Monday, the only player elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
"The phone call felt like someone coming down from the clouds," Niekro said. "It was the right call, the one I've waited for for five years. I thought of my Mom and Dad and my family. All those memories were coming to me."
While Niekro was named on 80 percent of the ballots, well over the 75 percent needed, former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton and Reds slugger Tony Perez were disappointed again. Sutton, who was on the ballot for the fourth time, fell just nine votes short of the 355 needed, while Perez, eligible for the sixth time, missed by 43 votes.
Niekro, the only knuckleball pitcher in baseball history to win 300 games, finished his 24-year career with a 318-274 record and a 3.35 ERA. He joins reliever Hoyt Wilhelm as the preeminent knuckleballers in the Hall when he is enshrined as the 229th member. The exact date for the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer has not yet been determined.
Niekro, who won his 300th game while pitching for the Yankees against the Blue Jays on the last day of the 1985 season, said during a Monday press conference at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that he would be enshrined wearing a Braves cap.
Oh, by the way, that milestone win over Toronto? Niekro went the whole game without throwing a knuckleball, then threw his signature pitch to strike out Jeff Burroughs to end the game.
"I always wondered if I could win a game in the big leagues without throwing a knuckler," Niekro said.
Veteran baseball writers made Niekro wait for enshrinement. Billy Williams was the last player who had to wait as long. The former Chicago Cubs star was elected on his sixth try in 1987.
Pitching for weak Braves teams through the 1970s and 1980s, Niekro was named to five All-Star teams, won five Gold Gloves and is 14th on baseball's all-time win list. After leaving the Braves following the 1983 season, he made a farewell appearance in Atlanta in 1987, then finished out his career with the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays.
Niekro said of the long wait to reach the Hall of Fame: "I got myself up too high the last few years and this year I refused to do that. I didn't even pack to go to New York."
Sutton, the 1966 NL Rookie of the Year who finished his 23-year career with a 324-256 record and 3.26 ERA, has an excellent chance of gaining entry next year. Former Mets and Expos catcher Gary Carter and Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven are the biggest names eligible next year and Sutton should easily outpoint both.
But if Sutton isn't elected in 1998, he may have to wait awhile because a large class of players destined to be Hall of Fame members, including Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Carlton Fisk and Robin Yount, become eligible in 1999.
"I was very disappointed for Don," Niekro said. "Here's a man who has more wins than I do and I got in before him. I feel for the guy. I know what he's going through."
After retiring as a player, Niekro was Atlanta's bullpen coach, manager of Triple-A Richmond and the Braves' roving minor league pitching coach. He is about to start his fourth season managing the women's Silver Bullets team.
Ron Santo finished fourth with 186 votes, followed by Jim Rice with 178 and Steve Garvey with 167.
Among the eight first-time candidates, Dave Parker got the most votes with 83.
Joe Torre (105 votes) and Dick Allen (79) were on the ballot for the 15th and final time.
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