25th anniversary: Joe Niekro’s inning full of balk

Twenty-five years ago today, one of baseball’s oldest players had one of his ugliest outings ever. April 19, 1988 was a day Joe Niekro probably wanted to forget about as soon as it was over.

It wasn’t just that he pitched poorly and allowed a slew of runs. It’s that he also kept getting called for balks. He had nearly as many balks as outs. He had nearly as many balks in one day as in the previous decade combined.

Though overshadowed by his Hall of Fame big brother Phil Niekro, Joe had a nice career for himself. Using the same pitch as Phil – the knuckleball – Joe Niekro won over 200 games in 22 seasons.

However, 1988 was the last of those 22 seasons. Joe Niekro was on fumes. In fact, his last outing was less than two weeks away – and today’s game helped hasten it.

Getting the start for the defending world champion Minnesota Twins, Joe Niekro had to face off against a dangerous Yankees lineup. The most dangerous part was its leadoff hitter, the all-time great base stealer Rickey Henderson. The future 3,000 hit club member greeted Niekro by lacing a single to center.

All pitchers had to keep a close eye on Henderson at first. He was just five years removed from his 130 stolen base season and would swipe 93 this year. But few pitchers had such a need to monitor Henderson as Niekro. After all, thought the knuckler is tough to hit, it travels slower than just about any other pitch – and every millisecond counted with Henderson at first.

So Niekro paid at least as much attention to first base as he did to the lowly reputed Bobby Meacham at the plate. Niekro wanted that son of a gun off first base. And, on a 2-1 count to Meacham, Nierko moved a little too swiftly to first.


Yeah, the umps called Niekro on it. They’d call plenty of balks that year. The major league front office decreed that umpires should crack down on balks that year, and so this shouldn’t be too unexpected. It wasn’t Niekro’s first balk. He’d had one a year from 1983-86, but before that just one in his first 16 season.

Now Niekro had career balk No. 6. Eh, these things, they happen. But hey – maybe there’s an upside to this. Maybe Henderson will think Niekro will lay off now that an umpire nailed Niekro for a balk. Well, Niekro will show him. He ain’t going to back down.

But neither were the umpires. Balk!

Just one pitch after the first balk call, Niekro had another. Not only was it the first time he gave up two balks in one inning, it was the first time he’d balked twice in one season. A few minutes later Don Mattingly doubled Henderson home, so it was all moot. Henderson would likely score from first on a double, after all.

But in the second inning, Niekro ran into trouble, allowing Henderson to come to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Wouldn’t you know it – he singled to score tw runs. Well, at least second base was occupied by shortstop Rafael Santana, the No. 9 hitter for the Yankees.

Still, better keep on eye on things. Niekro went back to his pickoff move once more.


Niekro couldn’t have been a happy camper. He had just committed his third balk of the game – after just five previous balks in 3,500-plus innings. Sure it was the year of the balk, but maybe the umpires were being a little to quick on the call today. Surely Niekro had to be thinking that.

The rest of Niekro’s game was off that day as well. A few batters later and the Yankees had scored seven runs. Niekro didn’t get out of the seventh, with one of the worst Game Scores of his life: 12. Minnesota put him in the bullpen after this. He made one more start at the end of the month, but when that was a disaster, they pulled the plug on his big league career.

As bad as his last season was, nothing quite compared with the utter frustration of committing nearly half of his lifetime balks in under two innings – and that happened to him 25 years ago today.

Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.


1,000 days since Magglio Ordonez plays in his final contest.

4,000 days since Bobby Valentine endures his 1,000th loss as manager. His record: 1,060-1,000.

8,000 days since Sammy Sosa hits his only career pinch hit home run.

9,000 days since Tommy John ties his worst Game Score: 4. His line: 4.1 IP, 12 H, 9 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, and 0 K.

25,000 days since Joe Niekro is born.

40,000 days since Pirates pitcher Ed Doheny is institutionalized for attacking a doctor and nurse. He never pitches again—in fact, I don’t think he ever leaves the hospital again.


1886 Future Hall of Fame manager Wilbert Robinson makes his debut as catcher.

1890 Hall of Fame skipper Frank Selee manages his first game.

1890 Several players make their big league debuts today, including Hall of Famer George Davis, star infielder Bobby Lowe, fine hitting Bill Joyce, terrific fielding (but poor hitting) shortstop Tommy Corcoran, and long-lasting catcher Malachi Kittridge.

1890 The Players League debuts with all eight teams seeing action.

1895 Jimmy Collins, the greatest third baseman of his generation, makes his major league debut.

1896 Cap Anson manages his 2,000th game. He’s just the second man to do it, after Harry Wright. (And Wright only did it if you count the National Association).

1896 Chick Fraser, one of the only pitchers to have 200 losses but less than 200 wins, first appears in a major league game.

1897 George Stallings manages his first major league game. He’ll gain his greatest fame piloting the 1914 Miracle Braves to their unexpected world title.

1897 Chick Stahl, outfielder, makes his big league debut with the Boston Braves. It’s on the same day and in the same town that the first Boston Marathon happens. Stahl will later become the only baseball manager to commit suicide.

1900 It’s the wildest Opening Day game ever, as the Phillies top the Braves 19-17 in 10 innings. Boston scored nine runs in the ninth to send the sucker into overtime.

1902 Pitcher Bob Ewing has one of the wildest debuts ever, walking 10 – including five in one inning.

1903 Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown plays in his first game.

1909 Bucky Walter, a pitcher who arguably deserves to be in Cooperstown, is born.

1909 The former team doctor for the New York Giants is banned for life from all major league parks for trying to bribe umpires Bill Klem and Jimmy Johnston just before the makeup game over the Fred Merkle incident in 1908.

1915 Lee Meadows, the first prominent pitcher to wear glasses, debuts.

1918 Whitey Kurowski, four-time All-Star for the 1940 Cardinals, is born.

1920 Two pitchers make their debuts for the A”s today—Eddie Rommel and Slim Harriss. Rommel will have a far better career, but Harris has his moments.

1923 Red Lucas, decent 1920s/30s pitcher, makes his big league debut. Also debuting is Sloppy Thurston, who will lead the 1924 AL in complete games while winning 20 games for the White Sox.

1927 John McGraw manages his 4,000th game. His record is 2,329-1,616.

1927 The Tigers begin broadcasting their home games on WWJ with Ty Tyson as announcer.

1929 Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell makes his big league debut. It’s an ill-deserving Hall of Famer, but in Cooperstown nevertheless.

1930 Al Simmons homers for the fifth straight game.

1920 Babe Ruth gets credited for two sacrifice hits in one game for the fourth and final time in his career. I believe sacrifice flies were listed as sacrifice hits then, so it wasn’t that he was necessarily laying down to bunt all the time.

1930 Waite Hoyt only balks five times in his career, but two happen today.

1932 Bill Terry ties the game for the Giants in spectacular fashion, with a three-run inside-the-park home run in the bottom of the ninth. They lose anyway, 8-7 in 13 innings to Boston.

1932 Johnny Allen, a fiery pitcher, makes his big league debut.

1934 “Piano Legs” Charlie Hickman, a decent turn of the century hitter, dies at age 57. He led the 1902 AL in total bases and hits.

1937 Detroit purchases aging slugger Babe Herman from the Reds.

1937 Vince DiMaggio, eldest of the DiMaggios, makes his big league debut. Little brother Joe beat him to the bigs by a year.

1938 For the first time ever, two players homer in their first at bat in the same game. Heinie Mueller of the Phillies and Ernie Koy of the Dodgers do it.

1942 Warren Spahn, one of the most successful pitchers in major league history, makes his debut.

1944 Joe Page, who will become ones of the game’s first star relievers in 1947, makes his big league debut.

1945 Joe Cronin plays in his last game. He breaks his leg while rounding second base as his spikes catch in the dirt.

1946 The Yankees switch their dugout from the third base side to first base side at Yankee Stadium.

1947 Kindly Old Burt Shotton takes over as Dodgers manager, as the baseball commissioner has just suspended Leo Durocher for the entire season.

1948 Star Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds hits his only home run. He has to be coaxed to run the bases because he refuses to believe he homered.

1948 Early Wynn ties a personal worst by allowing 16 hits in a game. He also allows a personal worst 12 runs and 10 earned runs.

1948 On Opening Day, three Red Sox hit consecutive homers—Stan Spence, Vern Stephens, and Bobby Doerr. The opposing A’s have the last laugh, winning 5-4 in 11 innings.

1949 Slugger Gus Zernial makes his big league debut.

1949 The White Sox become the sixth team to integrate as Minnie Minoso takes the field for them. No more clubs will integrate until after Labor Day in 1953.

1949 Star catcher Smoky Burgess makes his big league debut. So does solid hitting Red Sox first baseman Walt Dropo.

1949 The Yankees unveil a granite monument to Babe Ruth, and plaques for Lou Gehrig and Miller Huggins. Ruth died in the off-season and Gehrig and Huggins have both been dead for a while.

1952 Eddie Mathews belts his first home run.

1953 Mickey Mantles reaches base for the 37th straight game, his persona best streak.

1953 Pee Wee Reese draws four walks in one game.

1954 Yogi Berra raps out his 1,000th hit. In that same game, Mickey Mantle strikes out with the bases loaded to end the contest. That’s the only time it happens. The Yankees lose 2-1 to the Red Sox. Ellis Kinder gets the K. This also becomes Mantle’s worst WPA game: -0.292 as he’s 0-for-4 with four Ks. At least he has one walk.

1955 The Cardinals release former star Yankees pitcher Vic Raschi.

1956 Dodger catcher Roy Campanella gets his 1,000th hit.

1956 The Dodgers play the first of seven scheduled home games in New Jesey’s Roosevelt Stadium. Owner Walter O’Malley thinks Ebbets is too small.

1959 Pitcher Chris Short makes his big league debut.

1960 The Tigers and Indians set a record for longest Opening Day ever—15 innings, with Detroit triumphing, 4-2.

1960 Minnie Minoso returns! The White Sox traded for the star outfielder in the off-season, allowing him to return, and today he makes it look like a great idea, as he hits a walk-off home run for a 10-9 win over the A’s. The Sox led 5-0 early, but the A’s rallied to tie it in the top of the ninth. My dad was at this game. It’s the only time in his life he ever hitchhiked anywhere.

1960 Frank Viola, Cy Young Award winning pitcher, is born.

1963 Hank Aaron hits his 300th home run. He’s just the 21st member of the club.

1964 One day after Dodger stud Sandy Koufax strikes out the side on the bare minimum of nine pitches, Astros pitcher Bob Bruce does likewise. Its’ against the Cardinals in the eighth inning.

1964 Dick Allen has the first of 32 career multi-home run games.

1964 Wes Parker makes his big league debut.

1965 Nelson Briles makes his big league debut.

1965 The original Astrodome ceiling is painted, as players complained about the sun’s rays shooting through the glass ceiling above. This painting causes the grass to die.

1966 It’s the first game for Anaheim Stadium. Rich Reichardt of the home town Angels hits the first homer there, but that’s all the Angels do, as the visiting White Sox triumph, 3-1.

1968 Legendary strikeout artist Nolan Ryan strikes out the side on the minimum nine pitches in the third inning against LA.

1968 Former great Tigers pitcher Thomas Jefferson Davis Bridges (AKA Tommy Bridges), dies at age 61.

1969 For the second time already in this young season, Rod Carew steals home. He beats a slow-moving Hoyt Wilhelm knuckler in today’s Twins-Angels game. The Twins win, giving rookie manager Billy Martin a career record of 5-4. It’ll be over .500 for the rest of his days.

1969 Boston trades Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, Juan Pizarro, and Dick Ellsworth to Cleveland for Sonny Siebert, Vicente Romo, and Joe Azcue.

1971 Russ Hodges, famous for screaming “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNAT!”, dies.

1972 The A’s sign free agent pitcher Joe Horlen.

1975 Don Sutton posts his 12th straight victory, his longest winning streak. His line: 15 GS, 12-0, 5 CG, 115.2 IP, 81 H, 24 R, 22 ER, 27 BB, 96 K, and a 1.71 ERA. Not too shabby.

1977 Brooks Robinson smashes the only pinch-hit home run of his career – and it’s also his eighth and final walk-off home run.

1977 Hard throwing pitcher Floyd Bannister makes his big league debut.

1978 Dave McKay lays down what’s still the only walk-off sacrifice bunt in Blue Jays history. He tries to advance the runner in the bottom of the ninth against the Yankees, but pitcher Rich Gossage throws the ball away, allowing the winning run to score. Officially it’s a walk-off error, but it’s the only Jays win to end on a walk-off sacrifice hit effort.

1979 Yankee pitcher Rich Gossage gets in a fistfight with teammate Cliff Johnson in the showers. Gossage tears thumb ligaments and has to go on the DL.

1979 Vida Blue picks up the win despite allowing 10 runs in a start (nine earned). Not until the 21st century will another pitcher allow 10 runs and get the win.

1981 The A’s set a record by beginning the season 11-0.

1983 Twins catcher Joe Mauer is born.

1983 Zach Duke, Pirates pitcher, is born.

1984 The Tigers lose, falling to 9-1. Losing doesn’t take, as they’ll eventually be 35-5.

1985 Art Howe plays in his final contest.

1986 The Cardinals and Expos play in one of the wildest games of the year. St. Louis wins 9-6 in 17 innings, after both teams scored a run in the 13th and 14th frames.

1986 For the only time in his career, George Brett gets hit by a pitch twice in one game.

1986 The A’s and Mariners combine for a then-record 30 Ks in a game. Jose Rijo fans 16, setting a new A’s team record.

1986 Big Daddy Rick Reuschel enjoys his 13th straight Quality Start, his longest streak ever – though he’ll tie it with another streak later this season. He’s 8-4 with a 1.65 ERA over 103.1 IP here.

1987 Reggie Jackson, just a month shy of his 41st birthday, triples. It’s his last one.

1991 Andre Dawson smashes what WPA considers to be his most valuable home run. It’s a pinch-hit grand slam for the Cubs in the top of the ninth while trailing the Pirates 0-3. The Pirates comeback and win anyway.

1994 Kevin Brown endures the worst outing of his career: 3.1 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 1 BB, and 1 K for a Game Score of –4.

1996 Lunatic and baseball fan Charlie Sheen purchases every single seat in a section of leftfield at an Angels game in hopes of catching a home run ball. None are hit his way, though.

1996 The Rangers score 26 runs, the most by an AL team in 41 years, in a 26-7 massacre of the Orioles. Jesse Orosco’s season ERA rises from 9.82 to 27.00.

1997 It’s the first official major league game in Hawaii, as the Padres and Cardinals play a doubleheader while San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium undergoes renovations. St. Louis sweeps, 1-0 and 2-1.

1998 Larry Walker runs wild, stealing three bases in one game – and one caught steal. He never runs this much in any other game.

1998 Orioles pitcher Sir Sidney Ponson makes his debut.

1998 Tampa Bay’s all-time cumulative franchise record peaks at four games over .500 (10-6). They’ll have to stay good for many years to get back to .500 after their wretched first decade.

200 For the first time in nearly 16 years, Cal Ripken hits a walk-off homer. He’ll smash another one next month.

2000 Orel Hershiser hits four batters in one game. Oops. He does it despite throwing just 1.1 IP. Apparently, his control was off.

2003 Andy Pettitte ties a personal record with his eighth straight win.

2005 The Mets set a team record with seven home runs in one game.

2006 Tom Glavine posts his 14th consecutive Quality Start, his longest streak. He’ sjust 7-5 in the period despite a 1.69 ERA.

2007 Jim Thome draws five base on balls in one game.

2009 Randy Johnson joins Al Leiter, Kevin Brown, Terry Mulholland, Woody Williams, and Jaime Moyer as the only men to notch victories against all 30 teams. He does it in style, too, taking a no-hitter into the seventh before it’s broken up. It’s his first win for the Giants, a 2-0 triumph over Arizona.

2012 Yankee outfielder Curtis Granderson hits three homers in one game—with all the longballs coming in the first four innings. He ends the day with five hits in an easy Yankee victory over the Twins.

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Dave Cornutt
10 years ago

Did they actually paint the Astrodome ceiling?  I thought they put covers over the glass.  The reason I think that is because I recall one year in the early ‘70s when the NCAA basketball Final Four was played there, and the glass was uncovered.

Chris Jaffe
10 years ago

Dave – you might be right. I thought it was painted, but that was just what I thought.  Not sure where I picked it up from or if it was just my assumption.

10 years ago

In terms of Roosevelt Stadium, wasn’t the point not the total seats, but the fact that it had amply parking, which Ebbets didn’t?

10 years ago

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6 years ago

Joe Niekro gets the final out of a 7-1 victory over the Dodgers to earn their first-ever division title.