30th anniversary: Phil Niekro’s great clutch game

Thirty years ago today, Phil Niekro picked a mighty nice time to have the greatest game of his life. In maybe the most important start of his career, Niekro gave the Braves exactly what they needed at a time it was needed most.

For much of the year, you never would’ve guessed Oct. 1 would be an important game for Atlanta. They began the year 13-0 and seemingly never looked back. On July 29 they were in first place—just as they had been every other day of the year—with a nine-game lead over the nearest competition.

Then things completely went to hell for Atlanta, as they shockingly dropped 19 of their next 21. By early August, they were in second place and in a tight race with the Dodgers and Giants.

Atlanta got their groove back but ended September with a record of 87-72, leading both LA and San Francisco by one game. Yeah, the last series of the season would be pretty damn important.

The Giants and Dodgers would play each other, so it meant they might neutralize one another. Then again, it meant that at least one of them would win a game every day. One of them had to win at least two games that series, so if Atlanta lost its last series (to San Diego), they’d lose the division lead. In that first game, if Atlanta lost, they’d end the day tied with the winner of the Dodger-Giant showdown.

Enter Phil Niekro.

On Oct. 1, 1982, the longtime Braves ace took the hill in the first game of the series against the Padres. Niekro began the day with a middling ERA but a 16-4 record.

Things began poorly for Niekro, as he allowed a double to leadoff hitter Alan Wiggins. Niekro then struck out Juan Bonilla, but strike three was a swinging strike in the dirt that got away from catcher Bruce Benedict, so runners were on the corners with no outs. No matter. Though not normally a strikeout artist, Niekro fanned the next two batters before getting another out to end the inning.

That kicked off a stretch of 17 straight Padres retired by Niekro. He brought his “A” game for this important contest. It’s a good thing he did so, too, because early on, Atlanta couldn’t do anything to San Diego’s Eric Show. After five innings, it was all tied, 0-0.

Finally, Atlanta broke through with some help for Niekro, plating its first run on a Claudell Washington single.

It turns out, though, that Niekro didn’t need that help. Nursing that slender 1-0, Niekro gave himself all the assistance he needed. In the top of the eighth with a runner on base, Nierko came to the plate and did something he last did in July, 1976—he belted a home run. Now Atlanta led, 3-0. The team scored an extra insurance run in the ninth but, more importantly, they had Niekro on the mound.

Niekro retired all six batters he faced after his home run. He had not only the win, but a complete-game shutout, allowing three hits and walked none. In his 716 career starts, it was the only time that Nierko combined a shutout with a home run, and it sure came at a nice time. As one last added bonus, that day, the 43-year-old Niekro became the oldest pitcher since 1934 to homer. Yeah, impressive timing all around.

The Braves would win the division by just one game. And that one-game margin came 30 years ago today courtesy of the arm and bat of Phil Nierko.

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


1,000 days since Atlanta signs Troy Glaus as a free agent.

1,000 days since Randy Johnson announces his retirement.

1,000 days since the Cardinals sign free agent Matt Holliday.

2,000 days since Alex Rodriguez gets an extra-base hit for the 11th consecutive game (which is part of a 23-game hitting streak). In these 11 games, he’s 17-for-40 with six doubles and seven home runs.

3,000 days since Fred McGriff appears in his final game.

4,000 days since Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy dies.

6,000 days since Chuck Finley loses his 100th decision. His record is 117-100.

9,000 days since Orel Hershiser throws the second of five consecutive shutouts. His scoreless-inning streak is now at 22 innings.

9,000 days since Roger Clemens has the only complete-game one-hitter of his career. Dave Clark singles in the eighth inning with one out for Cleveland.

25,000 days since Eddie Stanky makes his big league debut.

30,000 days since Tommy Bridges—full name Thomas Jefferson Davis Bridges—makes his first appearance on a big league mound.

30,000 days since Vinegar Bend Mizell is born.

At some point today it’ll be 1,000,000,000 seconds since the Red Sox trade Fred Lynn and Steve Renko to the Angels for Joe Rudi, Frank Tanana, and Jim Dorsey.


1877 The Louisville Courier-Journal breaks the story that players on the Louisville National League team threw a few games for money.

1879 The Cincinnati Enquirer leaks the story of the new (and still secret) reserve clause that soon will go into effect.

1882 Since the American Association has a rule against playing National League teams, the AA champion Cincinnati Reds release their entire roster and resign them as a “new” team so they can play an NL opponent and not technically violate a league rule.

1884 Charlie “Pretzels” Getzein throws a six-inning, shortened-game, no-hitter.

1885 Tom York, one of the early stars of the game, plays in his final contest.

1890 Ed Morris, the god of the complete game, pitches for the last time.

1892 Harry Wright manages his 2,000th game, becoming the first man to do that. His record: 1,147-823.

1903 The Pirates top the Red Sox, 7-3, in the first World Series game ever.

1908 Ed Reulbach of the Cubs throws his fourth straight complete-game shutout.

1914 The A’s all-time franchise record peaks at 385 games over .500 (1,220-835). They’ll tie that mark once at the start of 1915, but that’s it. The managerial record of Connie Mack peaks at 400 games over .500 (1,369-969). He managed the Pirates in the 1890s, which accounts for the difference. For the rest of the career, Mack will be 2,362-2,979.

1914 Irish Meusel makes his big league debut.

1919 Eddie Cicotte plunks the first batter he faces in Game One of the 1919 World Series, indicating that the fix is in. Chicago loses to the Reds, 9-1.

1920 Two Hall of Famers have a great pitchers’ duel: Pete Alexander and Jesse Haines. Both go the distance as Alexander’s Cubs win, 3-2 in 17 innings. Alexander’s line: 17 H, 16 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, and 8 K for a Game Score of 94. Haines’ line: 16.1 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, and 8 K for a Game Score of 87.

1921 Good-fielding first baseman Ed Konetchy plays in his last game.

1921 The Yankees clinch their first AL pennant.

1921 White Sox catcher Ray Schalk records an out at every single base in a game. That’s tough to do.

1924 Commissioner Kenesaw Landis bans two New York Giants, Cozy Dolan and Jimmy O’Connell, because they’d approached a Phillie about laying down for a late-season game. O’Connell claims he’s a scapegoat and that Frankie Frisch and several other teammates knew about it, but they all deny it now.

1926 Babe Ruth tells 11-year-old Johnny Sylvester, a boy suffering from near-death blood poisoning, that he’ll hit a home run for him.

1927 Eddie Collins appears in the starting lineup for the last time. He’ll be a just pinch-hitter for three more years. He hasn’t started since July 13, 1927, before this game.

1929 Lee Richmond, the game’s first notable left-handed pitcher, dies.

1932 Joe DiMaggio makes his professional debut, playing shortstop for the Pacific Coast League’se San Francisco Seals. He triples.

1932 Babe Ruth has his most famous moment, blasting the Called Shot homer against the Cubs for a 7-5 Yankee win in Game Three of the World Series. Among the people in the stands is future Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens.

1933 Babe Ruth pitches a complete game in a 6-5 win over the Red Sox. He also belts his 34th home run of the season.

1933 Nick Altrock plays in his last game, becoming the first of two five-decade players. (The other one is Minnie Minoso).

1938 The Cubs clinch their last peacetime pennant.

1939 Bobo Newsom wins his 100th game for a career record of 100-97. He’ll be under .500 for the rest of his career, going 111-125.

1939 Veteran infielder Jimmie Dykes plays in his last game.

1942 Washington purchases Paul Dean from the Cardinals.

1942 In Game Two of the Fall Classic, the Cardinals top the Yankees, 4-3. St. Louis led 3-0 before the Yanks tied it with three in the top of the eighth, but St. Louis gets the winning run in the bottom of the frame.

1943 The Braves lose, dropping manager Casey Stengel’s career record to 162 games under .500 (579-741), his all-time low point. He’ll tie it two games later but never fall lower. After today, he’ll be 1,326-1,101 for his remaining career.

1943 Stan Musial sets a personal best by reaching base for the 55th consecutive game.

1944 The Browns clinch their only pennant.

1944 St. Louis Cardinals star Pepper Martin plays in his last game. Though the team plays in the Series, he won’t.

1945 Hitting star Rod Carew is born.

1946 The NL has its first ever playoff game. St. Louis tops Brooklyn in the opening game in a best-of-three contest.

1949 The Braves acquire Sam Jethroe from the Dodgers, becoming the fifth team with a black player.

1949 It’s Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium. In a big game in a pennant race, the Yankees fall behind 4-0 to the Red Sox but come back to win, 5-4.

1949 Pittsburgh releases veterans Rip Sewell and Dixie Walker.

1950 Robin Roberts pitches 10 innings, the first of 25 times he’ll get at least 28 outs in a game.

1950 The Whiz Kids win it. They defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers on the last day of the regular season to clinch a pennant. Dick Sisler’s three-run homer in the 10th inning is the big blow in their 4-1 win. It’s also the last game for Dodgers skipper Burt Shotton.

1950 Connie Mack manages his last game. It’s against Bucky Harris, the 453rd time they’ve squared off against each other, by far the most any pair of managers has faced each other.

1950 Gus Zernial hits three homers in a game and four in a doubleheader. In that same doubleheader, Old Aches and Pains, Luke Appling plays in his last game.

1950 Tommy Henrich plays in his last regular-season game, but he’ll play in the World Series this year.

1951 In the first game of a best-of-three series for the NL pennant, Bobby Thomson homers off Ralph Branca in a 3-1 Giants win over the Dodgers.

1953 The Yankees defeat the Dodgers, 4-2, in Game Two of the World Series. The Yankees come back to win with one run in the bottom of the seventh and a pair in the eighth.

1954 The Cubs trade Johnny Klippstein to the Reds.

1955 Jeff Reardon, who was briefly the game’s all-time saves king, is born.

1956 The Briggs family heirs sell their shares of the Tigers to a syndicate headed by Fred Knorr, John Fetzer and Kenyon Brown for $5.5 million.

1958 The defending world champion Milwaukee Braves defeat the New York Yankees in Game One of the World Series, 4-3 in 10 innings. Milwaukee scores in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game before winning it in extra frames.

1959 It’s the worst Game One in World Series history. The Dodgers crush the White Sox, 11-0, with all the runs scoring in the first inning.

1960 Hall of Famer Billy Williams hits his first home run.

1960 Don Newcombe plays in his last game.

1961 Billy Martin plays in his final game.

1961 Ted Kluszewski plays in his last big league game.

1961 Roger Maris does it, hitting his 61st homer of the season, passing Babe Ruth as the all-time single-season champion.

1961 Ernie Banks plays shortstop for the final time. Knee problems will force him to first base for the remainder of his career.

1963 Mark McGwire is born.

1964 Hall of Fame skipper Dick Williams plays in his final game.

1965 Hall of Famer Warren Spahn pitches in his last game.

1966 Joe Adcock appears in his last big league game.

1967 Jim Kaat’s arm gives out. On the mound with a chance to clinch the pennant for Minnesota, his arm falls off, having thrown 63 innings since Sept. 1. The Red Sox win, 6-3, and clinch the pennant the next day.

1967 Many players appear in their last game today, including Curt Simmons, Dick Groat and Bill Skowron.

1970 John Hiller of Detroit fans seven Indians in a row in a 1-0 win.

1970 It’s the last game for baseball’s first modern stadium: Connie Mack Stadium. When the Phillies-Expos game ends, the crowd tears the place up for souvenirs. One person even takes a toilet.

1970 Ray Oyler plays in his last game.

1970 Mayo Smith manages his last game. He guided the 1968 Tigers to a world championship.

1970 Milwaukee signs amateur free agent Sixto Lezcano.

1971 George Steinbrenner and Al Rosen make a bid to buy the Cleveland Indians. Imagine how history would be different if they had gotten them.

1972 Gaylord Perry ends his Cy Young Award season (24 wins for a last-place team in a slightly shortened season) with his second-highest Game Score ever. His line: 11 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, and 11 K for a 96 Game Score.

1972 Julian Javier plays in his last game.

1972 Wes Parker plays in his last game.

1972 Milt Pappas wins his 11th straight, his best-ever streak. He sports a 1.86 ERA in that period.

1972 Reggie Jackson reaches base via catcher’s interference for the only time in his career.

1973 Renovations on Yankee Stadium begin.

1975 Hall of Fame executive Larry MacPhail dies at age 85.

1975 The Expos fire Gene Mauch, their first-ever manager.

1976 Alex Johnson plays in his final game.

1976 Dave Duncan, catcher who will become a great pitching coach, plays in his final game.

1976 Nate Colbert, still the all-time career Padres home run king, plays in his last game.

1977 Larry Dierker plays in his last game.

1978 Cito Gaston plays in his final game.

1978 Keith Moreland makes his big league debut.

1978 The Red Sox catch the Yankees in the second remarkable comeback of the 1978 AL East pennant race. Luis Tiant pitches a shutout.

1980 The Red Sox fire manager Don Zimmer.

1980 Charlie Moore hits for the cycle.

1980 Mark Fidrych, former phenom, plays in his last game.

1982 Nolan Ryan uncorks four wild pitches in one game.

1982 In a great pitcher’s duel, the Mets top the Phillies, 1-0 in 10 innings. Terry Leach gets the win with 10 innings of one-hit ball. John Denny goes nine innings, also allowing only one hit.

1983 Bert Campaneris plays in his last game. He’s a defensive replacement in the 12th inning.

1983 Aurelio Rodriguez appears in his final game.

1984 Matt Cain is born.

1984 Walter Alston dies.

1986 Bill Russell, longtime Dodgers shortstop, plays in his last game,

1987 Whitey Herzog manages his 2,000th game. His record: 1,085-914. He’ll be 196-211 after today.

1988 Don Baylor plays in his last regular-season game. Also appearing in their last game are Graig Nettles and Charlie Lea.

1988 Rafael Palmeiro hits the first of 12 career grand slams.

1989 Many guys play in their last game, including Chris Speier, Darrell Evans, Dwayne Murphy Tony Armas,

1989 Orel Hershiser throws 11 innings for the Dodgers, the longest outing of his career and the last time any Dodger goes over nine innings. He gets the win, but not the complete game.

1991 The Dodgers win, pushing Tommy Lasorda to 178 games over .500 (1,277-1,099), his all-time peak. He’ll be 322-350 after this day.

1991 Oil Can Boyd plays in his last game.

1992 Fifteen days after his 33rd birthday, Tim Raines triples twice in one contest.

1993 Barry Bonds drives in seven runs, going 3-for-3 with a double and two home runs. The Giants beat the Dodgers, 8-7.

1993 Frank Tanana plays in his last game.

1993 Toronto slugger Carlos Delgado makes his big league debut.

1995 Alex Fernandez pitches 10 innings for the White Sox, the last time any of their pitchers has gone over nine innings in a game.

1995 On the last day of the season, Cito Gaston manages his 1,000th game. His record: 537-463. For the rest of his career, he’ll be 357-374.

1995 The following athletes appear in the last game of their careers: Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Lou Whitaker, Kevin Bass, Howard Johnson and Bill Wegman. In similar news, Sparky Anderson manages his last game, retiring as the third-winningest manager of all-time (hough the’s since been passed by a few guys).

1997 In Game Two of the NLDS, the Marlins top the Giants, 7-6, in a back-and-forth game in which both clubs led three times.

1998 The Astros top the Padres, 5-4, in Game Two of the NLDS. The Astros lead 4-2 after eight, and San Diego ties it in the top of the ninth, but Houston wins it in the bottom of the ninth.

1998 The Braves beat the Cubs, 2-1 in 10 innings, in Game Two of the NLDS. Atlanta ties it, 1-1, in the bottom of the ninth before winning it next inning.

1999 Terry Steinbach plays in his last game.

2000 On the last day of the season, Jim Fregosi manages his last game. So does Gene Lamont.

2000 Albert Belle becomes only the second member of the 350-homer club (after Ted Williams) to homer in his last plate appearance. Jim Edmonds will later become another member of this club.

2000 The following men appear in their last game on this day: Ozzie Guillen, Mickey Morandini, Walt Weiss and Will Clark.

2000 The Mets top the Expos, 3-2 in 13 innings, when the winning run scores on a walk-off error. Hell of a way to lose a season finale.

2000 The Twins’ all-time franchise record bottoms out at 739 games under .500 (7,344-8,083).

2003 The A’s top the Red Sox, 5-4 in 12 innings, in the ALDS. The A’s tie the game in the bottom of the ninth before winning.

2004 Bobby Cox and Dusty Baker manage their 100th game against each other.

2004 Ichiro Suzuki gets his 258th hit of the year, breaking George Sisler’s 84-year-old record for most hits in a year.

2005 Ismael Valdez appears in his last game.

2006 Devern Hansack throws a shortened-game, five-inning no-hitter for the Red Sox.

2006 Ivan Rodriguez gets on base six times with three walks and three hits (all for extra bases).

2006 On the last day of the season, the following players appear in their last game: Bernie Williams, Cory Lidle, Joe Randa, and Tim Salmon. Frank Robinson manages his last game.

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Rich O
11 years ago

The White Sox lost the ‘59 series, but they won the first game 11-0.  The big inning was the 3rd (7 runs).  Klu had 2 home runs in the game.  (I admit I looked up the inning info, but was fairly certain it wasn’t all in the 1st.)

Michael Bacon
11 years ago

Thanks for an excellent article about my all time favorite Brave! I either watched, or listened to that game and you have captured it in vivid detail!
I was living with a wonderful woman on Peachtree Street in the Buckhead part of Atlanta then, and we, along with another couple, attended the 14th game of the season!

Chris J.
11 years ago

Rich – you’re right.  Thanks for the fix.

Michael – Glad to be of service.