Card-by-Yankees Card: The 1977 Topps Set, Card #116, Joe Niekro (Article 22)
Together Joe Niekro and his brother Phil amassed 539 wins in the big leagues. This is more than any other brother combination in Major League history. The Niekro brothers are baseball’s winningest brothers.
Joe won 221 of those games, a bit less than his Hall-of-Fame brother Phil who won 318, but 221 wins is still a significant and impressive number.
Only 77 pitchers in the history of baseball won more games than Joe Niekro.
Of those 77, the following pitched for the Yankees at one time or another in their career:
Catfish Hunter – 224 wins
Luis Tiant & Sad Sam Jones – 229 wins
Whitey Ford – 236 wins
Waite Hoyt and Clark Griffith – 237 wins
David Wells – 239 wins
Frank Tanana – 240 wins
Herb Pennock – 241 wins
Jack Quinn and Bartolo Colon – 247 wins
C.C. Sabathia – 251 wins
Andy Pettitte – 256 wins
Mike Mussina and Burleigh Grimes – 270 wins
Red Ruffing – 273 wins
Jim Kaat – 283 wins
Tommy John – 288 wins
Randy Johnson – 303 wins
Gaylord Perry – 314 wins
Phil Niekro – 318 wins
Roger Clemens – 354 wins
Unfortunately for Joe Niekro (and the Yankees) his tenure with the Yankees (from 1985 to 1987) wasn’t all that successful. Joe went 14-15, 4.58 as a Yankee.
The novelty of having Joe on the team was that his brother was also pitching for the Yankees. Joe was aged 40 when the Yankees acquired him. He talked with brother Phil on the mound when Phil won his 300th game. If nothing else it made good theater. In the end, it wasn’t a move, though, that helped the Yankees.
It seemed there were times when the Yankees made trades just to make trades – sometimes more for the story than for good baseball reasons. Trading for Joe Niekro was one of those times.
The pitcher the Yankees gave up to get Joe Niekro was Jim Deshaies who went on to have a pretty good career. He was 25 at the time of the trade. That was a trade that made no sense. None. They traded a 25-year old lefty pitcher for a 40-year old righty.
In 1986, Joe Niekro went 8-9 for the Yankees. That same year, Jim Deshaies went 12-5 for the Astros. The Yankees won 90 games that year, finishing in second place 5.5 games out. People like to talk about how the Yankees weren’t that good in the 1980’s and that it was all their spending that hurt the team. A counter argument to that narrative is that if the Yankees just made a few fewer bad trades that made no sense (Jerry Mumphrey for Omar Moreno / Jim Deshaies for Joe Niekro – to name the most recent two we have talked about in this series) they would have been better poised to compete and just might have won a few pennants in that decade.
In 1986, Jerry Mumphrey batted .304 for the Cubs. That year Omar Moreno, who the Yankees acquired for Mumphrey, was playing his last season, then with the Braves.
With just Mumphrey and Deshaies in 1986, the Yankees might have been able to close the gap and win the pennant. Who knows?
On June 7, 1987 the Yankees traded Joe Niekro to the Minnesota Twins for catcher Mark Salas. Niekro would pitch in just 24 more games for the remainder of his career. Jim Deshaies appeared in 255 games after the Yankees traded him.
Mark Salas, the catcher the Yankees acquired for Joe Niekro, played in all of 50 games for the Yankees, all in 1987. In that period, the Yankees seemed to desire having a left-handed power-hitting catcher. The problem was whichever one they had, they weren’t satisfied with him. My favorite example of this is Ron Hassey (a left-handed power-hitting catcher) who was traded between the Yankees and the White Sox four times in the 1980’s:
December 4, 1984 – Hassey traded from the White Sox to the Yankees
December 12, 1985 – Hassey traded from the Yankees to the White Sox
February 13, 1986 – Hassey traded from the White Sox to the Yankees
July 30, 1986 – Hassey traded from the Yankees to the White Sox
To close, I’ll share one more Joe Niekro stat that I really love..
Joe was a very good pitcher, but he was the lesser pitcher of the two Niekro brothers. His brother, Phil, of course, is in the Hall-of-Fame. On Baseball-Reference’s list of the most similar pitchers to Joe Niekro (the seventh most similar pitcher to Joe Niekro) is Jim Perry, a very good pitcher who was the lesser of the Perry bothers. Jim Perry’s brother, Gaylord, is, of course, in the Baseball Hall-of-Fame.
(Ok, one more – in his age 38 season, the pitcher Joe Niekro was most similar to was… his brother Phil.)