Atlanta Braves no-hitters: 1973 Phil Niekro

The first no-hitter thrown by an Atlanta Braves pitcher was perhaps the most remarkable.

As noted yesterday, this series is intended to review the no-hitters thrown since the Atlanta Braves arrived in the South in 1966.  The first such game serves to remind us how good Phil Niekro was… at least at times.

With a knuckleball thrower, there are a lot of variables involved.  If the prevailing breeze is in the pitcher’s face — but not too hard — then it’s said to help movement of the pitch.

If the ball is thrown too hard or too soft, then movement is dramatically different.  The release is important.  The spin — typically no more than a couple of revolutions before arriving at home plate — is vital.

Once the pitch arrives at home plate, other dynamics are played out.  The umpire has to be attuned to what he’s seeing so that he can make a proper call.  The catcher (poor guy) can’t even guess where the pitch will end up:  every throw requires him to react.

This is why the ever-quotable Bob Uecker — who was given the duty of catching Niekro on many occasions — had so many things to say about the pitch:

“Catching Niekro’s knuckleball was great. I got to meet a lot of important people. They all sit behind home plate.”

“In those days (he played in the majors from 1962-67), Phil had less control. Sometimes I’d know before he let go of it that it was going to get by me. I’d just start running and play it off the wall.”

“In 1967 I set a major-league record for passed balls, and I did that without playing every game. There was a game, as a matter of fact, during that year when Phil Niekro’s brother (Joe) and he were pitching against each other in Atlanta. Their parents were sitting right behind home plate. I saw their folks that day more than they did the whole weekend.”

But on this date in 1973 — August 5th in Atlanta — Paul Casanova drew the short straw and the big glove.  The light-hiting catcher (career OPS under .600) actually managed a home run on this day… but that wasn’t the most notable feat during this game.

Terry Tata was the home plate umpire in front of an announced attendance of 8,748.  Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews was the manager in those days, but his team wasn’t especially good, finishing 76-85 that year, which allowed them to finish only in front of today’s opponent:  the San Diego Padres (60-102).

The Braves offense scored quickly and often on this Sunday afternoon, building leads of 1-0, 3-0, and 4-0 through the first four innings.  I could say that this allowed Niekro to settle in to his routine, but with a knuckleball pitcher, their “routine” is either always settled in … or they’re serving up meatballs.

Still, the tone was set early as Niekro retired the first three Padres on a pair of groundouts and a foul popout to Casanova.  The second inning wasn’t a lot different:  fly out to left, another groundout, and a strikeout — one of just 4 on the day.

The third inning erased any thoughts about a perfect game with shortstop Marty Perez booting a grounder with 1 out, but he subsequently caught two soft flies to end the “threat” after that.

A second Braves error came in the 4th inning, as third baseman Darrell Evans was unable to handle yet another 1-out grounder, though this one allowed Dave Roberts to reach second base.  Flyouts to center and left allowed Niekro to strand him there.

In the 5th with the Braves up 4-0, Niekro had another 1-2-3 inning thanks to a grounder to Davey Johnson at second and two fly outs… the latter going to Johnson again.  Clearly, the Padres were not squaring up much of anything.

In the sixth, a walk was surrounded by a pair of flyouts to first base and a liner to left field.  By the record we have, this lineout might have been the hardest-hit ball of the day.

The bottom of the sixth inning lasted a while as the Braves plated four more runs to go up by a count of 8-0.  Any normal pitcher might have been excused for a pair of walks in the next half inning, though with a knuckleballer… that’s just part of the normal course of events.

But there was a leadoff walk issued in the Padres’ half of the 7th.  The next batter grounded to short, but the Braves were unable to get both runners; Cito Gaston ended up at first base.

Another weak flyout to short provided the second out, but then Pat Corrales walked to put a pair of runners — and a pair of future managers — on base at the same time.

No worries:  Niekro induced a grounder to first.  He covered for a 3-1 putout and Knucksie was safely through 7 innings of no-hit ball.

In the 8th, Niekro got future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield to groundout to second.  He then struck out the next pair of batters.  One inning to go.

With all of these managers gracing the Padres’ lineup this day, a note of clarification is in order:  the Dave Roberts cited above… who led off the 9th inning this day… is not the current manager of the Dodgers:  this is a different player altogether.

Niekro struck him out for his final K of the day.

Nate Colbert was next.  He grounded to first base on a check swing, where the ball was smothered by Frank Tepedino without need for assistance.

The last batter was Gaston, hitting from the 5th slot. He had broken into the majors as an Atlanta Brave in 1967, but took some time getting back to the majors — but as a Padre in 1969.

He stuck with them through the 1974 season and then returned to the Braves for the 1975-1978 seasons.

Gaston wasn’t a gifted hitter, but he was still something of a threat.  However, a routine groundout to third base was secured by Evans and thrown safely to first to complete the gem as the Braves won easily, 9-0.

The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.

Niekro didn’t need Uecker on this day, but the idea of a clean no-hitter from a knuckleball pitcher… well that’s just a special event like few others.

Atlanta fans had to wait seven seasons for their first no-hitter — and the first for the franchise since Warren Spahn‘s second in 1961 — but this one was certainly worth waiting for.