Phil Niekro is the seventh member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to die this year. The pitch he perfected also appears to be lost.
They gather every year, except for this cruel one, in the village where they are immortal. The men on the stage in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, brought joy to millions. We look at them and see endless summer.
Yet life goes on for them after the final out, and only their feats live forever. The further they get from the field, the stronger their sense of mortality.
“It’s kind of bittersweet, because each year you sit there and you look around and you say to yourself, ‘Who’s not going to be here next year?’” Ozzie Smith said recently. “And it happens so quickly. When you first go in, you see all these people and you don’t think in those terms: ‘When is this person going to leave this earth?’ This year was a real tough one.”
Smith, the virtuoso shortstop, spoke by phone this month before the departure of yet another grand old man of the game. On Sunday we learned that Phil Niekro, the greatest knuckleball pitcher in baseball history, had died of cancer the day before at age 81. Niekro joined Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan in a grim lineup of greats we lost in 2020.