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A tribute to Knucksie, manager of The Silver Bullets

Phil Niekro left a lasting impact not only on MLB, but for women who fought to earn a place in professional baseball.

Colorado Silver Bullets Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After Phil Niekro passed away last week at 81, tributes to him from people around baseball flooded the internet. The “Knucksie” memories his catchers and former teammates shared on social media were overwhelmingly positive. People tend to say nice things about those who’ve recently died, but the sentiments about Niekro reached another level. That he touched the lives of thousands and was a friend to all immediately became clear.

Ballplayers whom Niekro managed on The Colorado Silver Bullets, a barnstorming professional women’s baseball team that traveled the U.S. from 1994 to 1997, offered the warmest and most effusive praise for their late skipper. In reading their notes, it becomes clear how much his players loved him.

The Colorado Silver Bullets played all their games against men’s teams. Most of the team’s managers and coaches had affiliation with the Yankees. In addition to Niekro, there was Paul Blair, an outfielder who won World Series titles with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978; Joe Niekro, Phil’s younger brother and fellow knuckleballer, a Yankee pitcher from 1985 to 1987; and Tommy Jones, who managed the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate in Albany during the late 1980s.

Even today, the baseball world is at best uncomfortable, and at worst, extremely hostile toward women. I grew curious: where did Niekro, the son of a coal miner, who grew up in Appalachian mining country during the 1940s, learn his progressive views? Niekro came of age at a time when women were expected to stay home, cook and clean. Where did his open mindedness come from?

I don’t know if any singular experience informed his belief that women could play professional baseball, but Niekro’s 1997 Hall of Fame induction speech contains hints of Niekro’s egalitarian mindset.

He starts the speech by thanking his mother. After expressing appreciation for his family and the people who helped him succeed in the major leagues, he asserted that it was an honor and privilege to be a part of the Silver Bullets organization for four years.

“All they wanted is a chance to play baseball and an opportunity,” Niekro said of the women he managed. “They’ve gone to wars for us and they pay their taxes and they vote. In 1960, tennis champion Bobby Riggs said men deserve better treatment than women because men are better players. He found out differently when Billie Jean King beat him in a straight match set.”

All-Female Professional Baseball Team - Colorado Silver Bullets

Of course, Niekro’s attitude was far from universal. The notion of women playing pro ball sent a number of sportswriters into a tizzy. In an article for the Fort Lauderdale Sentinel from 1996, Gordon Edes insults the women on The Silver Bullets for several paragraphs before providing any kind of relevant insight or analysis.

“Question: What does Michael Jordan, baseball player, have in common with the women who play professionally for the Colorado Silver Bullets?” Edes began. “Answer: Jordan couldn’t hit, either.”

Pat Jordan, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1994, took a more subdued approach to sexism.

“The Bullets look like professional ballplayers in their immaculate gray uniforms...Still, there is something stylized about [them]. At the plate, the pitches are slapped at, not ripped. The fielding is a tick slow, as if the players were calculating each move rather than reacting—throwing and catching as if the game itself, not other players, would be their main adversary. Which may be why they are so quick to congratulate one another: ‘Good catch, Shae!’ ‘Thanks, Kim!’”

At one point in the piece, Jordan sets up an elaborate metaphor, describing the Silver Bullets’ opponents as “a band of pirates who have stumbled across a land of unprotected maidens. They are all thinking the same thing, about doing what it is in the nature of pirates to do: rape, pillage and burn.”

Some men couldn’t handle the notion of women in baseball. But one-time Yankees’ knuckleballer Phil Niekro could.