Yesterday I learned of the unfortunate death of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro. Sadly, Mr. Niekro is the 7th Hall of Fame player that has died in 2020 and a few months ago I wrote about two of those baseball immortals here. I’m a big baseball fan and every time I learn about the passing of a ballplayer that I watched and grew up to as a kid, part of my youth also passes away.
Mr. Niekro had an incredible career as he won 318 games (and he won his 300th game with my beloved NY Yankees) as a pitcher and he did so in a highly unconventional fashion. Instead of throwing the typical repertoire of fastballs, sliders, curveballs, change-ups, sinkerballs, screwballs, split-fingered fastballs, etc….that most pitchers throw, he relied primarily on a very unique pitch known as the knuckleball that he and his younger brother Joe Niekro – another highly successful major league baseball pitcher who won 221 games – both learned to throw from their father growing up in Ohio. The knuckleball pitch requires a specialized grip on the ball, is very hard to master and there have only been a score of knuckleballers across baseball in the past 50 years or so. Knuckleballs can move a lot when they slowly “flutter” towards home plate and they can be very difficult for opposing batters to hit if thrown correctly (and if they are thrown incorrectly they are like batting practice for major league hitters).
As I reflect upon Mr. Niekro’s career, here’s some learnings for us as lawyers and business professionals:
Be Authentic and a “Maverick”: Mr. Niekro’s highly successful baseball career was premised upon doing something entirely different from his peers by throwing his signature knuckleball pitch. His “maverick” pitching style as a knuckleballer provided him with a competitive differentiator over others. Not only did he have incredible success as a pitcher, but since the knuckleball did not exact a toll on his pitching arm like other harder thrown pitches do he was able to be even more valuable, durable and versatile to his teams by pitching on short rest, pitching many complete games, serving as both a starter and a relief pitcher and pitching in the major leagues for an incredible 24 seasons.
In our Corporate America environment where so many people sound the same and look the same, think about what separates you from the masses as you deliver differentiated value to your clients. As you serve your clients don’t be fearful in being a so-called “maverick” who generates fresh ideas, is willing to think differently and is unafraid at throwing proverbial knuckleballs to opposing counsel that are hard for them to handle.
Recognize the Key Skill of Getting Things Done: Throughout Mr. Niekro’s career he was not a flashy pitcher, he played on many low-performing Atlanta Braves teams in a small market and was overshadowed by other great “power” pitchers during his generation like Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, etc….who received more attention, more accolades, more Cy Young Awards and more World Series trophies than he did. In fact, some did not think that Mr. Niekro was even Hall of Fame worthy. However, year in and year out he continued to do his job under the radar, at a very high level and kept amassing pitching victories over a very lengthy 24 year career.
Many of us have teammates on our own teams who continually deliver high value to their clients every day – but perhaps they aren’t noticed by their management because they don’t crave attention, aren’t provided high “visibility” opportunities, aren’t interested in playing office politics, etc… Mr. Niekro’s somewhat “quiet” yet long career is a great reminder for leaders at law firms and at in-house legal departments that the so-called “lunch pail” type of lawyers and business professionals in our workplaces who may be behind the scenes, who don’t complain, who make others better and most importantly – know how to get things done – should not be forgotten. Instead, they should be celebrated and appropriately recognized.
Avoid Unconscious Bias: I remember watching Mr. Niekro pitch during the early 1980s when he was with the Braves courtesy of the TV station TBS at that time and when he played with my New York Yankees in 1984 and 1985. Quite frankly if you ever saw Mr. Niekro on the pitching mound he could have been mistaken for someone who was playing on a weekend softball team of “over the hill” players. Although he may have never looked or pitched like a prototypical major league pitcher, he consistently fooled hitters throughout his career enroute to 318 pitching wins with his very hard to hit knuckleball. Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks once said, “He simply destroys your timing with that knuckleball. It comes flying in there dipping and hopping like crazy and you just can’t hit it.”
Mr. Niekro’s career is a great reminder that we should never judge a book by its cover and that we need to avoid our own unconscious bias about others. Just because someone in our opinion may not look or speak the part of an outstanding lawyer or business leader doesn’t mean they are incapable of being an outstanding lawyer or business leader.
Age + Experience = an Asset and Not a Liability: Incredibly, Mr. Niekro pitched until he was 48 years of age into the 1987 baseball season. In addition, he won 121 games after he turned 40 – which is a major league record. Also while winning 318 games over 24 seasons, only 3 other major pitchers ever pitched more than Mr. Niekro’s 5,404 total innings. When Mr. Niekro was 40 years old in 1979 he threw 23 complete games – nowadays it is rare to see a pitcher even throw 1 or 2 complete 9 inning games during a typical season.
Mr. Niekro’s longevity in a game that can be unforgiving for players who lose their timing, great eyesight, speed and ability to throw as they age is simply remarkable. In Corporate America where ageism is a reality, Mr. Niekro’s career reminds us that older workers can still provide high value to their organizations as their age and that their experience, guile, confidence and ability to mentor others are very important assets. In addition, as we think about advancing diversity and inclusion within our respective organizations, we should remember that older employees contribute to that diversity and inclusion – and to the success of organizations.
My condolences to the entire Niekro family and may Mr. Niekro AKA “Knucksie” rest in peace.