1969 marked Joe Niekro’s third season in the Majors. He started out with the Cubs and was traded in 1969 to the Padres. Brother of the slightly more famous, slightly more Hall of Fame-worthy Phil Neikro, Joe was still trying to make a name for himself. His brother had a three year head start after all. Unfortunately for Joe, he was traded to an expansion team in San Diego whose offense was among the worst in baseball.
Joe Niekro pitched in 37 games for the Padres in 1969 and started 31 of those games. He had a 3.70 ERA, gave up 213 hits, and had just 55 strikeouts in over 200 innings pitched. However, he managed eight complete games. The success in 1969 ends there as Niekro also managed to win just 8 games. One of those games, though, came against his brother.
“We don’t like pitching against each other. We’re both pulling for each other,” Niekro said back in 1969. On July 13, 1969, the Padres hosted the Atlanta Braves. It was any other game during the long stretch of summer that saw the Padres fall from anything remotely resembling competitive. It was any other game except for the opposing pitcher just happened to be the Padres’ starter’s brother. Phil Niekro was in the midst of a season that would eventually see him win 23 games. Phil was ten days away from making his first All-Star game appearance. A night that would have been just another among the Padres 110-loss inaugural season was suddenly exciting. Brother against brother.
A crisp 75 degree day greeted the brother pitchers. Not a cloud in the sky. Just over 6,400 fans showed up to watch Joe Niekro get the best of Phil on this day. Under the San Diego sun, he tossed a complete game shut out, giving up just six hits. Much to his style, Joe struck out just two batters. Phil gave up seven hits, one run, and struck out just one.
The win gave Joe Niekro his fourth of the season. The loss gave Phil his seventh of the season. The difference was in their overall records. Joe was 4-8 by game’s end. Phil was 14-7. It was just one win for Joe, but no matter his quote from above, the win had to have been a little more special.
Joe would go on to win four more games in 1969, but he would lose 12 more. He made quite the career for himself after his 1969 stint with San Diego. He was traded to Detroit after the season, he went on to win 221 games, compiled a .520 winning percentage, and made one All-Star game. He would toss 107 complete games in his career, but that total started with the help of eight in his one season in San Diego.
Joe Niekro always lived in the shadows of his brother, but for one season in San Diego, for one game, he gave Padres fans (the very few who showed up) a reason to be excited. He would find his most success in Houston, winning 144 games and going to the postseason two times. But he will always be a special part of San Diego history. If not for any other reason, he endured the pain of 110 losses, 20 of which were a result of his starts.