Batters knuckling under to Niekro; '46 Sox

Pitcher Phil Niekro of the New York Yankees, the oldest player in the major leagues, is doing more with his knuckleball at age 45 than a lot of kids 25 are doing throwing heat. Where fastball pitchers need shoulders like stevedores to overpower the hitters, Niekro puts about as much strain on his arm as he would cutting rice pudding with a sword. Most people figure that Phil will retire about the same time Robert Redford switches to character parts.

Niekro, who was released by the Atlanta Braves last October only to be signed to a two-year contract by the Yankees, has the best earned-run average (1.04) of any pitcher in the American League. On Monday night he picked up his sixth win of the season in a game against the Oakland A's. He has given up only four runs in his last 541/3 innings of work. Overall he has 274 big league victories, a total aided by three 20-win seasons with the Braves.

What makes Phil's present start so eye-catching is his seven-year April history with Atlanta, during which he had been a mediocre 5-18. Eventually, Niekro would get his knuckler dancing like Fred Astaire, but in the meantime most of his managers had trouble deciding whether to continue to start him or banish him to the bullpen.

Niekro's electrifying pace this year can proably be attributed to having started work on his knuckleball delivery much earlier than usual. Since baseball's ''Iron Butterfly'' is so hard for a catcher to trap and hold, Phil wanted to give Yankee backstops Butch Wynegar and Rick Cerone as much time as they could to get acquainted with it. The result was that he probably threw twice as many knuckleballs in spring training as he usually does.

''When I was a kid, I never thought about baseball as a career,'' explained Niekro, whose father taught both him and his brother Joe (currently with the Houston Astros) to throw the knuckler. ''It seemed like every kid pitcher I knew had the ability to throw harder than I could. Even though I heard once that some major league scouts had come to look at me in high school, when nobody ever called I figured it was just talk.''

The big league dream didn't begin to materialize for Niekro until he attended a Milwaukee Braves tryout camp in 1958 in Wheeling, W.Va. ''I wasn't the best athlete there and I knew it, but I guess they must have liked my knuckleball because they gave me a $500 bonus for signing,'' Niekro explained. However, it wasn't until six years later that Phil pitched his first game in a Milwaukee uniform. Detroit's start stirs Red Sox memories

Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says that anyone who was paying attention last year, when the Tigers finished with the third best won-lost record in baseball (92-70), should not be surprised at the team's 27-5 start in 1984. Offensively the Tigers added the final piece of the puzzle over the winter when they signed free-agent Darrell Evans, who hit 36 home runs for the San Francisco Giants in 1983.

While Detroit's record beats the previous best major league start of 25-5 by the world champion 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, it still leaves the Tigers with more goals to shoot at, such as the 41-9 start of the 1946 Boston Red Sox, who went on to win the American League pennant but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

The Red Sox, with Ted Williams back after three years with the Marines, were almost unbeatable that year in Fenway Park. Williams hit .342, with 38 home runs , and 123 RBIs, and also received 156 bases on balls - meaning that all-in-all he reached base 332 times.

That was also the year when Boston owner Tom Yawkey presented his players checks that made their losers' share from the Series equal to what the winning Cardinals received. In today, out tommorow

Baseball's first eight-hour ball game, which started on May 8 between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox, and included a 19-hour curfew break , was finally won on the night of May 9 by the White Sox. Chicago's Harold Baines, in his tenth at bat in the 25th inning, hit a home run to beat the Brewers 7-6. Although a National League game in 1920 between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves lasted 26 innings, it was completed in a shorter time period.

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