The Niekro Family: Love Never Forgets Nor Says Goodbye!

Niekro Joe & Nat

I’ve been a fan of Joe and Phil Niekro forever it seems, but I never met either of the two great knucleballers until Joe’s November 4, 2005 induction into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. This happened during my tenure as board president of that organization, making it my great honor and pleasure to have some spare time with these wonderful people during the day leading up to the banquet ceremony at the J.W. Marriott near the Galleria.

Upon meeting the Niekro brothers in front of the hotel, it took about thirty seconds to feel as though we had all been close personal friends for a lifetime. I’ll never forget the fun we had, just standing around, kicking back, and talking baseball. Later I got to meet the entire Niekro entourage. Joe was accompanied by his wife Debbie and their ten-year old son J.J. His oldest son Lance, then a first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, also was present, as was Joe’s  grown daughter, Natalie Niekro. What a beautiful lady she turned out to be, but hey, the whole family was handosme and congenial. Joe had every reason in the world to be proud. The day after the banquet, I drove Joe, Debbie, J.J., and Lance to the airport.  We talked about staying in touch – and Joe even gave me a great big hug of thanks before leaving. I looked forward to seeing Joe Niekro again as a new, but very old and dear friend.

Niekro Phil Bill Joe

It was not to be.

A little less than a year later, on October 26, 2006, Joe Niekro collapsed at his Florida  home from  what turned out to be a ruptured aneurysm. He was rushed to a local hospital and placed on life support, but there was nothing that could be done to save him. Suddenly, abruptly, with no fair early warning to him or his family, Joe Niekro  passed away on October 27, 2006 from the same silent killer that takes away thousands each year, and leaving loved ones behind to helplessly ache and grieve.

There was a difference this time. The “resident medical evil” that is aneurysm had not counted on the enormous, all-out pushback from personal pain that resides in the soul of Joe’s daughter Natalie.

In 2007, Natalie Niekro established The Joe Niekro Foundation to promote fundraising for aneurym diagnostic and treatment research. Operating as a new 501 C (3) non-profit chartered organization, Natalie installed herself as President and CEO from her Scottsdale, Arizona home and flew into action of fundraising plans.

Natalie worked out an arrangement with the Houston Astros to hold the organization’s first “Knuckle Ball” banquet at Minute Maid Park in Houston during the fall of 2008, but that plan had to be postponed because of Hurricane Ike. That awful storm didn’t stop Natalie Niekro for long. It just held her up on time a little.

Promoted as “The Knuckle Ball: Now a Pitch for Life Against Sudden Death,” this first annual event finally unfolded at Minute Maid Park on Friday evening, July 31, 2009. All proceeds from the banquet and auction activities of that evening were dedicated to the support of aneurysm research at the Neurological Center of Methodist Hospital in Houston.  It turned out be the biggest star-studded sports draw in Houston athletic banquet history. With Hall of Famer Joe Morgan serving as Master of Ceremonies, other baseball greats from Cooperstown on hand for the evening included Joe’s brother Phil Niekro, of course, along with Sparky Anderson, Bob Feller, Robin Roberts, and Ozzie Smith; plus all of the Astros brass – Drayton McLane, Tal Smith, and Pam Gardner; four former Astros managers – Bill Virdon, Art Howe, Larry Dierker, and Phil Garner; former Colt .45 and Astro stars Jimmy Wynn, Carl Warwick, Mike Scott, Enos Cabell, Joe Sambito, Craig Reynolds. Kevin Bass, Dave Bergman, Enos Cabell, Ed Herman, and others I’m surely missing; former UH great basketballer and NBA Rocket and Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes, plus Mario Elle; and former Houston Oiler quarterback  Dan Pastorini.

The first annual Knuckle Ball raised $400,000 for aneurysm research, but Natalie Niekro didn’t stop there to wait on next year’s banquet to raise more money. Check out her latest  blog to see the plan she has worked out with Major League Baseball to raise money through the Arizona Fall League. While you’re there, give yourself the time and opportunity to explore the whole website for full reports and photos of the foundations past events and future plans. If you want to help too, there is ample room on this bandwagon for you. Just stay open to the possiiblity.

Natalie Niekro is one amazing human being, as was her dad. Natalie’s love for her father is forever. And Joe’s spiritual inspiration to his daughter is eternal. These inseparable forces of unconditional love between a father and his daughter, a motivation born in the pain of unacceptable loss, and an apparently genetic commitment to fighting the good fight all the way are what all add up to making the Joe Niekro Foundation’s dedication to the research war on aneurysms something that is, well, most simply expressed, flat out relentless.

If you can help too, please do. Get in touch with Natalie Niekro at the Joe Niekro Foundation website at your earliest opportunity. Whatever you are able to do counts big.

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One Response to “The Niekro Family: Love Never Forgets Nor Says Goodbye!”

  1. chassidy Says:

    i go to st stephens catholic school with his son jj (joseph james niekro and i fell so bad for him). he still lives in plant city florida and hes really nice… i even have his number …. im not lieing

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