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James Brown and Phil Niekro: Not Knuckling Under

Metro ATL

James Brown and Phil Niekro: Not Knuckling Under

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Phil Niekro. The photo is of a 70s-era Braves Yearbook owned by Jeff Cochran.


Editor’s note: Phil Niekro passed away over the weekend. In his honor, we are re-running a column originally published on Atlantaloop.com. 

On The Good Foot …  Phil Niekro was feeling good. It was Sunday, July 9, 1978 and in two days he’d be in San Diego, pitching for the National League All-Stars. Three days earlier he had pitched a strong eight and a third innings against the defending National League Champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Niekro had carried a 1-0 lead for his Atlanta Braves into the eighth inning, but once he came out, the Braves bullpen turned the game into a 5-1 loss. There was nothing new about that. In his 12 years as a starting pitcher for the Braves, Niekro saw the team find new and highly creative ways to lose games despite his sterling performances on the mound.

The Braves had finished last in the National League West the three previous seasons and would do so again in ’78, but that didn’t stop Phil Niekro. He did whatever it took to help the team win a game. On that hot Sunday afternoon, the Braves held a 4-1 lead going into the sixth inning.  Their starting pitcher, Preston Hanna, looked good through five innings but couldn’t go the distance. The Braves needed to win; if they did so, it’d be a winning series against the San Diego Padres, a team with four future Hall of Famers: Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Gaylord Perry and Rollie Fingers. And among the less than 9,000 people (including fans, players, vendors – everybody) in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, there was no one who wanted to win more than Phil Niekro. He’d handle it,  even if it meant hurling that knuckleball after only three days rest and just two days before he’d play in the All Star Game some 1,900 miles away.

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At the moment, the hundred feet or so from the bullpen to the pitching mound was of more importance to Niekro than the distance between Atlanta and San Diego. He walked to the mound with grim determination and from there made quick work of the Padres, giving up only one hit and one walk in three innings while striking out five. Gene Garber took over for Niekro in the ninth, making it three up and three down. The Braves closed out the second half with a victory, one that Phil Niekro willed upon his team. Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner could’ve used more players who’d work as hard as Niekro. In three of the first four years after Turner bought the Braves, Niekro led the National League in games started and innings pitched. He was the hardest working man in baseball, similar to another Turner business associate, James Brown, known as “the hardest working man in show business.”

In 1976, Turner’s first season as owner of a major league baseball team, his UHF station, WTCG, signed Brown to produce, direct and perform on the dance show, Future Shock. Filmed at Turner’s studio in Midtown Atlanta, Future Shock was ground-breaking television. Brown biographer R J Smith, in his book, The One, called it ” the best dance show on TV, ever… a short-lived, riotous, no-retake spectacle.” For those who followed media, sports and entertainment in Atlanta during the mid-70s, it was clear innovators were drawn to Turner. And likewise. With a business approach combining baby steps, audacity, vision and a ready checkbook, Turner himself wasn’t only responsible for so much of the city’s entertainment, he was Atlanta’s most entertaining figure. Turner was audacious enough to promise Atlanta a World Series within five years just as he was daring enough to launch CNN in 1980. He had ideas and was determined to see them realized. A plaque on his desk read, “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.” Caring not a whit for traditional ways of doing things, he once asked Hubie Brown, coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Turner’s pro basketball team then on the rise, to manage the Atlanta Braves as well. Hubie Brown explained why that wouldn’t work.

As Turner would painfully learn over the years, the game of baseball requires much patience. It certainly did for Phil Niekro, who didn’t make it to the major leagues for good until 1967, two months past his 28th birthday. That’s an age when most players are either well-established or ready to throw in the towel. In 1967, James Brown was 34, then considered the September of a player’s years. However, Brown, already considered one of the greatest R&B artists ever, with more musical accomplishments ahead of him, could look back and remember when his athletic skills were more developed than his musical chops. What might have been had to have crossed his mind.

In his 1986 memoir, James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, Brown wrote that in his teens he “was getting into music more and more” but still did not possess “a burning desire to be a professional musician.”

People who knew me thought I was going to play baseball because I was much better at baseball than I was at singing. I was a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball, a sharp curve and a wicked floater — what they call a knuckleball today. Ty Cobb had lived in Augusta and I knew all about him. The Detroit Tigers held their spring training there and the city also had a Tigers farm club in the Sally League. We’d climb the trees across from the ballpark and watch the games from there.

If Brown had pursued a career as a professional baseball player, it’s possible he would’ve made the big leagues by 1956, the year he turned 23. Baseball’s color line was broken nine years earlier by Jackie Robinson, which led to more black players, especially those from the South, such as Larry Doby, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, to take their places among the game’s elite. James Brown, though, would face other barriers besides race. He would have been among the rare pitchers of his height (5′ 5″), Then there was the matter of his “wicked floater,” the knuckleball.

There were few pitchers who threw the knuckleball, mostly because it was just as hard for catchers to handle as it was for even the best players to hit. Phil Niekro knew all about that. The paucity of catchers who could catch the knuckleball, with its fluttering trajectory, was one of the reasons Niekro toiled in the minor leagues for most of eight seasons. However, the Atlanta Braves suffered from a paucity of starting pitchers as well. That led to Niekro being made a starter and to the acquistion of Bob Uecker, who could catch the knuckler – after a fashion. Uecker once said the best way to catch the knuckleball was to “wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.”

At least Uecker was able to pick up Niekro’s pitches after chasing them down. He certainly displayed more prowess than the Philadelphia Phillies did June 13, 1967 at Connie Mack Stadium. On that night, making the second start of his major league career, Niekro pitched a complete game shutout against the Phillies, giving up only 2 hits, one to Gene Oliver, the player the Braves traded for Uecker. On that night Niekro’s journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame began in earnest. Through the 1983 season, Niekro would win 262 more games for the Braves before tallying 50 more wins over the next 4 years, finishing with a total of 318 victories, 16th on the all time list. Given that throwing the knuckleball didn’t exact such a strain on the arm as did other pitches, Niekro pitched in the majors past the age of 48, appearing in his last game for the Braves in Atlanta on September 27, 1987.

Exactly one week before Niekro took the mound that last time, James Brown made his way to the field of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to sing during halftime at an Atlanta Falcons game. Historically one of the worst teams in NFL history, the Falcons needed whatever dynamism Brown could offer. His performance of “Atlanta Will Be Rockin’” earned a standing ovation, one of the few at a Falcons game that season, understandable, as the team went 3-12, the league’s worst record. One of those rare victories occurred on the day of Brown’s appearance.

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The royalties for Brown’s recording of “Atlanta Will Be Rockin’,” released the day of his performance, were donated to the Leukemia Foundation. Brown also, according to Stanley Booth in his book, Rhythm Oil, picked up the expenses for his halftime show after learning the Falcons, operating in miserly fashion in those years, would not. The Atlanta Falcons, in a period stretching over four decades, proved lousy at public relations. In comparison, James Brown, when flashing his “Soul Brother Number One” persona, was a public relations wizard, especially when connected with the South’s true religion, football. In the mid-seventies, he recorded a tribute to the University of Georgia Bulldogs, “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs,” which he performed in at least two halftime shows, one with Prince Charles in attendance.

Naturally, Brown wasn’t interested in impressing the Windsors as much as he was in promoting the University of Georgia, especially its football team. The Bulldogs and James Brown: that was a partnership he was eager to promote. Bill King, then the music reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, remembers an assignment in which he was to spend a day with Brown. It was around the time his Bulldogs tribute was serving as a new UGA theme song. King very much enjoyed being in Brown’s company. “His daddy served us fried chicken for lunch in his office,” King says, “then JB spent the afternoon ferrying me around town in his van so the mayor and his old teacher and others could sing his praises. Then he took me back to his office and introduced me to a young protege who at the time was largely unknown – Al Sharpton.”

King recalls that “Brown seemed very anxious to impress upon me how well the establishment (business, political, etc.) thought of him. We also talked a lot about UGA, as this was the period when he was tight with them, having recorded “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs.” Brown’s tribute was convincing enough, after all, he had also been a fine football player in his youth. With moves like his, it’s easy to imagine him running to daylight and doing a celebratory dance in the end zone.

In his memoir, though, Brown said that as a teen, what he really wanted to do was box. Naturally, he showed promise in the ring as well. Brown’s idol was Beau Jack, the lightweight champion of the world. Like Brown, Jack (whose real name was Sidney Walker),was from Augusta. They had other things in common too, like shining shoes in their youthful years on the Augusta streets and possessing the performer’s desire to please the people. “I’m getting money for this,” Jack said, “I have to give them my best.” Brown could bob, weave and most importantly, hang in there courageously against his opponents.

As Brown’s career in music became more successful, it appeared he learned much from the most famous boxer of them all, Muhammad Ali, especially in the field of self-promotion. Ali said he was “The Greatest,” whereas Brown bestowed himself with numerous titles such as “Soul Brother Number One,” “the Godfather of Soul” and the “Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk.” Brown, like Ali, showed up with improbable figures in the world of politics quite often, politicos one wouldn’t expect to ever see in the same room together, such as Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond. Covering all the bases, Brown valued his friends and, of course, what they could do for him. In The One, R J Smith sheds light on Brown’s 1991 release from prison and the whirlwind that followed.

Upon his release Brown held a press conference and then headed to Washington to thank a few people who had helped him. He visited the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members had signed a petition calling for his freedom. Then he told Sharpton, “I gotta visit Senator Thurmond.”

“Why you gotta do that?” the reverend asked.

“Can’t do all black. He’s a friend of mine.”

Alan Leeds, a road manager for Brown, is quoted in The One, analyzing the tactics.

“James had been beaten by these crackers: he had made money with these crackers,” said Leeds. “And he had enough confidence in himself to pick out the good ones from the bad ones and play them like a violin. He knew he was a commodity to these guys.”

The “good ones” had to be the powerful most impressed by Brown’s winning smile and PR skills. U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who ran for President on the “Dixiecrat” ticket in 1948, really was a friend of Brown’s, amazing as that seems. Thurmond’s political career took off with that ’48 campaign, prompted by President Truman’s decision to desegregate the U.S. Army. Once in the Senate, job one for Thurmond was to fight all legislation that would give black Americans equality before the law. He filibustered against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, speaking for a total of 24 hours and 18 minutes. As laws were passed in the ’60s to grant black Americans rights that most whites took for granted, Thurmond left the Democratic Party for the Republicans, just beginning their long and continuous drift from the principles of Lincoln. Thurmond’s move to the Republican Party, signaled a shift in the nation’s body politic. With Barry Goldwater the Republican’s ’64 presidential nominee, the spirit of Thurmond’s ’48 message was conveyed again.

Those of us in secondary schools in the South can remember what classmates claimed, no doubt repeating what their parents had said about Goldwater getting rid of the n——. Or at least he would keep them down and out. In ’48 Thurmond said that “on the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line… all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, into our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” That had not stopped Thurmond as a 22-year old from finding recreation and amusement by intermingling with the 16 year-old daughter of a black woman who had worked for Thurmond’s parents. Strom Thurmond lived another 77 years after his daughter, Carrie “Tunch” Butler, was born, but even as he lived to be 100, he never publicly acknowledged her.

Perhaps it was Brown’s episodic brushes with the law and the IRS (in the late ’90s the agency declared he owed them $9 million) that compelled him to play some of the “crackers” like a violin. Being friendly with conservative Republicans from the land of football and the Baptist Church couldn’t hurt when rages fueled by women (at least a couple of them wives) and PCP could send him back to the lockup. As it turned out, in May 2003, Brown was granted a pardon by the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services for crimes that kept him in a state prison for two years and two months. Brown had endangered lives in that 1988 car chase; he seemed out of control. But he was still “Soul Brother Number One,” a spellbinding figure before any audience. Even old Dixiecrat-Baptists unmoved by “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud” understood that.

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes’ Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta. He is currently the Advertising Director for Decaturish.com.

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