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No. 1 with a bullet

Today is Phil Niekro's 81st birthday. Are you sick of hearing about this? If so, blame, Matt.

He is the No. 1 person I think of when "folks born on April Fool's Day" is mentioned. Although he's not the only person as Rusty Staub, Willie Montanez and Ron Perranoski were all born on April 1st. So was April Sargent, who you probably don't know, but I really need to do a Brush With Greatness post on her someday.

But back to Niekro.

This 1988 card was quite the ... heh ... score during Score's trading card debut. This is the only card in 1988 showing Niekro in his final MLB uniform. Niekro's last season was 1987 and he played in one game -- ONE GAME -- for the Braves at the end of the season.

Here's how it went: Niekro was pitching for the Indians for much of 1987 when in early August, he was dealt to the Blue Jays, who were trying to win a pennant. He was then released by the Blue Jays at the end of August and his career was practically over when the Braves -- his original team -- signed him on Sept. 23. He appeared in a single game. Three innings pitched, five runs, oof.

But Score somehow found a photo of him as a Brave! At least I don't think that's a photo from 1983, the previous year he had played for Atlanta.

So good for Score, because this is what Topps did in 1988:

Great card. Absolutely. But Niekro is in his old Indians uniform. (Joe Niekro was in fact playing for the Twins at the time).

Phil and Joe played together with the Braves in 1973 and 1974 and then again for the tail end of the 1985 season with the Yankees. But they didn't appear on the same team together again until 1994.

With the Colorado Silver Bullets.

The Silver Bullets -- these cards are from a 1994 set featuring the team -- showed up during one of those other times when we were supposed to be watching Major League Baseball and there wasn't any to watch. It was 26 years ago and there was a baseball strike.

The Colorado Silver Bullets were an all-female baseball team and a serious baseball venture at the time. Women playing baseball was big in the news then. "A League Of Their Own" came out in movie theaters to rave reviews in 1992 and then the Silver Bullets were formed shortly afterward and debuted two years later as the first women's professional baseball team since the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League 40 years earlier.

Everyone involved in this Silver Bullets venture stressed how serious they were about making this team work. The women on the team were very serious about it, that was clear. And Phil Niekro mentioned to me in an article I did on the team that he wouldn't take the job as team manager until he was convinced by the team owner, Bob Hope (not that Bob Hope) that this was not a stunt and the goal was to get a woman in professional baseball one day.

I've written about my interaction with Phil and Joe Niekro before, speaking of Brush With Greatness topics.

Here is the beginning snippet of the article I wrote:

(Can you spot the error?)

This was in early August, 1994. The baseball strike was in full effect with zero sign of an agreement. The Silver Bullets were touring the country, playing games. First they played against professional, all-male teams from the independent Northern League and got demolished. Then they shifted course and played against various collections of over-30 semi-pro teams and college all-star squads.

By the time they got to Watertown to play another over-30 team, the Silver Bullets had won four games and lost 30.

But in Watertown, on Aug. 6, 1994, they won their fifth game, 3-2.

Michele McAnany was the smallest player on the team, just five feet and 110 pounds, but was the hitting hero in that game. She drove in the winning run with a double. It's mentioned on the back of her card.

There are three cards in this set that mention Watertown (when you manage just six wins all year, your few victories get highlighted a lot).

Ann Williams was the starting pitcher in that game.

Deb Sroczynski made the team after a tryout in Watertown a day or two before the game, which is cool because we did a story on the tryout, too. Sroczynski is from Massachusetts, I believe.

These cards are from at least one of two Silver Bullets sets that I know of from 1994. The Silver Bullets existed from 1994-97 and I believe there were sets made for them each year, multiple sets in a couple of cases.

I don't know which 1994 set is "official," but I like the look of this one a lot. The cards are well-presented with cool, vintage-type photos (there is another '94 SB set in which the shots are more action-oriented, but I prefer this look).

There are a few players in this set who were kind of well-known "stars" of the team, mentioned in the articles we wrote and established trailblazers from that time. Some of those include Julie Croteau, Lee Anne Ketcham and pretty much the media darling of that ground-breaking team, pitcher Lisa Martinez, who threw underhanded.

Many of the players on this team had softball backgrounds and some of them had to learn the game of baseball and get serious about it very quickly.

The Silver Bullets' record improved each year, from 6-38 in 1994 to 11-33 in 1995 to 18-34 in 1996 to a winning record, 23-22, in 1997. But they disbanded after 1997 when Coors dropped its sponsorship.

None of the players competed regularly in a professional, male-dominated league that I know of. But the Silver Bullets paved the way for this player:

Ila Borders was the first woman to start for a men's professional baseball team, competing for the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League in 1997. She was traded a month later, to the Duluth-Superior Dukes and continued to compete in the Northern League for the next couple of years, until 2000.

Since then, not a lot of noise has been made about women in professional baseball. While there's a U.S. women's national baseball team, and always women's "hopefuls" for pro ball popping up every year or two, the attention isn't there like it was in the '90s. College and pro women's softball has enjoyed enormous growth since then, thanks to Jennie Finch and others, and I think that's where the attention lies for women and diamond sports.

That's what makes the Colorado Silver Bullets from 25 years ago so cool and that baseball card set so cool. The connection I got to make with Phil and Joe Niekro a quarter of a century go (geez, was it that long ago?), was a milestone for me when I think about it.

Thanks for talking to me, sir -- "Hello, Greg, this is Phil Niekro," he said to me on the phone that day -- and for a cool moment in history 25 years ago.


I need to find a couple of these sets...
Chris said…
I remember hearing about the Silver Bullets here and there in the '90s, and I'd forgotten the Niekros were involved. Thank you for sharing this story and their involvement with the women's team.
Good post, didn’t know some of that about Niekro.
Matt said…
I remember the Silver Bullets team, but haven't thought of them in ages! I don't think I've ever knew the Neikro brothers were involved though...
Nick said…
I found a Silver Bullets card from a different one of their sets in a dime box recently. That set me off on a huge rabbit hole of fascinating research, as I'd never known about them before that. Didn't know the Niekros were involved with them, either!
Fuji said…
Great post as usual. And that 88S card just might feature Niekro when he was with the Braves back in 1983. That's the thing about that guy... he's looked like he was borderline 70 since the late 70's. After that he never aged.
Johngy said…
Fantastic post. I loved that Phil actually pitched one last time for the Braves, even though it was only a token appearance. Still, it was better than when players do the ceremonial retirement with their original teams.
Awesome looking cards and always great to see Bridget Venturi, one of my favorites and a "white whale" on my autograph want list.
Brian said…
Niekro always wanted to manage- it may have been one of the reasons why he chose to leave the Braves, he "applied for the job" twice, in 1977 and again when Joe Torre was hired. It's great that he got the chance to do it with the Silver Bullets!
Big League said…
Re: Fuji comment

The photo is not from 1983. The Braves did not have those uniforms back then.