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If your first exposure to Phil Niekro came through his baseball cards in the 1980s, then you probably think of him as an old man.

Heck, you may have even thought — upon first laying eyes on his cardboard — that the card companies had taken to making pasteboards of pitching coaches.

I mean, that can’t be an active player on Niekro’s 1987 Topps card, right?

1987 Topps Phil Niekro

If not a coach card, then maybe a Senior League issue? Maybe MLB finally go tired of the Cleveland Indians‘ losing ways (back then) and traded them to the SBL? Maybe, except the Seniors didn’t start play until 1989.

Truth be told, even if you knew of Niekro earlier in his career, you probably still thought of him as an old man when he was throwing his knuckler off Major League mounds during a 24-year run that netted 318 victories and a plaque in Cooperstown.

Phil Niekro Hall of Fame Plaque

Because for as long as most collectors can remember, Niekro was old-looking on his baseball cards.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Niekro signed as an amateur free agent with the Milwaukee Braves way back in 1958 when he was just 19 years old. And, although it took him six years to make the Majors and another three to really stick, Niekro looked fit, vital, and more or less young when his cards started rolling off Topps’ presses.

Here, take a look at his 1967 Topps card, which ostensibly shows him as he looked in 1966, his age-27 season:

1967 Topps Phil Niekro

Not a kid, but definitely not a geezer.

So if Niekro was not born an old man, exactly when did the transformation happen?

When did Phil Niekro stop looking like a veteran MLB pitcher and start looking like a grandfather tossing Wiffle balls to his grandkids in the backyard?

It all depends on what your vision of a grandfather is, of course, but we can step through the cardboard ages to make a pretty decent determination.

Now, we know that Niekro was young(ish) on his 1967 card and really old on this 1987 Topps card. So, let’s use the bisection method to figure this out, starting with his 1977 Topps card:

1977 Topps Phil Niekro

This is a tough call. Niekro’s body looks fairly fit here, but his face is much older.

I’ve definitely known grandfathers who look this old or younger. At the very least, Niekro is the dad of high-schoolers or your friendly Uncle Phil in this shot.

And since Topps was known to reach into the past for their pictures in the old days, it’s hard to tell when the photo was really snapped.

We need to go back and see what Niekro was up to a bit earlier.

Using bisection again, we find this 1972 gem:

1972 Topps Phil Niekro

Pretty much primetime, not grandfatherly at all.

How about 1974?

1974 Topps Phil Niekro

To my eyes, this is Dad, not Granddad.

And he looks pretty much the same in 1975 and 1976.

1975 Topps Phil Niekro1976 Topps Phil Niekro

So … how about we go the other way?

Halfway between 1977 and 1987 is 1982. Here is what Niekro’s Topps, Fleer, and Donruss cards look like from that year:

1982 Topps Phil Niekro 1982 Topps Phil Niekro 1982 Donruss Phil Niekro

Niekro is old here. Not ancient, maybe, but old. Heck, he can’t even get out of the dugout on his Donruss card, and I’ve known plenty of grandfathers who look better than Phil in these shots.

So, consider the shark jumped by 1982.

How about 1980?

1980 Topps Phil Niekro

This is a really gray area (hardy-har-har) …

I mean, Niekro is pitching off a Major League mound, and the picture is far enough away and grainy enough that you can’t really see any wrinkles.

But he looks pretty stiff, and that body looks avuncular at least. To my eyes, it looks grandfatherly.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here, though, but not on the strength of his 1980 Topps card alone.

And not because of 1981 Topps or 1981 Donruss, either —

1981 Donruss Phil Niekro 1981 Topps Phil Niekro

No, the saving grace for Niekro in the early 1980s was his 1981 Fleer card:

1981 Fleer Phil Niekro

Now, Niekro doesn’t look young here, exactly.

You can tell he has plenty of miles on his chassis. And it’s really not a very good photo.

Still, his eyes are bright … his skin is tanned and mostly taught … his hair is bushy in an Incredible Hulk sort of way and could at least pass for blonde.

And that gold chain around his neck doesn’t look completely out of place.

If not for the “PITCHER” designation on his card, Niekro might well be a coach. But he might be an active player, too. Maybe.

Once again, it’s a gray area.

But Phil Niekro does not look like a grandfather on his 1981 Fleer baseball card, and that’s the last time he would ever be able to make that claim.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

1969 Topps #355 Phil Niekro Braves PSA 8

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1979 Topps Phil Niekro #595 PSA 9 MINT

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1970 Topps #160 Phil Niekro EX Braves 36081

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1972 Topps Phil Niekro #620 PSA 7 Braves Yankees HOF

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1968 Topps #257 Phil Niekro Atlanta Braves PSA 9 MINT

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