Rocky Nelson

First of all, the name. “Rocky Nelson.” Isn’t that perfect? With a name like that, this guy had little choice in the matter of vocations. Baseball player, prizefighter, or B-movie actor were about it. Accountant, bus driver, or dairy farmer were completely out of the question.

Rocky Nelson was a baseball player. He was never a star at the major league level; in fact he was never even a regular at the major league level. Yet even though he’s little-remembered today, in the 1950s and early 1960s Nelson was a popular and colorful figure on the baseball scene. Modern fans whose only knowledge of Nelson is that which they glean from his major league stats in an encyclopedia or on Baseball Reference are truly only glimpsing the tip of a fascinating iceberg. Nelson’s baseball career was among the most interesting ever forged: it included numerous disappointing failures, numerous exhilarating successes, numerous plot twists, one of the most extreme mid-career transformations of all time, and a hero’s (and potentially a goat’s) role in perhaps the most exciting World Series Game Seven ever played.

The Long Strange Trip Begins

Glenn Richard “Rocky” Nelson was born in Portsmouth, Ohio on November 18, 1924. In the spring of 1942, at the age of 17 ½ (presumably upon graduation from high school), Nelson was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, then still overseen by the legendary Branch Rickey.

Nelson was a left-handed thrower and batter, and though he wasn’t big or tall (5’11”, 178), he was a first baseman. The Cardinals assigned the 17-year-old to their farm club in Johnson City, Tennessee. Located in the mountainous far northeastern corner of Tennessee, the Johnson City Cardinals played in the Class D Appalachian League. The teenaged Nelson didn’t exactly take the league by storm in his first professional exposure, but he held his own, hitting .253.

To War and Back

World War II was fully raging, and sometime following the 1942 season Nelson was drafted into military service. I don’t know in which branch he served. (Sometimes the old Who’s Who in Baseball book specifies, but in his case it doesn’t.) Neither do I know whether Nelson saw combat action in the war, but given his age and the duration of his enlistment, it isn’t at all unlikely that he did.

Nelson was discharged upon the war’s end, and he returned to his embryonic baseball career, now as a 21-year-old military veteran. For 1946 the Cardinals sent him to St. Joseph, Missouri, in the Class C Western Association. Nelson demonstrated dramatic improvement over his performance four years earlier, hitting .319 with 23 triples.

In 1947, the Cardinals jumped the 22-year-old Nelson all the way up to Triple-A Rochester, New York in the International League. But after a brief and unsuccessful stint there, the organization reconsidered, and moved him down to Class B Lynchburg, Tennessee, in the Piedmont League. Nelson tore up that level, leading the league with a .371 average. In ’48 he stuck with the Rochester Red Wings, won the regular first base job, and hit .303.

The Big Chance

The 1948 major league Cardinals finished in second place, but they weren’t strong at first base. The position had been shared by a struggling 23-year-old converted second baseman, Nippy Jones, and a slumping 32-year-old veteran, Babe Young. Essentially the position was open for the taking, and the opportunity was handed to the 24-year-old rookie Nelson for 1949.

He flopped. The Cardinals gave him a fair shot, 82 games and 244 at-bats, but Nelson hit just .221 with 4 home runs. Jones got hot with the bat and won back the starting job over the second half. In 1950, Nelson found himself back in the minors, playing for the Cardinals’ other Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association. Nelson destroyed Triple-A pitching this time (at a .418 clip in 48 games), prompting the Cards to re-promote him in mid-season, and give him a second chance as their varsity first baseman. But again Nelson fizzled, hitting .247 with no power in 235 at-bats over the balance of 1950.

The Cardinals were out of patience. Nelson began the 1951 season in the majors, but riding the bench, and in mid-May he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates (now run by Rickey) in an exchange of utility players. The Pirates as well had a complete vacancy at first base, and Nelson could easily have won the first-string job with a strong performance, but again he failed to muster it. He hit .267, but devoid of power, and he pretty quickly settled into a part-time role. In September, the doormat Pirates allowed the Chicago White Sox to claim Nelson on waivers. He spent the final three weeks of the 1951 season mostly sitting on the White Sox’s bench.

The Bleak Assessment

All indications are that Nelson was a pretty good defensive first baseman. But no matter how proficient with the glove, a first baseman who hits around .250 with no power production, and who draws very few bases on balls, won’t be of much use to a major league team. At the end of the 1951 season, Nelson was about to turn 27, had washed out in two chances at the starting job for the Cardinals, and had been let go by the Pirates after just a few months.

The White Sox didn’t see him as a precious asset either. In December of 1951 they traded Nelson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for a minor league third baseman, Hector Rodriguez. The Dodgers in 1952 kept Nelson on the major league roster nearly all season, but his chances to play behind first-stringer Gil Hodges were very minimal. Nelson saw action in just 37 regular season games, and 39 at-bats. Interestingly, in that fall’s World Series, manager Chuck Dressen made more frequent use of Nelson, giving him four pinch-hitting opportunities in seven games, but he went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts.

Nelson didn’t make the Dodgers’ big league roster in 1953, and was instead sent back to Triple-A Montreal. He was 28 years old, and in major league opportunities with four separate organizations, Nelson had put up a .242 batting average with six home runs in 736 at-bats. At this point there was every reason to believe he would never get another big league shot, and even if he could extend his minor league career for a few more years, he would soon be forgotten. Singles-hitting first basemen don’t generate much excitement.

Cue “Rocky” Theme Music

And then it happened. In a more hysterical era (such as, say, today), a player making half the transformation Nelson did would be branded as an obvious steroid abuser. I don’t know what Nelson did; whether he suddenly discovered calisthenics, or started eating canned spinach, or time-traveled and secretly underwent Lasik surgery, or maybe just made a significant adjustment to his swing, I don’t know. Or maybe he did nothing at all, and what happened, just happened.

Whatever it was, Nelson suddenly in 1953 became a power hitter. Through 1952, he had produced no power at all in his major league opportunities, and in the minors, while he consistently hit over .300, his biggest home run output in any season had been 11. Then in 1953, Nelson hit 34 homers for the Montreal Royals, and drove in an International League-leading 136 runs.

Nelson had always been an extreme contact hitter, and this didn’t change: in 1953, despite his new-found fence-busting capacity, he struck out only 37 times, and maintained a .308 batting average. He also suddenly gained, along with all the homers, a terrific ability to draw walks, tallying a league-leading total of 106 bases on balls, after never having had more than 70.

This wasn’t just a statistical illusion, a park effect. Analysis of the stats of other Montreal players, and of Montreal teams of the era, doesn’t indicate that Delorimier Stadium, the Royals’ park, was any kind of a home run hitting paradise, akin to Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, or Baker Bowl in Philadelphia (or any ballpark in Colorado). Every indication is that Nelson’s sudden power improvement was genuine, and meaningful.

Nelson’s team, the Montreal Royals, finished second in the 1953 International League race, at 89-63, but won the four-team tournament to be crowned league champions. They then squared off against the Kansas City Blues of the American Association in the annual “Junior World’s Series,” and the Royals prevailed, four games to one. From the Sporting News Baseball Guide of that year, page 185:

Glenn (Rocky) Nelson, Montreal first baseman, was the hitting star of the Series. In 17 times at bat he collected 11 hits for a .647 batting average and drove in seven runs.

Another Chance

All this gained significant notoriety for Nelson. The Cleveland Indians, in fact, took enough notice to acquire him from the Dodgers. The good news for Nelson was that the Indians, quite like the Cardinals of a few years earlier, were a very good team but lacking a good first baseman. The opportunity for Nelson to finally gain a major league front-line role was again presented.

And again he was unable to take advantage of it. Despite the fact that he had led the 1953-54 Cuban Winter League with a .352 average, including eight home runs in 199 at-bats, Nelson failed to impress the Indians, for whatever reason. Cleveland gave him just four pinch-hitting appearances in early 1954, and then sold him back to the Dodgers’ organization. Back to Montreal it was.

Back to the Bushes

In Montreal in 1954, Nelson had another tremendous season, proving that his 1953 outburst was no fluke. Despite joining the team in mid-May, Nelson led the league with 31 home runs and 105 walks, and batted .311. But he turned 30 in November of ’54, and was likely now being generally perceived as a “minor league star,” not worthy of major league consideration. Whatever it was, no big league team plucked him for 1955.

So Nelson was back with the Royals, and ready to produce yet another great performance, indeed his best yet: the International League Triple Crown, with a .364 average, 37 homers, and 130 RBIs. On top of that, Nelson led the league with 118 walks and 118 runs scored. But, he was now seen as just a minor leaguer, and he got no call to the majors for ‘56.

But the 31-year-old Nelson’s Triple-A hitting through the early weeks of 1956—in 49 games, 42 runs, 12 homers, 37 RBIs, and a .394 average—was so robust that even the talent-laden Dodgers could no longer sit by. They brought him up from Montreal, despite the fact that, with Hodges still starring at first base, they had no clear place to use Nelson.

Yet Another Chance

But use him they did. The Dodgers frequently started Nelson at first base against right-handers through the early summer of 1956, shifting Hodges to the outfield (and thus benching another good left-handed hitter, outfielder Sandy Amoros). But Nelson didn’t produce. He hit four homers in 96 at-bats for the Dodgers, but otherwise was a bust, with just a .208 average and a measly four walks. Nelson had gotten yet another opportunity to step forward at the major league level, and he had failed yet again. On July 30, 1956, the Dodgers allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to claim Nelson on waivers.

Why exactly the Cards would want Nelson at this juncture is a good question. Their roster already included three good left-handed hitters who could play first base: Stan Musial, Wally Moon, and Whitey Lockman, plus a fourth, Joe Cunningham, in Triple-A. But claim Nelson they did, and over the final two months of the 1956 season, in a utility role he did all right for St. Louis, in 56 at-bats delivering five doubles and three home runs, despite a .232 batting average.

Yet Another Time, Back to the Bushes

But for 1957, the Cardinals didn’t keep Nelson. Instead they sold him to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. The Maple Leafs were an independent operation, one of the last of their breed, a farm team to no major league organization, in business just to win games, sell tickets, and perhaps sell players to major league buyers, in the old-fashioned way.

In Nelson the Blue Jays had acquired a bona fide Triple-A star. He hit .294 with 28 home runs and 102 RBIs, and was a major factor in Toronto’s 1957 first-place finish. Then in 1958, Nelson put forward another blockbuster year: .326, with 43 homers and 120 RBIs, achieving his second International League Triple Crown. This got major league attention yet again. In December of 1958, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Nelson.

A Second Tour in Pittsburgh

The Pirate team the 34-year-old Nelson joined in 1959 was distinctly different from the rapid-turnover-rebuilding mode he had experienced there in 1951. The Pirates were now a good ball club (having finished in second place in 1958), and were carefully filling bench roles. They had two first basemen ahead of Nelson on the depth chart: Dick Stuart, a prodigiously powerful, but defensively challenged 26-year-old right-handed hitter, and Ted Kluszewski, a 34-year-old left-handed power hitter who had once been a star, but was now dealing with chronic back trouble, and was best suited to spot duty. Nelson made the Pirates team in ’59, and proceeded to usefully fill a niche between Stuart and Kluszewski: Nelson provided defensive relief, as well as a helpful left-handed bat.

And for once, at last, in 1959, under Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh (a former teammate), Nelson’s left-handed bat clicked at the major league level. The production he’d dispensed for years in triple-A was now finally exhibited at the highest level of the game. Nelson hit for both average (.291) and power (six homers in 175 at-bats), and in August, the Pirates traded Kluszewski away. Nelson was now established as the first base partner with Stuart.

So they played in 1960. Stuart got most of the starts, with late-inning defensive relief from Nelson. But Nelson also got his share of starts, against the toughest right-handers. And Nelson hit those tough righties extremely well: overall Nelson hit .300 with seven homers in 200 at-bats. The Pirates won their first pennant in over 30 years.

The 1960 World Series

I won’t indulge in all the details of this remarkably weird and interesting series. All we need to focus on for our purposes is that it came down to a seventh game, and in that seventh game, at Pittsburgh’s venerable Forbes Field, Nelson got the first base start for the Pirates, batting cleanup, against hard-throwing New York Yankees’ right-hander Bob Turley. And in the bottom of the first inning, with two outs, Nelson belted a thunderously cheered two-run homer to give the Pirates the first lead of the game, 2-0.

It turned out to be a wacky game, and the lead changed hands a couple of times. Eventually, in the top of the ninth inning, with the Pirates leading 9-8, one out and Yankee runners Gil McDougald on third and Mickey Mantle on first, with Yogi Berra at bat, the following happened (as described at the time by Sports Illustrated’s Roy Terrell):

Berra swung and hit a hard ground ball down the first base line. Nelson was there; he gloved it, picked it up and stepped on first base for the out. Then he straightened up, drew back his arm to throw down to second to complete the double play—and suddenly realized there was no reason to throw, for Mantle was standing within a few feet of him. Nelson is a good ballplayer, but Mantle is younger and his reflexes are quicker. He dived safely back into first base, eluding Nelson’s frantic stab, and McDougald scored. The Yankees had tied up the game—and Pittsburgh, unable to believe that such a thing could happen, was stunned. Had Nelson tagged Mantle for the double play, the Series would have been over. Break or brilliance? Both.

Nelson’s semi-gaffe was forgiven in the bottom of the inning, when Bill Mazeroski led off with his historic tie-breaking home run. The champagne bath that Nelson then took, at the age of 35, had to have been heavenly.

image
This graph presents the Win Probability Added (WPA) for the Pirates following each plate appearance in that scintillating seventh game. Nelson’s failure to complete the double play is that little green downtic following Mantle’s RBI single in the ninth. Even more glaring than that, Nelson’s short fly out with one out in the bottom of the eighth, and the tying runs on second and third, is the red line annotated with “Nelson Out.” As has been noted in every serious recounting of this game (and is vividly illustrated here), the real hero for the Pirates wasn’t Mazeroski so much as it was catcher Hal Smith, who later in that eighth inning launched a two-out three-run homer to transform a 7-6 Yankee lead into a 9-7 Pittsburgh advantage. The Pirates wouldn’t have won without Nelson’s first-inning homer, but still his bacon was saved by Smith in the eighth and Maz in the ninth. (Many thanks to John Walsh for the graph.)

Alas, Color Him Gone

In 1961 Nelson, again in the relief role behind Stuart for Pittsburgh, contributed five home runs in 123 at-bats. But his batting average dropped to .197, and he wasn’t in the Pirate picture for 1962. Instead Nelson drifted to the Denver Bears of the triple-A American Association. Nelson had something left, but not much: he hit an altitude-aided .261 with 8 homers in 55 games, before being cut loose in mid-season 1962. His old friends, the Toronto Maple Leafs, picked Nelson up, but he was able to contribute just a .217 average with 11 home runs in 212 at-bats over the second half. I don’t know if Nelson then voluntarily retired, or if he just wasn’t able to make a team for 1963, but in either case his long career had finally reached its conclusion.

But he had left a significant mark on the game, as indicated by the following piece by Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray on July 25, 1963, lamenting the fact that Rocky Nelson was no longer a part of the baseball scene. I quote, in small part:

He had a stance that was right out of a lithograph from the archives of baseball—right foot at right angles to the left foot, knees bent. It was so archaic that a magazine once devoted a whole, fascinated story to it on the notion it was obscene not to have a handlebar moustache to go with it.

Rocky was a marathon talker who chain-smoked evil-smelling Cuban rope cigars. He even smoked them in bed, and roomie Gino Cimoli once told me he got tired of answering excited calls from hotel switchboards who thought the room was on fire.

Rocky was a chatty character who considered himself an expert on everything. He would interrupt a conversation between two atomic physicists to give them the benefit of his thinking on the subject, which he would punctuate with sprays of tobacco juice … Color him fun. Also, alas, color him gone.

Rocky Nelson was named Most Valuable Player in the International League three times (1953, 1955, and 1958). He is a member of the International League Hall of Fame, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame.

Year  Age Club  Class    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   SB    BA    OPS
1942  17  J.C.    D     53  186   15   47   10    3    0   23   14   22    5  .253   .644
1943-45    (In U.S. Military Service)
1946  21  St.J.   C    135  518   92  165   31  *23    5   93   35   35   26  .319   .858
1947  22  Roch.  AAA    11   18    2    1    0    0    0    2    1    4    0  .056   .161
1947  22  Lynch.  B    117  461   98  171   38   11   11  105   38   27   20 *.371   .992
1948  23  Roch.  AAA   142  485   68  147   29   12    7   63   70   42   11  .303   .847
1949  24  St.L.  MLB    82  244   28   54    8    4    4   32   11   12    1  .221   .594
1950  25  Col.   AAA    48  184   25   77   16    2    7   40   13    4    2  .418  1.098
1950  25  St.L.  MLB    76  235   27   58   10    4    1   20   26    9    4  .247   .661
1951  26  St.L.  MLB     9   18    3    4    1    0    0    1    1    0    0  .222   .544
1951  26  Pitts. MLB    71  195   29   52    7    4    1   14   10    7    1  .267   .661
1951  26  Chi.   MLB     6    5    0    0    0    0    0    0    1    0    0  .000   .167
1951  26  Total  MLB    86  218   32   56    8    4    1   15   12    7    1  .257   .651
1952  27  Mon.   AAA     2    3    0    1    1    0    0    1    0    0    0  .333  1.000
1952  27  Bkn.   MLB    37   39    6   10    1    0    0    3    7    4    0  .256   .652
1953  28  Mon.   AAA   154  542  117  167   33    9   34 *136 *106   37    2  .308 *1.012
1954  29  Cle.   MLB     4    4    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    1    0  .000   .000
1954  29  Mon.   AAA   141  469  107  146   26    5  *31   94 *105   40    5  .311 *1.024
1955  30  Mon.   AAA   154  506 *118  184   36    2  *37 *130 *118   36   11 *.364 *1.146
1956  31  Mon.   AAA    49  165   42   65   14    0   12   37   36   13    2  .394  1.199
1956  31  Bkn.   MLB    31   96    7   20    2    0    4   15    4   10    0  .208   .589
1956  31  St.L.  MLB    38   56    6   13    5    0    3    8    6    6    0  .232   .789
1956  31  Total  MLB    69  152   13   33    7    0    7   23   10   16    0  .217   .664
1957  32  Tor.   AAA   152  554   91  163   26    4   28  102   84   31    2  .294   .894
1958  33  Tor.   AAA   148  522  104  170   27    7  *43 *120  *92   52    1 *.326 *1.078
1959  34  Pitts. MLB    98  175   31   51   11    0    6   32   23   19    0  .291   .836
1960  35  Pitts. MLB    93  200   34   60   11    1    7   35   24   15    1  .300   .852
1961  36  Pitts. MLB    75  127   15   25    5    1    5   13   17   11    0  .197   .671
1962  37  Den.   AAA    55  207   32   54   13    3    8   31   20   19    0  .261   .795
1962  37  Tor.   AAA    57  212   36   46    8    0   11   32   21   20    0  .217   .698
1962  37  Total  AAA   112  419   68  100   21    3   19   63   41   39    0  .239   .746

    Minor Lg. Total   1418 5032  947 1604  308   81  234 1009  753  382   87  .319   .959
    Major Lg. Total    620 1394  186  347   61   14   31  173  130   94    7  .249   .696

Rocky Nelson’s major and minor league teammates included 20 individuals who are enshrined in Cooperstown:

Sparky Anderson, Roy Campanella, Roberto Clemente, Larry Doby, Don Drysdale, Bob Feller, Nellie Fox, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Tom Lasorda, Bob Lemon, Bill Mazeroski, Stan Musial, Hal Newhouser, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter, Duke Snider, and Early Wynn.

Nelson was also a teammate of 92 additional players who were major league All-Stars.

References & Resources
Minor League Baseball Stars, published by the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR 78-1, July 1978, page 73.

http://www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/N/Nelson_Rocky.stm

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