SABR

Rocky Nelson

This article was written by David Fleitz.

Rocky Nelson came to Cleveland in the spring of 1954 with an impressive pedigree. He had won the Most Valuable Player award in the International League in 1953 and followed it up with a fine performance in the Cuban Winter League, where he won the batting championship. The Indians expected Nelson to win the starting position at first base, but the minor-league sensation struggled mightily in spring training and, though he made the Opening Day roster, he appeared in only four games for the Indians. He failed to hit safely in four times at bat, and in mid-May Cleveland sent Nelson back to the minor leagues, from which he eventually emerged to play backup roles with the Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, on November 18, 1924, Glenn Richard Nelson, called Spike as a child, was the second and last child of Marshall and Esta (Sunday) Nelson. Marshall worked as a catcher in a steel mill when Glenn and his brother, Alfred, two years older, were young. But by 1940 he held a job as a processing clerk in a WPA program. (The Works Progress Administration was a New Deal creation that put unemployed Americans to work on public projects.) As a youth Glenn was a batboy for the Portsmouth Red Birds, a St. Louis Cardinals farm club in the Mid-Atlantic League. A left-handed pitcher who stood 5-feet-10, he starred on the baseball team at Portsmouth High School and was signed by the Cardinals in 1942. Nelson earned his nickname in a Cardinals training camp when teammate Whitey Kurowski bounced a ball off his head during a pepper game. Nelson was unhurt, and Kurowski tagged him with the name Rocky, which he carried for the rest of his life.

Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey, enamored of Nelson’s hitting skill, shifted the youngster to first base and sent him to Johnson City in the Appalachian League. The 17-year-old batted .253 that season, then enlisted in the US Army on February 20, 1943, and served three years, including time in the Pacific theater during World War II. Returning to the Cardinals organization in 1946, Nelson won the Piedmont League batting title for Lynchburg in 1947. On August 20 of that year, he married Alberta Burns of Portsmouth in a pregame ceremony at home plate.

Nelson wore out minor-league pitching and, after hitting .303 for Rochester in 1948, earned a shot in the big leagues with the Cardinals in 1949. He shared the first-base job with Nippy Jones, but batted only .221 with four homers in 82 games, driving in 32 runs. The Cardinals, hampered by weak offensive production at the first-base position, lost the pennant to the Brooklyn Dodgers that year by one game. Sent down to Columbus in 1950, Nelson battered American Association pitching for a .418 average in 48 games, but hit poorly after his recall to St. Louis. He was quickly earning a reputation as a minor-league superstar who could not, for whatever reason, break through at the major-league level.

The Cardinals gave up on Rocky after another slow start at the plate in 1951 and traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates in May. He hit better for the Pirates, posting a .267 average, but his lack of power (one homer in 71 games) led the club to put him on waivers in September. The White Sox picked Nelson up, then sent the 27-year-old player to the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he spent the 1952 season recovering from a broken leg and backing up Gil Hodges at first base. He played little, batting only 46 times and going hitless in four World Series plate appearances, and found himself back in the minor leagues with Brooklyn's top farm team, the Montreal Royals, in 1953.

Despite his troubles, Rocky was popular with fans and teammates. He was a colorful individual and clubhouse prankster with one of the most unusual batting stances in the game; as Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times described it, his stance 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 to have this kind of a stance without a handlebar mustache to go with it.” Murray also wrote that 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.”1

In Montreal Nelson suddenly found his power stroke. On a team managed by Walter Alston and filled with future major leaguers including Tommy Lasorda, Don Hoak, and Dick Williams, Nelson led the International League with 34 home runs and 136 runs batted in, earning Most Valuable Player honors. This performance established Nelson as a hot prospect once again, but because Gil Hodges owned the first-base job in Brooklyn, Rocky would have to play elsewhere to establish himself in the majors. In October 1953 the Dodgers sent Rocky to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Bill Abernathie and a reported $15,000.

The Indians had finished second to the pennant-winning Yankees in 1953 despite a glaring weakness at first base. Luke Easter, the veteran first sacker, was 37 years old and could no longer play the field, while Bill Glynn, a slick glove man who had led the league in fielding percentage, was a mediocre hitter best suited to a role as a late-inning defensive replacement. Manager Al Lopez hoped that Nelson, the minor-league slugging sensation, could fill the first-base hole and provide more power for the Cleveland offense. Walter Alston gave Nelson a strong recommendation. “I don’t see how he can miss if he plays the kind of first base for Cleveland that he did for me all year,” Alston told The Sporting News.2

Rocky welcomed the opportunity. “In my opinion,” he said in February of 1954, “I've never had a chance in the big leagues to stay in the lineup long enough at one time to show what I could do.”3 But he got off to a bad start in spring training, hitting poorly and fielding worse. In a game against the New York Giants in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rocky failed to catch two popups and misplayed a line drive into a three-base error. Lopez nonetheless remained hopeful. “I'm going to keep him on first, especially after an exhibition like that,” said the Cleveland manager. “If I jerked him out of there now, I would really ruin his morale.”4 In mid-March Lopez offered encouragement. “I'm sure he can do better than he has shown so far,” he told the press. “I know he's a good glove man, but he hasn't even been impressive in the field. That's what makes me think he's pressing, trying too hard.”5

As Rocky's spring average fell to the .150 level, another newcomer, infielder Rudy Regalado, impressed the Cleveland management with his strong hitting and fielding. Regalado quickly became the darling of the local sportswriters, while Lopez and general manager Hank Greenberg considered a plan to move star third baseman Al Rosen to first base, with Regalado on third. Nelson earned a spot on the Cleveland roster, but watched from the bench on Opening Day as Bill Glynn, who hit well in spring training, played first. Nelson entered the game in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement, but did not bat as the Indians pounded the Chicago White Sox, 8-2.

The presence of Regalado, and an unexpected season-opening hot streak by Glynn, spelled the end for Nelson in Cleveland. He played in four games as a pinch-hitter and late-inning replacement, with no hits in four times at bat, then spent the next few weeks on the bench. In late April, after Glynn’s bat cooled down, the Indians moved Rosen to first base and inserted Regalado into the lineup at third. Nelson was the odd man out. He had failed his fifth major-league trial, and on May 11 the Indians returned Rocky to his previous club, the Montreal Royals. “Well, if I must play in the minors,” said a disappointed Nelson, “I'd rather play with Montreal than with any other team.”6

A few years later Nelson expressed his dissatisfaction with Cleveland management. “They gave me the position in the spring, sure, but they didn't spend all that money just to find out if I could hit in the spring,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1958. “They bought me because of the great season I had in Montreal in ’53. I've never been a good hitter in the spring. I need to get to know the pitchers. Even in the minors, what little hitting I do in the spring, I do against pitchers I've seen before. I never hit the new ones right at first. And that's the way it was up there. Just about the time I was learning what they could throw, I was on the bench. And then I was back at Montreal.”7

Cleveland coach Red Kress had a different perspective. “You should have seen him that spring,” said Kress. “He was tighter than a drum. Just plain nervous. He looked terrible; he couldn't even catch the ball. And at the plate, it wasn't some particular pitch that he couldn't hit. He couldn't hit strikes.” Al Lopez agreed. “Rocky talked a lot,” said Lopez, “and he gave the appearance of being nonchalant. But I think part of this was just a coverup. Inside he must have been burning.”8

Predictably, Rocky turned into a slugger again upon his return to the minor leagues. Though he missed the first few weeks of the 1954 International League season, he led the circuit in home runs that year, and in 1955 he won the Triple Crown and another Most Valuable Player award. A .394 average in 1956 earned him another call-up to Brooklyn (where he was reunited with his old Montreal skipper, Walter Alston), but Nelson failed once again to stick with the club. “It was a complex of some kind,” said Fresco Thompson of the Dodgers. “Rocky looked just as bad for us as he looked good down in the minors.”9 Nelson developed an unfortunate knack for hitting long, arching fly balls over the right-field fence just barely foul. “If they had just moved the foul pole over about ten feet,” one writer quipped, “Rocky would have broken Ruth's record in a breeze.”10 The Dodgers sent Nelson on waivers to the Cardinals, and at season’s end St. Louis sold his contract to Toronto of the International League.

In Toronto Nelson won his second Triple Crown and third MVP award in 1958. This performance earned him another shot with Pittsburgh, a club that already owned two established first basemen in right-handed batter Dick Stuart and lefty slugger Ted Kluszewski. Rocky performed so well in spring training, however, that manager Danny Murtaugh kept all three first sackers on the roster as the 1959 season began.

Nelson started slowly, as usual, and served exclusively as a pinch-hitter in April and early May while Kluszewski went on a tear. Eventually, however, Rocky's bat came around, while Kluszewski went cold, batting .188 in June and .095 in July. Nelson claimed the backup first base job, cementing his hold on the position with two homers against the league-leading San Francisco Giants on August 24, leading the Pirates to a 6-0 win. The next day Pittsburgh management traded Kluszewski to the Chicago White Sox. Rocky batted .291 for the Pirates in 1959 with six homers, a performance that assured him a spot on the roster to start the 1960 season.

Solidly entrenched as Dick Stuart's backup, the 35-year-old Nelson enjoyed his finest major-league campaign in 1960. One memorable performance came on July 5, when he led off the ninth inning against the Braves in Milwaukee with the Pirates down 2-0. Nelson belted a homer off Carlton Willey, igniting a rally that put Pittsburgh ahead, 3-2. The Braves tied the score in the ninth, but in the tenth Rocky belted his second round-tripper of the day, a two-run shot off Joey Jay that proved the winning margin in a 5-4 Pirates win. In all, he played in 93 games for the Pirates in 1960 with 50 starts at first base, all against right-handed pitchers. He batted .300 with seven home runs, providing important support as the Pirates won their first pennant in 34 years and earned a World Series berth against the New York Yankees.

Though the Yankees named right-hander Art Ditmar as their starting pitcher for Game One of the Series, manager Murtaugh gave Dick Stuart the starting assignment at first base. Nelson started the second game, collecting two singles in five at-bats against right-hander Bob Turley as the Pirates fell by a 16-3 score. He appeared as a defensive replacement in Game Five and struck out as a pinch-hitter in Game Six, but with Turley on the mound in the deciding seventh game, Murtaugh put Nelson in the lineup in the cleanup spot. In the first inning Rocky smacked the biggest hit of his career, a two-run homer that gave the Pirates an early lead.

Nelson almost emerged as the goat of the Series. With one out in the top of the ninth inning and the Pirates leading 9-8, the Yankees had Gil McDougald at third and Mickey Mantle at first when Yogi Berra hit a sharp grounder to Rocky at first base. A 3-6-3 double play would have ended the game and given the Pirates the world championship, but instead of throwing to second, Nelson stepped on first to retire Berra, then turned his attention to Mantle, who was caught only a few feet away from him. Mantle somehow eluded Rocky's tag, twisting his way around the Pirates’ first sacker and diving safely back to first as McDougald scored to tie the game. Fortunately for Nelson, all was forgotten when Bill Mazeroski led off the bottom of the inning with his Series-winning walk-off homer.

Nelson’s hitting fell off sharply in 1961, and the Pirates released the 37-year-old at season’s end. He played one more year in the minors, then retired from the game and opened a painting business in his hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio. He and his wife, Alberta, who had adopted a son in 1958, lived in Portsmouth until his death at the age of 81 on October 31, 2006.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Steve Treder, “Rocky Nelson,” The Hardball Times (http://www.thehardballtimes.com), April 5, 2006.

Ed McAuley, “The Eternal Door-Knocker,” Baseball Digest, March 1959.

Roy Terrell, “The Man With a Million and One Alibis,” Sports Illustrated, August 18, 1958.

The Sporting News, November 18, 1953; February 3, 1954; April 14, 1954; May 19, 1954.
Youngstown Vindicator, February 25, March 15, and March 29, 1954.

Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1963.

 

Notes

1 Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1963.

2 The Sporting News, November 18, 1953

3 Youngstown Vindicator, February 25, 1954.

4 Youngstown Vindicator, March 29, 1954.

5 Youngstown Vindicator, March 15, 1954.

6 The Sporting News, May 19, 1954.

7 Roy Terrell, “The Man With a Million and One Alibis,” Sports Illustrated, August 18, 1958.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

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