SABR

Kid Nichols

This article was written by Rich Bogovich.

Charles Augustus Nichols was born into a large family on September 14, 1869 in Madison, Wisconsin. His father was a butcher there for many years and briefly served as an alderman. For a few years before Charles was born, his half-brothers James and John were regulars for Madison’s Capital Citys club, which was connected to the National Association of Base Ball Players.i After Charles arrived, the names of his brothers Will and George would also occasionally show up in newspaper articles about local baseball games, such as one during 1877 in which Will, about 19 years old, was the winning pitcher.ii

Around 1881, Charles and most of his siblings moved with their parents to Kansas City, Missouri. By 1885 he was playing on the amateur Blue Avenue club with Will, George, and a future brother-in-law. They were crowned as champions at least once with Charles in the pitcher’s box.iii He also spent time with at least one other amateur club, Beaton’s nine of nearby Armourdale, Kansas, and it was with them in 1887 when he reportedly came to the attention of the Kansas City Cowboys in the Western League as summer approached.iv

June 14, 1887 was the date of his first pro game. Nichols ended up as the winning pitcher in a 7-6 outcome at Lincoln, Nebraska. It has been widely reported that Charles Nichols received the nickname “Kid” upon joining the club, when the older players either mistook him for a batboy or at least thought he looked more like one than he did a professional player. His weight at the time was estimated to be no more than 135 pounds.

Nichols made 29 more starts and finished the season with 18 wins. Oddly, the local management appeared to have little interest in resigning him, so he began the 1888 season in the Southern League with the Memphis Grays. He had a record of 11-8 when the league disbanded in June, and in July he started pitching for one of two minor-league teams in Kansas City that year, the Western Association’s Blues. He sparkled with a record of 16-2 and a league-leading ERA of 1.14.

Ownership in St. Joseph, Missouri, bought the Blues franchise but Nichols held out, insisting that he was free to sign elsewhere.v He prevailed, and in 1889 eventually joined the Omaha team led by Frank Selee. The Kid’s record that season was 39-8.

Selee was hired to manage the N.L.’s Boston Beaneaters for 1890 and wanted to take Nichols with him, but the Cincinnati Reds also claimed him, after Nichols reportedly rejected other offers from Chicago and St. Louis.vi In the midst of this offseason confusion, on January 29, 1890, he married to Jane Florence Curtin (who often went by Jennie). They honeymooned in Omaha and stopped in Madison on their way to the East Coast.

On April 23, Nichols made his major-league debut at home against Brooklyn. Nichols was the winning pitcher, but he didn’t make too much of an impression until facing Amos Rusie in New York on May 12 as a Players’ League game was taking place in an adjacent field. The two pitchers gave up almost nothing for the first nine frames, and as the game proceeded through extra innings, many fans watching the adjacent game supposedly were instead trying to watch the drama unfolding in the N.L.’s Polo Grounds. The game ended in the 13th inning on a towering homer by slugger Mike Tiernan of the Giants off Nichols. This pitching duel was immediately put on a pedestal by journalists, and remains one of the most-discussed battles of the National League’s early decades.

Nichols finished his rookie season with 27 wins against 19 losses. Kid and Jennie Nichols wintered in Boston, and on December 8 they celebrated the birth of their only child, Alice. Nichols won 30 games for the first time in 1891, and would reach that total in six of the next seven seasons. His seven 30-win seasons remains a major-league record.

In the process, he would help his team to three consecutive N.L. pennants, from 1891 to 1893. Baltimore then ran off their own streak of three pennants, and in 1897 the Beaneaters battled them down to the wire as the rough-and-tumble Orioles tried for their fourth straight title.

On September 21, Nichols suffered the worst inning of his major-league career, yielding 12 runs to Brooklyn in the first inning of a 22-5 loss. Three days later, with a razor-thin lead of half a game, Boston began a three-game series in Baltimore with only three more games left in the season afterwards. Nichols shook off his recent humiliation and was the winning pitcher in a 6-4 contest to open the series. Baltimore rebounded the next day with a 6-3 win, and Selee again turned to Nichols for the third game. The Beaneaters broke open a tie game with a three-run fourth to give Nichols a lead of 8-5. Boston exploded for nine more in the seventh, and Nichols then cruised to a final score of 19-10.vii Though this game clearly wasn’t anything like the many low-hit gems Nichols pitched throughout the season, half of Baltimore’s runs came after the game was out of reach, and box scores indicated that only four or five of the ten runs were earned.

Though Boston had three more games to play, in Brooklyn, and Baltimore hosted Washington for four to end the season, many newspapers declared the pennant to have been won, for all practical purposes. They were right. For the season’s remaining days and for quite awhile thereafter, Nichols seemed to have the most praise heaped upon him of any single Beaneater.

In 1898, Boston added a fifth pennant in Nichols’ first eight years as a major leaguer, to strengthen their case as the decade’s top team. For the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the author developed a formula for determining the effect that a player had on individual pennant races throughout his career. He wasn’t surprised by the first and second rankings. “There were six pennant races that clearly would have ended differently if Babe Ruth had been merely a good player, and Mickey Mantle also had a decisive impact on six,” James wrote. “However, while you might have guessed the numbers one and two men on the list, the number three man was a pitcher who had a decisive impact on the pennant races of 1891, 1892, 1892, 1897, and 1898, Kid Nichols. Nichols won [at least] 30 games in all of those seasons—for teams that won pennants by relatively thin margins.”viii

At first glance, Nichols record of 21-19 in 1899 stands out like a sore thumb compared to all of his previous seasons with Boston, On the other hand, his ERA of 2.99 was better than in three of his previous years, including the pennant-winning season of 1893 when he won 34 games. Boston’s daily newspapers tended to write off his low winning percentages as simple misfortune.

In 1900, Nichols was hampered significantly for the first time in his career by an injury, suffered in late April,ix and he ended up with his first losing season as a pro, at 13-16. Still, his ERA of 3.07 was better than his 3.52 mark of the 1893 championship year and the next two seasons after that. The most notable difference in his performance was that his strikeouts dropped considerably from the previous season. Nichols rebounded somewhat in 1901, his final year with Boston, and finished with a record of 19-16.

Near the turn of the century Nichols spent the closing weeks of successive preseasons coaching collegiate players along the East Coast, at Amherst (1899), Yale (1900), and Brown (1901). He received an offer from Brown again for 1902, but in mid-December of 1901 a shakeup in the Western League provided Nichols an opportunity to co-own and manage that circuit’s Kansas City club, which were known as the Blue Stockings under Nichols—while the Blues name shifted to a rival franchise across town in the newly formed American Association.

Nichols’ squad fared better in its league’s standings, but the AA club brought in opposing teams from much more populous cities and was apparently considered to offer fans higher quality play. Therefore, even though his club won the Western League pennant while the AA franchise barely had a winning season, the latter won the bitter battle of the box office by far.

Nevertheless, Nichols could derive considerable satisfaction not only as a manager but also as pitcher, proving that he wasn’t washed up by winning 26 games on the mound and losing only 7 with an ERA of 1.82. His top rival for the league’s pitching honors was Mordecai Brown, who had one more win than “Nick” but also had 15 losses to go with an ERA of 2.22.

Nichols continued as player-manager in 1903, and with a week left in the season his Blue Stockings were in third place with a record of 66-58. He wasn’t pitching quite as well as in 1902 but remained a considerable asset with a record of 21-12 and an ERA of 2.51. However, as meager attendance continued in the Western League its season was abruptly cancelled because its franchises generally couldn’t afford to play their final few games.x

In the end, the Western League surrendered Kansas City to the much more successful American Association, but Nichols ended up in a better situation for 1904 when a year-old rumor became reality, and he was named to manage the St. Louis Cardinals.

Kid Nichols took over a team that had finished dead last under Patsy Donovan in 1903, with a record of 43-94. After he pitched the Cards to victory on June 4 in his return to Boston, where fans greeted him warmly, his new team left town with a record of 18-18. Toward the end of the season, Nichols had steered the Cardinals to a record of 75-73, but they lost their final games to finish 75-79, still a considerable improvement in one year. He fared even better as a pitcher, with a record of 21-13 and a career-best ERA of 2.02.

Though Nichols was widely held in high regard by teammates, opponents, and fans in other cities, and he didn’t share most other players’ fondness for alcohol,xi he had experienced periodic contract disputes with Boston’s owners and actually held out a few times. This strong will was apparently the cause of trouble for him early in the 1905 season. He got along well with only one of the Cardinals’ co-owners, Frank Robison, but as Robison’s health declined in 1905 his brother Stanley exercised more control as the other co-owner.xii

After accumulating a record of 5-9, Stanley Robison relieved Kid Nichols of his managerial duties on May 3, though he was retained as a pitcher. About two months later, after compiling a record of 1-5 with an ERA of 5.40, Nichols was unconditionally released. In short order he was signed by a former Boston teammate, Hugh Duffy, who had become manager of the Phillies. The change of teams worked wonders for the second half of the season, and he rewarded Duffy’s faith in him with an ERA of 2.27 to go with a record of 10-6. Nichols returned to the Phillies in 1906 but was suffering from pleurisy, a debilitating inflammation of the rib cage, and after four poor performances he retired.xiii

Kid Nichols won 361 games, lost only 208, and saved 17. He finished 95% of his career starts and was the youngest pitcher to reach 300 career victories.

By 1907, Nichols turned his attention to an activity that he had become very fond of more than a decade earlier, bowling. More often than not he would own or manage an alley or two for the rest of his life. Though he had no formal connection to professional baseball in 1907, at his bowling “academy” back in Kansas City he started presenting games on an electric scoreboard that used lights to depict action occurring elsewhere in the country (during an era before radio). On August 6 he even filed a federal patent application for his unique method of showing baserunners in motion.

Partway through the 1908 season, Nichols returned to professional baseball, in the state of his birth. In July he took over as manager of the woeful Oshkosh Indians in the Wisconsin-Illinois League. About a month into this stint his team played a 23-inning game in nearby Fond du Lac, which Oshkosh won, 4-2. Nichols guided Oshkosh to more wins than losses, 34 to 31. He put himself in 35 games during that half-season, but not many as a pitcher. His 3-1 record on the slab gave him career totals as a professional pitcher of 495 victories against 258 losses.

In 1909, Kid Nichols started playing semipro ball in Kansas City with Johnny Kling, among others. Kling was holding out after helping the Cubs to consecutive World Series crowns. To taunt Chicago’s ownership, the popular catcher took Nichols and the rest of “Johnny Kling’s All-Stars” to play semipro teams in the Windy City that summer. They did very well in Chicago, but not in their last game, on September 11. They faced the famous African-American team known as the Leland Giants, formerly the Chicago Union Giants. The most prominent player in the Leland lineup was future Hall of Famer John Preston “Pete” Hill. Kling’s team scratched out only six hits, two by Nichols, who batted eighth ahead of pitcher Chick Fraser. Nick scored the only run for his club in a 6-1 loss.xiv

Early in 1910, Nichols he had a conversation with a teenager across the street from where he lived, Charles (eventually “Casey”) Stengel. Stengel went on to become a major-league player but gained far more fame leading the Yankees to seven World Series titles in 12 years. He consistently credited Nichols as one of his most important early influences.xv

In 1911, Nichols led a baseball team in a game of some historical significance. A club from Keio University in Japan had spent three weeks playing collegiate teams in the U.S., and on May 12 they face Nick’s semipro team in Kansas City, augmented with players from other local squads, including one from Kling’s. The Kansas City club, with Nick pitching, had the game in hand until Keio rallied for four runs in the eighth inning, on their way to a 7-6 victory.xvi

Kid Nichols reconnected with the major leagues that summer when he was hired by the Detroit Tigers to scout in the Texas League for a few months.

1913 was an eventful year for Nichols in several regards. On March 22, he and famous Cub Joe Tinker opened a movie and vaudeville house in Kansas City called the Diamond Theater.xvii (It’s unclear how long they both maintained an ownership stake in it.) On August 5, the federal government awarded Nick a patent for his “Amusement Apparatus,” almost six years to the day of when he had applied for it. Also, his daughter Alice and her husband made him a grandfather.

In 1915 and 1916, Kid Nichols managed the Missouri Valley College baseball team. Otherwise, for the better part of a decade his only regular association with baseball resulted from announcements about the electronic scoreboard.

That changed late in the summer of 1922 when he was invited to Boston for an old-timers’ game. He pitched the first two innings for one squad and Cy Young did so for the other. Sadly, Nick was bashed for seven runs in the first frame, though he managed to escape the second inning unscathed.

A decade later, Kid Nichols received recognition as a key figure helping to launch an expanded Ban Johnson League in the area, for amateur ballplayers under the age of 21.xviii Nichols was drafted to train and coach the Franklin Ice Cream club in 1932. The enlarged league produced many notable major leaguers, most prominently Mickey Mantle.

The next year, at the age of 63, Kid Nichols won the Kansas City bowling championship. Not much later, his beloved wife Jennie passed away.

Early in 1936, the inaugural class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame was announced, but Nichols suffered through years of barely registering in the voting. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract explained the circumstances that contributed to this outcome. “Kid Nichols has been excluded from discussions about the greatest pitchers of all time, as much as anything, because of an accident of the calendar,” James wrote. “Baseball exploded in popularity between 1905 and 1910, just as Nichols was leaving the game. Other things happened. Sports coverage by newspapers increased exponentially, and the wire services began to cover and report every game to a national audience. Nichols missed all that; his memory was pushed into baseball’s medieval past almost before he got the clay out of his spikes.”xix

In 1939, shortly before turning 70, Kid Nichols had a chance to redeem himself in a second old-timers’ game, again in Boston, a day after attending the All-Star Game in New York. In a steady rain, Nick pitched to five batters and finished his inning without allowing a run. A few years later, the first of his great grandchildren was born.

Sportswriters such as Grantland Rice would periodically advocate for Nichols’ election to the Hall of Fame,xx and Nichols’ contemporaries such as Cy Young were reportedly in his corner, but the biggest single boost to his consideration may have come in April of 1948 when a legend who was in many ways his exact opposite, Ty Cobb, loudly and repeatedly clamored for Nichols to join him at Cooperstown.xxi

Nichols and the late Mordecai Brown were approved for membership early in 1949, and that June he was inducted into the Hall. For four years he was able to bask in that glow, until his death on April 11, 1953, at the age of 83.

 

Notes

i Sam Smith, “Nichols: ‘We Stayed In and Pitched,” Baseball Digest, June 1951, page 76. See also the Record Book on the Games of the Capital Baseball Club, 1866-1869, in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

ii “Stoughton Scooped,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), June 30, 1877, 4.

iii Nichols’ descendants still possess a commemorative bat with engraved gold and silver plates for an amateur championship won by the “Blue Avenue Base Ball Club.”

iv Ernest Mehl, “Sporting Comment,” Kansas City Star, September 14, 1950.

v “’Kid’ Nichols an Old Timer,” St. Louis Republic, May 17, 1903, Part IV, 1.

vi “Diamond Stories,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 3, 1899, 13.

vii For a detailed account of this race, see Bill Felber, A Game of Brawl: The Orioles, the Beaneaters and the Battle for the 1897 Pennant (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

viii Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 978.

ix W. S. Barnes, Jr., “Boston’s Worst Defeat,” Boston Sunday Journal, April 29, 1900, section 2, page 1.

x A primary source for information about Nichols’ stint leading the Kansas City Blue Stockings was Dennis Pajot, Baseball’s Heartland War, 1902-1903: The Western League and American Association Vie for Turf, Players and Profits (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2011).

xi “Will Urge Players to Stand Together,” St. Louis Republic, December 19, 1901, 7.

xii Dick Farrington, “Kid Nichols, Holder of Two ‘Hidden’ Major Hill Marks, Still Making His Way Via 15 Hours a Day at Age of 73,” Sporting News, December 31, 1942, 11.

xiii Nichols explained this around 1949 in a handwritten autobiographical document that is in possession of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

xiv “Klings Lost the Last One,” Kansas City Star, September 12, 1909, 12.

xv For example, see Casey Stengel, as told to Harry T. Paxton, Casey at the Bat: The Story of My Life in Baseball (New York: Random House, 1962), 58-59.

xvi See these articles in the Kansas City Star: “’Japs’ Play Here Tomorrow,” May 11, 1911, page 11; “Kansas Beat Keio 10 to 8,” May 12, 1911, 10; “Japs Use their ‘Noodles.’” May 13, 1911, 13.

xvii Advertisement, Kansas City Star, March 22, 1913, 4.

xviii For example, see “Founders of Ban Johnson League See Idea Spreading over Nation,” Syracuse Herald (New York), March 8, 1932.

xix James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 852.

xx For example, see Grantland Rice, “Sportlight,” Ellensburg Capital (Washington), January 23, 1948, 2.

xxi For example, see Robert Moore, “Ty Cobb Plugs Pitcher Nichols For Baseball's Hall Of Fame,” Florence Times (Alabama), April 2, 1948, 9.

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