This article was written by Peter Morris
In his major league debut, this man pitched a no-hit game and followed it with a one-hitter in his next start. He went on to compile a lifetime major league batting average of .362. Such exploits suggest a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In fact, George Nicol spent much of his career in the minor leagues and, when placed in context, it becomes clear that these accomplishments were largely the result of being in the right place at the right time. Yet he still had an intriguing career.
George Nicol was born in Barry, Illinois, on October 17, 1870, to Mathew Nicol, a blacksmith who had emigrated from Scotland in 1852, and his American-born wife Eliza. George made a name for himself as a left-handed pitcher for a semipro club in nearby Mount Sterling and before his twentieth birthday had earned a chance to pitch in the major leagues.
Actually, earned might not be the best word. The 1890 season saw the players form a rival major league, the Players’ League, and challenge the two established major leagues (the American Association and the National League). By the end of the season all three leagues were struggling for survival.
Matters were especially dire in the American Association, which started the year with few established major leaguers and lost more talent when several clubs fell far behind in meeting their payrolls. This meant that these clubs’ managers were forced to improvise to replace players who were injured or simply became tired of waiting for their paychecks. The result was that some players who might not otherwise have received that opportunity got the chance to play in the major leagues, and they often did so under unusual circumstances.
George Nicol was one such. He was signed by a short-handed St. Louis team with a couple of weeks left in the season and sent out to pitch against Philadelphia on September 23. The Athletics had been one of the league’s stronger teams in the first half of the season, but the club’s financial picture was so dire that by the end of the year their roster consisted almost entirely of recruits from semipro and amateur clubs.
“Kid” Nicol mowed this patchwork lineup down, allowing not a single hit in a 21-2 win that was ended after seven innings. It was not an unblemished masterpiece, as Nicol walked nine batters and St. Louis made four errors. But it was still an impressive performance and it earned him another start three days later. Once again the opposition was the Athletics, and this time the teenaged southpaw surrendered only one hit in a 7-3 win that was called after five innings.
Two days later he was slated to face Baltimore, and there was considerable speculation about how he’d do against a lineup of bona fide major leaguers. The Post-Dispatch did its best to drum up excitement, proclaiming exaggeratedly that Nicol is “only sixteen years of age, but he has the head of an old timer.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 28, 1890) But when time came for the game, he behaved more like a scared teenager. The Post-Dispatch reported that Nicol “was afraid to face the Baltimores and no amount of talk would induce him to go into the box, so Mr. Von der Ahe sent him home to gather heart.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1890)
Nicol finally faced a more formidable opponent on October 6. Toledo batters hit his deliveries with ease and finally knocked him out of the box in the sixth inning en route to a 10-3 win. He also proved unable to keep Toledo base-runners in check, a problem that would continue to plague him.
To most observers, this outing was a far better indicator of the young southpaw’s abilities than were his two starts against the Athletics. The Players’ League folded that off-season, meaning that major league jobs were again in limited supply. No club proved interested in George Nicol, so he signed on with Davenport of the Illinois-Iowa (Two-Eyed) League for the 1891 campaign.
With Davenport, Nicol quickly established himself as the league’s best pitcher. He tossed a three-hitter on Opening Day, and improved on that with a two-hitter on May 4 and a one-hitter on the 12th. He got still hotter in late June, throwing three complete games in a four-day span during which he allowed only seven hits and one run. He followed that up on July 2 by striking out 15 batters in an exhibition game against Peoria of the Northwestern League. Then he hurled two more gems, a three-hitter against Rockford and a four-hitter versus Joliet. (Schmidt, 92, 111, 115)
By this time the Chicago White Stockings of the National League were clamoring for his services, and manager Cap Anson wired him an offer of $225 a month. Nicol initially accepted but then Illinois-Iowa League umpire McLaughlin wrote to the White Stockings on the pitcher’s behalf to inform them that he had had a change of heart. (Schmidt, 115-116, 121)
Davenport was even more anxious to keep Nicol. Even with their ace, the Pilgrims were struggling to stay out of the league basement and to remain financially solvent. Without Nicol – for whom Chicago would only have to pay $300 under the drafting rules – the situation would be bleak indeed.
But that was precisely what happened. Chicago threatened to blacklist Nicol if he didn’t report, and he was forced to back down. He pitched his final game for Davenport on July 19 in front of an appreciative Sunday crowd of 2,000 and recorded yet another victory. He left for Chicago the next day and the local paper observed, “Nicol came to this city practically an unknown and he leaves with a record to which any pitcher could point with pride. He was beyond question the leading twirler in the Illinois-Iowa.” (Davenport Daily Times, quoted in Schmidt, 121)
The move didn’t work out well for anyone. The Davenport club collapsed as soon as Nicol departed, while the young pitcher’s tenure in Chicago was equally unhappy. The White Stockings were clinging to first place in the National League when Nicol arrived, and Anson promptly named him as starter on back-to-back days against future Hall of Famers Charley Radbourn and Cy Young.
Amazingly Chicago won both games but they did so in spite of Nicol, who was knocked out of the box in both games. In the first game, he dominated Cincinnati batters for the first two innings, striking out five batters. Then in the third inning, Cincinnati captain Arlie Latham took advantage of the fact that coaches of this era spent more of their energies trying to distract the pitcher than offering guidance to base runners: “When the visitors went to bat in the third the clown of the profession stationed himself at third and commenced whooping things up. He whooped until the Salvation Army at its best was not in it with him. Nicol looked at him in amazement for a moment, then grew troubled, and with each sally from the Cincinnati Captain his troubles grew until finally he seemed to have some difficulty in feeling whether his head or feet were in direct contact with mother earth.” (Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1891)
Nicol started the next day in Cleveland in a bizarre game that Chicago ultimately rallied to win 15-14. By then Nicol had long since departed. Cleveland tallied seven runs in the first two innings, but a peculiar account in the Tribune excused him from blame: “It was not the lad’s fault, however, as his support was something awful, the Chicagos making seven errors in the first two innings. He should have been taken out in the first inning when it was seen that the club had no confidence in him, and it showed this plainly by its work.” (Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1891)
It was then Anson’s turn to lose confidence in his new pitcher and he did not appear again until called upon in relief in an August 14th game in Brooklyn. At first his curves puzzled the Brooklyn batters, but Nicol began to struggle with his control and had a still harder time keeping Brooklyn base runners in check.
He did have a moment of glory at the plate. In the ninth inning he came to bat with the bases full and hit a long drive to center field on which he could easily have made an inside-the-park grand slam home run. But Anson, coaching at third, held Nicol at third because he wanted to force the catcher to play close to the plate. (Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1891)
Nicol was released the next week. In three appearances for Chicago he had pitched eleven innings and struck out twelve, while allowing fourteen base hits. But his chances of success had been doomed by ten bases on balls and by a tendency to allow big innings. He finished the year pitching for Marinette, while the White Stockings blew a six-and-a-half-game lead and the pennant. (Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1891)
He returned to the Illinois-Iowa League for the 1892 season, catching on with Rockford, where he was managed by Hugh Nicol (no relation). He was not quite as dominant as the previous season, but when he was in good form he was virtually unhittable. He tossed five two-hitters and a one-hitter for Rockford that season – single-handedly accounting for 6 of the 21 low-hit games pitched in the league that year. (Schmidt, 221-222) Hugh Nicol pronounced the young southpaw “by all odds the best in the I.I. League. He ought to be in faster company.” (Quoted in Schmidt, 147)
At the end of August that was exactly what happened. After remaining in the financially troubled Illinois-Iowa League until the end of the regular season and for most of a lengthy postseason series between Rockford and Rock Island, he obtained his release and finished the 1892 season with Birmingham of the Southern League. (Schmidt, 201)
He began the 1893 season with Los Angeles, and his arrival was anxiously awaited by California League observers. A local sportswriter described him as, “a young, smooth-faced man, apparently about 23 years old, and uncorks a ball that will doubtless prove a puzzler … He is very easy in the box … On the base lines he showed surprising speed, and will undoubtedly prove to be a daring and successful base runner.” (Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1893)
As Nicol made his initial appearances in the league’s cities, his unusual mannerisms occasioned considerable comment. He earned praise for one demonstration of refinement: “Most pitchers when they want to moisten the tips of their fingers expectorate freely on the ball, rub it briskly with both hands and then wipe the aforesaid hands along the front of their curtailed pantaloons, leaving the brand of their tin-tag tobacco on the surface of their clothing. Mr. Nicol does not do this. He fastens a dampened handkerchief to the surcingle of his uniform, with which he moistens the ball, thus doing away with the time-honored tobacco-juice bath. This act of true gentility on his part was freely and favorably commented on, and it is said the Colonel’s pitchers have been ordered to follow his example.” This practice also earned him a new nickname: “Spitless Willie.”
But the same observer was less impressed by the amount of time that the young southpaw took between pitches. He described Nicol as “the most energetic young man, perhaps, in his line of business that ever worked here. It is estimated that he walked 10 miles yesterday between the pitcher’s box and home. Every time he pitches a ball he walks up so that the catcher can hand it to him. This delays the game somewhat and gives the spectators a tired feeling, but it affords Nicol exercise.” (San Francisco Examiner, April 15, 1893)
The effectiveness of Nicol’s pitching was also being remarked upon. The 1893 season saw the pitcher moved back almost five feet to the now familiar distance of sixty feet, six inches from the batter, with the result that run-scoring skyrocketed in the California League. Like others, Nicol struggled at times, but overall he adjusted better than most. The Times pronounced him “a good pitcher, but he gets very wild at times.” (Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1893) He was also frequently penciled into the lineup in right field when not pitching.
Los Angeles opened up a lead in the first half of the league’s split-season structure, but trouble was brewing. Rumors were rampant by the start of June that individual teams were about to fold, while others anticipated that the whole league would disband or that players might be forced to accept pay cuts. The tumult climaxed with the overthrow of the league’s president, John Mone, who had served since the circuit’s inception in 1882. (Spalding, 60-64)
In the midst of this uncertain situation, two Los Angeles players, William Van Dyke and Frank Scheibeck, jumped the club for the greater security of positions with Erie of the International League. Nicol didn’t depart immediately, but he must have been thinking about such a course. A few weeks later, word came that Nicol had been “suspended for insubordination” and was expected to join the other two defectors in Erie. (Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1893) He left with a 15-8 record that helped Los Angeles claim the first-half title.
After joining Erie, Nicol’s work became still better. He now seemed entirely unaffected by the new distance, allowing only 157 hits in 200 innings pitched and posting a league-leading 1.80 earned run average. (Marshall Wright, The International League, 58) Erie nosed out Springfield for the league pennant, making Nicol a key part of two champion teams that season.
Nicol began the 1894 campaign with Pittsburgh, where his fastidious habits again attracted attention. The Sporting Life was impressed that Nicol “wears a little towel in his belt to dry his hands upon.” (Sporting Life, May 5, 1894) Unfortunately, the southpaw’s pitching proved less impressive. In five starts and three relief appearances, he surrendered 57 hits and 33 bases on balls in forty-four-and-one-third innings of work. Worse, his ability to overpower batters had virtually disappeared, as he struck out only 11 men.
In August, he was traded to Louisville for John Menefee and cash. Nicol made his first start for his new club in Philadelphia on August 16, and his peculiar mannerisms were once again the subject of comment. “Nicol is a young man upon whose hands life seems to hang heavily,” remarked one sportswriter. “He has a far away look and an outcurve, both of which grow upon acquaintance.” (Philadelphia Press, August 17, 1894)
Nothing positive could be said about his performance that day. Left in to pitch a complete game, he was hammered for 19 hits and 17 runs, 15 of them earned.
There are several possible explanations for his ineffective pitching in 1894, and they probably worked in concert. The 1894 season saw an across-the-board explosion of offense that was attributed to the previous season’s decision to move the pitcher farther back from the batter. After National League hitters posting a cumulative batting average of .245 and a cumulative slugging average of .327 in 1892, those numbers exploded to .280 and .379 in 1893, and rose just as dramatically in 1894 to .309 and .435, respectively. The new rule was especially tough on strikeout pitchers such as Nicol, as strikeouts were immediately cut in half.
Even so, the fall-off in Nicol’s work for Pittsburgh seems out of context with his fine work in 1893. An obituary maintained that he had to give up pitching as a result of an arm injury, and that seems consistent with his precipitous decline in 1894. (Milwaukee Journal, August 5, 1924) Between his two stops in 1893, he had started in the vicinity of 60 minor league games, and probably made many other appearances as well.
Another plausible explanation is that his tantalizing curve ball was only effective against weak or mediocre competition. Throughout his pitching career, there was a clear pattern of Nicol proving virtually unhittable against lesser batters but weakening quickly against top-flight batters. As the Press sportswriter put it, his curves seemed to “grow upon acquaintance” – presumably good major league hitters learned to detect which breaking pitches would not cross the strike zone and refrain from swinging at those offerings.
Whatever the reason, the disastrous start in Philadelphia marked the end of George Nicol’s major league pitching career. And yet it was far from the end of his days as a professional ballplayer. He was moved to the Louisville outfield and proceeded to tear the cover off the ball, collecting 38 hits in 108 at bats for a .352 batting average. Nor was he merely a singles hitter, as attested by his .481 slugging average.
Once again, George Nicol’s performance seems more impressive at first glance than it does when placed in the context of a league that collectively batted .309. Yet by any standard, his 1894 batting numbers and his .362 career batting average are stellar, and Nicol no doubt expected to be back in the National League in 1895. Instead, he was released to Indianapolis of the Western League after the season and that ended his major league career.
He initially intended to return to pitching, but it appears that arm problems continued to plague him. After a rare appearance in an exhibition game, a sportswriter remarked, “Nicol has been seen in the box so little that he was somewhat of a surprise yesterday. His curves are great and as numerous as Manager Watkins’ signs.” (Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 1, 1895)
After only a month with Indianapolis, he joined Milwaukee and began to concentrate on playing the outfield. He pitched occasionally in 1895, and then spent four more years with Milwaukee as exclusively an outfielder.
After the 1899 season, Western League president Ban Johnson renamed the circuit the American League, a preliminary step toward claiming major league status in 1901. Nicol opted to instead sign on with Wilkes-Barre of the Atlantic League, but that league folded in early June and he then joined Detroit of the American League. It was an ideal opportunity for Nicol to reestablish himself as a major leaguer but he batted only .258 and was not asked back for the 1901 season.
But his professional career was still far from over. By 1904 he was back in the familiar territory of the reorganized Illinois-Iowa League, which was now known as the Three-I League after experimenting with teams from Indiana. After two years there, he appears to have finally ended his professional career with the Freeport, Illinois, team in the Wisconsin State League in 1906.
When his professional playing days finally ended, he settled in Milwaukee and found work as a machinist to support his wife Lillian, whom he had married in 1896, and their only child, George, Jr., who was born in 1908. Even then Nicol didn’t entirely give up baseball, as he continued to play in the Milwaukee City League. (Decatur Review, April 22, 1909)
George Nicol died in Milwaukee in 1924 under mysterious circumstances. On the evening of August 3 he returned home about 10:30 and went to bed without indicating that anything was out of the ordinary. He died in his sleep, and an autopsy revealed four broken ribs that had contributed to his death. There was speculation that he had suffered a fall or been the victim of an assault. But if so, why hadn’t he mentioned such an incident? The answers to those questions died with George Nicol. (Milwaukee Journal, August 4 and 5, 1924)
Raymond Schmidt, Two-Eyed League (self-published, 1994); John E. Spalding, Always on Sunday (Manhattan, KS: Ag Press, 1992); Marc Okkonen’s invaluable database of minor league appearances on the SABR website; research by Reed Howard; contemporary newspapers, censuses and vital records.