Journeyman right-hander Lynn Nelson was a very good hitter for a pitcher, and was often used as a pinch-hitter during his major-league career. But he may have been saddled with one of the most unfortunate nicknames a pitcher can have. He picked up the moniker “Line Drive,” partly for his hitting prowess, but mostly for what opposing batters were able to do with his deliveries. Nelson, who hit left-handed, was a career .281 hitter in the majors, but as a pitcher served up an American League-leading 27 home runs in 1939. He had given up even more, 29, the previous season, but finished second to the St. Louis Browns’ Bobo Newsom, who yielded 30.
When asked about the origin of his nickname, Nelson said, “I would like to say it is because I now hit so many line drives, but the fact of it is that they tacked that name on me several years ago when I was a member of the Chicago Cubs. The opposing batters had a habit, most annoying to me, of hitting liners past my ears and one of the baseball writers decided I should have a nickname along those lines.”1
Lynn Bernard Nelson was born on February 25, 1905, on a farm near Sheldon, North Dakota, about 50 miles southwest of Fargo. His parents were George Elijah and Elizabeth (Bartholomay) Nelson. Lynn was the oldest of seven children; he had three younger brothers, Edwin, Cecil, and Leland, and three younger sisters, Evangeline, Luceile, and Margaret. During his childhood the family moved around eastern North Dakota, and by the early 1920s, had settled in Casselton, a town just west of Fargo. During the summer of 1924, Nelson tried out for the town’s semipro team and soon became its star pitcher and hitter.
Sometime toward the end of 1924 or early 1925, Nelson made his way to Fargo. There he landed a job at the Grand Recreation Parlor in downtown Fargo. One of the regulars who hung around the parlor was Billy Petrolle, a boxer better known as the Fargo Express. Petrolle had already had two major fights at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Nelson was also the boyhood friend of another boxer, heavyweight Charley Retzlaff, who later became one of Joe Louis’s knockout victims. Retzlaff played center field on one of Nelson’s earlier amateur town teams.
Petrolle’s manager and trainer, Jack Hurley saw that Nelson was strong and had quick reflexes, and believed he also could do well in the boxing ring. After some training and boxing lessons, Hurley felt Nelson was ready to face opponents, but there was one major problem: Nelson had signed to play baseball with the Fargo-Moorhead Twins independent team, and his manager would not approve. Hurley’s solution was that Nelson would don a mask and be billed simply as the Masked Marvel. Middleweight Lynn Nelson, aka the Masked Marvel, recorded 21 early knockouts in 21 professional bouts.2
After a standout season in 1925 with the Twins, Nelson caught the attention of a scout from the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. He was signed and farmed out to the Burlington, Iowa, team in the Class D Mississippi Valley League in 1926. Nelson finished the season with a 12-9 record, and at the end of the season was recalled by Kansas City, pitching in one game. Nelson returned to Fargo, and during the offseason continued to work at the parlor and fight in the ring.
In 1927, still the property of Kansas City, Nelson pitched for the Lincoln, Nebraska, team in the Class A Western League. Lincoln finished in last place, but Nelson still fashioned a respectable 13-15 record. He again finished the season at Kansas City, recording a 1-0 record in six games. In August of that year he pitched in a weekend tournament (which was a common way for players to pick up extra cash) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, under the alias “Johnson.” His assumed name “didn’t even fool the batboy with that sort of moniker.”3
By this time Nelson had given up boxing and concentrated fully on his baseball career. Later in his career Nelson said, “I figured there was a better future in pitching and I still think I was right.” In 1928 Nelson played the whole season with the Blues, winning seven games and losing eight. In 1929 with Kansas City, he won ten decisions in a row and on August 1 his record stood at 12 wins against just two losses. He finished with a record of 15-6 for the Blues, a team ranked as one of the top 100 minor-league clubs of all time
The Blues, champion of the American Association, faced the winner of the International League pennant, Rochester, in the Little World Series. Nelson started Game Three of the series, and outdueled Paul Derringer 1-0, allowing just six hits. He came back in game seven and again beat Rochester 9-1. In the ninth game (the series was a best five out of nine) Nelson was knocked out of the box in the third, but the Blues came back to win the game 6-5, taking the series.
Nelson was plagued by a sore arm throughout his major-league career. He claimed his problems started when he visited Niagara Falls after the Rochester series before returning to Kansas City. He said he “caught a cold” in his arm, and the soreness lingered all winter and into spring training the next year.
In December 1929 the Chicago Cubs sent infielder Norman McMillan, a pitcher to be named before the beginning of next season (who turned out to be Ed Holley), and “a considerable sum of cash” to Kansas City for Nelson. Expectations were high as sportswriters labeled Nelson a “costly addition” (reported to be $25,0004) and wrote that manager Joe McCarthy “expect[s] him to be a star. … The Cubs paid for him at star rates anyway.”5 Nelson was used primarily in relief, and had a solid rookie season with the Cubs, appearing in 39 games and going 3-2 in 81 innings of work.
With four games left in the 1930 season, McCarthy was fired and replaced by Rogers Hornsby. Nelson went to spring training with the Cubs in 1931, but apparently did not fit into Hornsby’s plans. In late March he was optioned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League (Los Angeles was an affiliate of the Cubs at the time) as part of a deal for Los Angeles pitcher Ed Baecht.
At Los Angeles Nelson was used strictly in relief and began to concentrate on his hitting. With only 64 trips to the plate, he had five doubles and three home runs, hitting .250. In September it was announced Nelson would be recalled by the Cubs for the next season, but in December he was traded, along with cash to Seattle of the PCL for first baseman Harry Taylor.
Nelson’s arm problems resurfaced when he reported to Seattle. He sought treatment from team trainer Doc Schaact, who was credited with curing Monty Stratton’s arm problems when employed by the Chicago White Sox a few years later. Whatever the treatment was, Nelson said “Doc fixed me up. He’s a wonder.”6
Nelson played and was Seattle’s top hurler in 1932, going 22-17. He helped himself with the bat in several games, batting .269. Nelson’s strong season in Seattle convinced the Cubs they should give him another look, and they picked him up via the Rule 5 Draft after the season.
Contemporary reports described Nelson as a side-armer with a loose, free delivery. He had a great fastball and an “explosive, fast curve.” He credited his return to the major leagues to the addition of a third pitch to his repertoire, a “tantalizing slow curve.” In a 1932 interview Nelson said the pitch “made him” and gave him confidence.7 In spring training with the Cubs in 1933, it was said Nelson’s “slow ball has [hitters] breaking their backs.”8
Nelson barely made the Cubs staff in 1933. In late March it was rumored that he would be returned to Seattle, but a two-hit performance over four innings in his final spring-training appearance allowed him to beat out two other pitchers and secure the ninth and final, spot on the Chicago pitching staff. He was used sparingly the first month of the season, but on May 6 he pitched six two-hit relief innings, and started a rally with a double in the 13th inning, leading the Cubs to a 9-6 victory over the Boston Braves.
Nelson was used mainly in relief in 1933, but after the Cubs were eliminated from the pennant race, he was given a few starts in September. He beat the Pirates 4-2, allowing just four hits, on September 10. Six days later he lost 2-1 to the Giants’ Carl Hubbell. Overall, Nelson went 5-5 in 24 games with a 3.21 ERA.
Nelson went to spring training with the Cubs in 1934, but was slowed during camp by what was described as an ear abscess. In mid-March he was hospitalized (later it was revealed he had undergone an operation on his mastoid9) but went north with the club to open the season. In his only start for the Cubs that season, on May 8, he was knocked out of the box in the first inning before recording an out, being charged with four earned runs.
On May 15 it was reported that “an infected ear has retarded him this season” and it was rumored that Nelson would be sent back to Seattle. Instead, he was sold outright to Atlanta in the Southern Association. He pitched well for the Crackers, at one point winning six games in a row, but in August was placed on the voluntary retired list “because of ill health” by the club. He had lost 20 pounds and still not recovered from his ear problems earlier that spring.
Nelson started the 1935 season back in Atlanta, but was traded to the Memphis Chicks in the same league in mid-August. Apparently fully recovered from the previous year’s illness, he went 12-4 for the season (combined with both clubs) with a 2.81 ERA in 24 games. In 1936 Nelson pitched in Memphis, going 14-16 for a second-division club. He maintained that pitching in the warm weather in the South helped his arm recover.
Nelon joined Memphis the following spring, and on April 8 he shut out the Philadelphia A’s, 8-0, in a spring-training game. His performance impressed Connie Mack, and the Athletics acquired him in a trade the next day for pitchers Carl Doyle and Al Benton, and infielder Jack Peterson. On May 17 he took over for A’s starter Luther Thomas in the first inning and held the Yankees scoreless the rest of the game, recording a 3-2 win. He struck out seven, including Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Gomez, and Frank Crosetti on nine pitches in the sixth inning.
Nelson was used mainly in relief in 1937, making just four starts for Philadelphia. He pitched poorly (4-9 record and a 5.90 ERA in 30 games) but, in order to get his bat in the lineup, Mack began to use Nelson as a pinch-hitter and in left field on occasion. On July 9, in a start in left field, Nelson went 4-for-5 against the Red Sox, with two doubles and two RBIs. On July 21, while pitching in relief against Cleveland, Nelson hit a grand slam in the eighth inning to put the A’s ahead 8-7. The Indians scored two in the ninth to go ahead, and Bob Feller came in to pitch the ninth for his first victory of the season.
On August 4 Nelson hit a pinch-hit home run in the ninth off the White Sox’ Ted Lyons to tie the game. Nelson led the American League with 37 pinch-hit at-bats and tied for the lead in hits (9). For the season, Nelson hit .354 (40-for-113) with four home runs and 29 RBIs. Had he had the required number of plate appearances, the top four batters in the American League in 1937 would have been: Gehringer, Nelson, Gehrig, and DiMaggio; not bad company.
Throughout his career, Nelson started strongly during the first half of the season, but faded in the second half. His slight build (5-feet-10, 170 pounds), and overwork by his managers may have caused him to wear down during the dog days of the season. This was particularly true in 1938.
After four strong relief appearances to open the season, in which he did not allow a run in 13 innings, Nelson was inserted into the Philadelphia starting rotation. Beginning on May 5, he threw ten consecutive complete games, winning eight of nine decisions. The Yankees were one of his victims during the streak, prompting manager Joe McCarthy (Nelson’s former manager in Chicago) to say, “Can you imagine us letting a guy like Line Drive Nelson bump us off? We ought to be kicked out of town for this.”10
Nelson credited his strong start to his offseason conditioning program. Before the season he worked as a grain sampler at the farmers co-op elevator in Kansas City. The job involved climbing in loaded rail cars and walking in loose grain taking samples. He maintained that it strengthened his legs, helping his stamina and pitching effectiveness during the season.
By late June of 1938 Nelson had allowed fewer hits per innings pitched than anyone in baseball other than Johnny Vander Meer. Nelson was arguably the best pitcher in baseball the first half of the season, but the Yankees’ Lefty Gomez, with only a 4-8 record, was selected to the AL All Star squad over him.11
In July Nelson lost four straight starts and pitched out of the bullpen most of the rest of the season. He won just two more games that summer and finished with a 10-11 record. Nelson had more pinch-hitting appearances (36) than games pitched (32). He hit .277, but all of his 31 hits were singles. (As of 2013 Nelson was tied for second place in the major leagues for recording the most hits in a season without an extra-base hit.)
Nelson was back with Philadelphia again in 1939. On May 16 he was the starting pitcher for manager Connie Mack in the American League’s first night game, He held the Cleveland Indians to one run (a Hal Trosky home run) in seven innings and “pitched as though night ball was his favorite dish.”12 Cleveland tied the game, 3-3, in the eighth and Nelson was taken out. He did not figure in the decision as the Indians won, 8-3 in ten innings.
Nelson found little success on the mound the rest of the 1939 season. His arm soreness had returned, and he was kept by Mack only because of his versatility, and his ability to play the outfield and pinch-hit. Over a stretch of seven appearances between May 28 and July 4, Nelson surrendered 17 home runs. In the middle of that streak, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, George Selkirk and Babe Dahlgren all went deep before Nelson was chased in the third inning of a 23-2 drubbing by the Yankees on June 28. His American League-leading 27 home runs allowed prompted one writer to suggest that his nickname be changed from Line Drive Nelson to Over the Fence Nelson.13
The Athletics won only 55 games in 1939, and Nelson’s ten victories (against 13 defeats) led the Philadelphia staff; no other pitcher managed to win in double figures. He led the club in innings pitched and his 5.33 ERA was second on the team (the team ERA was 6.85). So, despite a losing record, a plus-five ERA, and, for Nelson, , a subpar .188 batting average, he thought he was due a raise, and refused to sign his 1940 contract with the Athletics.
On February 24 Connie Mack sold Nelson to Detroit for the waiver price. He was used sparingly on the mound by but did make 14 pinch-hitting appearances for the Tigers. Despite his ineffectiveness on the mound, Nelson could still hit. He batted .348 (8-for-23) with a home run. One wonders how Nelson’s career might have been different had he been converted to a position player exclusively early in his career.
After getting shelled by the White Sox for seven hits (including two homers) and seven earned runs in 4⅓ innings on July 3, Nelson was sent to Detroit’s top minor-league team, Buffalo of the International League. It was rumored in August that he would be recalled, but he never was. The pennant-winning Tigers did vote Nelson a half-share from their World Series pool: $1,765.
The shellacking against Chicago in July was to be Nelson’s last appearance in the major leagues. He remained in the International League with Buffalo and Syracuse through 1943 (his last season in professional baseball). He was invited back to Syracuse in 1944, but preferred to remain on his wartime defense job in an airplane factory in Kansas City.
While playing in Kansas City in the late 1920s, Nelson had met Ann Marie Galvin. They were married at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Kansas City on October 18, 1930. After a honeymoon in Canada, the couple returned to Kansas City, where they lived the rest of their lives. Ann and Lynn had two sons, Lynn B. Jr., born August 23, 1931 and John Galvin Nelson, born on September 9, 1935. John was hit by a passing train and killed as the two brothers played near the railroad tracks in 1946.
After he retired from baseball, Nelson returned to Kansas City. One report said he was running a saloon14 in the city; another that he worked as an electrician. In his spare time he became an accomplished bowler. Nelson died from an undisclosed “three-year illness” on February 15, 1955, nine days before his 50th birthday. He was buried at Mount St. Mary Cemetery in Kansas City. Lynn was survived by his wife, his son, six siblings, and his father.
Lynn Jr. became an attorney and was listed in Kansas City residential and business telephone listings as late as 2002. Lynn’s widow, Ann, never remarried and lived in Kansas City until her death in 1988. She worked as an accountant with the Jackson County Land Trust, retiring in 1985. The Nelsons had three grandchildren, all born after Lynn died.
Unless otherwise stated in the notes, information in this biography was taken from the following:
Eriksmoen, Curt, “N.D. Native Could Both Hit and Pitch,” Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, June 13, 2009.
1Press release from Nelson’s Hall of Fame file dated January 22, 1939.
2Pittsburgh Press, August 27, 1939.
3 Omaha World Herald, August 27, 1927.
4 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 6, 1929.
5 Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, February 2, 1930.
6 Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, February 2, 1930.
7Portland Oregonian, September 30, 1932.
8 San Diego Evening Tribune, March 6, 1933.
9 Omaha World Herald, May 15, 1934.
10 Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, June 27, 1938.
11Milwaukee Journal, June 28, 1938.
12 Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1939.
13 Boston Herald, December 19, 1939.
14 Ottawa (Ontario) Evening Citizen, January 21, 1949.