A tall, lanky South Carolinian, Nate Snell didn’t debut in the majors until age 32. “It didn’t come as quickly as I would have liked,” he said. “But the point is that it came.”1 With good control and an outstanding sinker that induced lots of ground balls, the right-hander recorded a 3.29 ERA in 219 innings over four American League seasons.
Nathaniel Snell was born on September 2, 1952, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, but grew up in Vance, about 25 miles east by Lake Marion. Some of the state’s best peaches are grown there. Both of his parents, William Snell, Jr. and the former Ruby Andersen,2 grew up on farms in Vance. According to the 1940 Census, they lived and worked on William, Sr.’s farm in the early years of their marriage. His father was only 5’4”, but Nate grew to be 6-feet-4 and 190 pounds.
During Nate’s formative years, his father drove trucks for a living while his mother cooked at a local school. Fishing and riding horses were two of his favorite things to do growing up in Vance. Between 1950 and 1970, Vance’s population shrank from 106 residents to 54. The town was so small that it had no Little League, so Snell learned about baseball through similar games during elementary school recess and observing his older brother George, eventually joining him and some cousins for weekend games with the semipro Holly Hill Red Sox. “It was more like a community team,” he explained.3
“I used to watch the Game of the Week on television. My uncle was a Dodgers fan, and my brother was a Yankees fan. Those were pretty much the only teams we’d ever see,” The pitcher had no particular favorite player: “I tried to be like all the good ones.”
In 1968, Snell pitched Roberts High School to an undefeated season and unprecedented state championship. “Coach Dawkins has a stinger in the arm of Snell, a 6-2, 180-pound, 15-year-old eighth grader who has struck out 68 batters in nine games, with no relief,” reported Orangeburg’s Times and Democrat. “His strong point is his blazing fastball, complete with control, to break over the inside corners.”4
At 17 he tried out for Orangeburg’s Post 4 American Legion club in 1970. “There were three of us black guys,” he recalled. “My high school coach wanted me to play with this team, so we went there for about two or three weeks to work out, but they told us we couldn’t play. It was some racial thing.”
Instead, Snell went to New York, where his brother had moved, seeking summer work. Then the phone started ringing. It was the team in Orangeburg, asking him to return. “They kept calling, telling me I was reinstated. But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to come back’. I was kind of angry.” Both Snell’s brother and high school coach encouraged him to reconsider, however, reminding him how hard Coach Dawkins had worked to get him the opportunity.
He relented, returned to South Carolina, and dominated the competition. By August 13, his record was 10-1 with a 0.91 ERA.5 He led Post 4 to the state championship, overcoming opponents like future Hall of Fame slugger Jim Rice. “I didn’t really know who he was until later,” Snell said.
Orangeburg lost in the regional playoffs, but Snell and four teammates made the All-Star team. After winning 13 games overall, Snell also claimed the John Ratterree Memorial Plaque as South Carolina’s most valuable Legion player.
One of Snell’s uncles had nicknamed him “Frog” because he was always jumping around like one, and Nate also starred in basketball and football at Roberts High, winning all-conference, all-state and team MVP recognition in both sports. “I loved basketball,” he recalled. “I averaged about 24 points and 13 rebounds per game.” As a quarterback, wide receiver and occasional kicker on the gridiron, Snell made many friends and showed enough promise that some thought he could play college ball.
In his junior year, however, Snell twisted his knee while running with the football and required surgery. “Some thought it came from being tackled,” he said. “But it was the twist.” His self-described “all natural” athleticism would never be the same.
Nevertheless, in 1971 the Legion team from Manning across Lake Marion attempted to compel Snell to pitch for them instead of Orangeburg, arguing that they were based closer to his home. In an editorial criticizing Jackson, Mississippi’s decision to close public pools that summer rather than integrate them, one South Carolina newspaper cited the competition for Snell’s services as proof of the Palmetto State’s progressiveness. “The fact that he is black is incidental and of no concern to the officials of either post,” insisted Greenwood’s Index-Journal.6 Ironic, considering the less-than-warm welcome Orangeburg had given the pitcher the previous year. Rather than pitch for either team, Snell summered with George in New York and worked in a warehouse.
After Snell tossed a trio of no-hitters7 in high school and captained all three of his sports teams as a senior, the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the 18th round of the June 1972 amateur draft. The $8,000-to-$10,000 they offered him to sign, however, felt like “a slap in the face.” Prior to his knee injury, Snell explained, “Scouts were talking about $100,000”. He traveled to the home of the Orioles’ rookie league affiliate before making his decision. “I went to Bluefield, West Virginia, to see if I liked it, but I didn’t sign because I got homesick,” he said.8
Instead, Snell accepted a baseball scholarship from Tennessee State University, a historically black college in Nashville. He studied health and physical education. The Tigers’ baseball program was no powerhouse, but he earned occasional mentions in the Memphis Tri-State Defender for performances like his nine-strikeout shutout of Morehouse College as a freshman,9;\ and tripling and homering versus Alabama State in his sophomore year.10 The Atlanta Daily World described him as, “Nathaniel Snell, fireballing righthander who can step in and play either the infield or outfield”11 during his 1975 junior season, when he won four and lost one for an 8-10-1 TSU team.12 The Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 22nd round that June, but again he didn’t sign, noting, “They didn’t really make an offer.”
After a summer with the Quincy Rivermen in the Central Illinois Collegiate Baseball League, Snell returned for his final year at Tennessee State. He captained the squad for a second straight season and repeated as Big Blue Player of the Year in 1976. He once pitched complete games in both ends of a doubleheader, allowing only eight hits.13 After he finished his senior season 5-2 with a save and a 1.00 ERA, a draft-day article in the Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed: “Tenn. State Pitcher Appears Headed for the Major Leagues”.14 The accompanying article said he seemed “destined to become the first Big Blue performer to go up since [former Orioles’ outfielder Sam] Bowens”,15 but Snell wasn’t selected at all after completing his college career with a 22-14 record.16
On September 5, three days after Snell’s 24th birthday, Orioles’ scout Dick Bowie signed him as an undrafted free agent. Asked how they met, Snell replied, “I can’t recall. He must’ve been following me.” Though he called the bonus he received “basically nothing,” Snell described signing and going to his first spring training as his biggest thrill to date on a questionnaire filled out early in his career. “If baseball still wanted me, I surely wanted it,” he said.17
Snell debuted with the 1977 Miami Orioles in the Single-A Florida State League. Off the field, life was tough. “It was me and four or five guys in a two-bedroom, sleeping on couches,” he said. “ We didn’t make much.” On the field, however, Snell excelled. In 106 innings pitched, he walked only 15 and struck out 68, good for the circuit’s lowest walk rate and best strikeout-to-walk ratio. While his 7-7 record in 16 starts was unremarkable, his outstanding 1.70 ERA would have led the league if he’d thrown six more innings to qualify.
Promoted to the Double-A Charlotte O’s in 1978, Snell led the club in starts, innings and strikeouts. But he also posted a 7-13 won-lost mark and surrendered 20 homers, the most of any Southern League pitcher. Looking back on his early years, the pitcher said, “There’s not much worth talking about. Back in the day, a lot of things were racially motivated. Miami wasn’t bad, but we didn’t do too much in North Carolina. We just had some friends around the ballpark.”
Snell returned to Charlotte in 1979, went 5-2 in his first 10 starts, and was called up to Triple-A Rochester. The Orioles’ top farm club finished with the worst record in the International League, but he tossed back-to-back shutouts and won Red Wing player-of-the-month honors for June.18
Before July ended, however, his arthritic right knee sent him to the disabled list. In late August, a Rochester paper published an article headlined “Snell’s Career May Be in Jeopardy.” Two doctors had advised him to give up baseball. Though he said he didn’t like talking about it, Snell acknowledged that his knee had never fully recovered after his high school football injury.
“I know what I want to do,” he said. “It’s not a tough decision to make.”19 During off-seasons, he’d worked as a substitute teacher, other times in a clothing store, but his goal had not changed. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than play baseball.”20 But the Orioles weren’t sure if his knee would allow it, so they left him unprotected in December’s minor-league draft and the San Francisco Giants nabbed him for $12,000.21
The Giants sent Snell to the Double-A Shreveport Captains in the Texas League and made him a reliever in 1980. He ranked second on the team in appearances but allowed more than a hit per inning for the first time as a pro and posted a 4.50 ERA. The South Carolinian did notch his first three professional hits in just four at bats, including an 11th-inning, game-winning triple on August 20.22 Though Snell would only get 16 official career at-bats as a pro, he made the most of them with seven hits for a .438 average. “I really wanted to hit, but the Orioles saw me as a pitcher,” he said.
Snell almost quit baseball when the Giants released him in the last week of March 1981. “I was somewhat down,” he admitted. “It’s not one of the greatest feelings in the world to not have a job. I did think I had a chance of going somewhere with the Giants and suddenly it was all gone.”23
Two months later, he re-signed with the Orioles. Though he’d primarily be a reliever for the rest of his career, he tossed a shutout for Double-A Charlotte in his first start.24 Snell earned a promotion to Triple-A Rochester by mid-summer and finished ’81 with a combined 2.62 ERA, limiting opponents to 65 hits and 17 walks in 79 innings. That winter, he stayed busy with the Puerto Rican League’s Criollos de Caguas, managed by Ray Miller, Baltimore’s pitching coach. “Ray Miller was a big help to me,” Snell said. “He helped me quite a bit with tips pitching-wise, release points, things like that.”
In 1982, Snell pitched some Grapefruit League games for the Orioles before returning to Rochester and leading the Red Wings in relief innings. In 1983, however, he was demoted to Double-A to begin the year. “You see guys who are being pushed ahead of you even though you’ve done a good job. You feel like you should be there and you’re not,” he acknowledged. “But you’ve got to put that in the back of your mind and go ahead and play ball for the love of the game.”25
He hurled 22 ⅔ scoreless innings to start the season and returned to Rochester. After topping the Red Wings with nine saves, Snell was granted free agency and returned to Puerto Rico to pitch for Miller and the Santurce Crabbers. “He saved my rear many times,” Miller told a reporter.26 “He throws strikes, works fast, fields well and, when you ask him if he can pitch, he says, ‘Yes.’ I don’t know what more you can ask.”27
Snell went to spring training with the Orioles but struggled to prove he was more than organizational fodder. “He’s not a power pitcher, and it was very difficult to get scouts and managers to look at him,” Miller explained. “Nate had that Satchel Paige kind of gait, throws that sinkerball, and it was tough to make an impression.”28 For the eighth consecutive year, he opened the season in the minors. “I didn’t get mad at anybody,” he insisted. “With all those 20-game winners, the Orioles have been a tough team to make.”29
Less than a month into Rochester’s ’84 season, Snell was told he was being sent down to Double-A. “I haven’t pitched that bad,” he insisted. “I guess I was a victim of circumstance.”30 At least returning to Charlotte put Snell closer to his new bride. On Christmas Eve 1983, he’d married the former Sheila Macon, a guidance counselor in Holly Hill. “When we got back from a road trip, he’d get off the bus, hop in his ’67 Cadillac, drive to see Sheila and be back at the ballpark the next day,” recalled teammate Ken Dixon. “A two-and-a-half hour drive each way.”31
“When Nate came in a game, you didn’t have [anything] to worry about,” Dixon added. Snell’s 17 saves tied for the Southern League lead in 1984. After posting a 9-4 record and 2.42 ERA for a 75-72 Charlotte club during the regular season, he helped them win it all by hurling four hitless innings in the East Division playoffs and saving the first two games of the championship series.32 The Orioles still didn’t recall him. “I had a decent year and helped the team win a championship, so I was somewhat disappointed when I didn’t go up,” he admitted.33
It took an injury to one of the Birds’ busiest relievers, Tippy Martinez, with two weeks to play for Snell to receive his long-awaited opportunity. “I was just hanging around the house in Holly Hill when I got the call from Baltimore.” 34
On September 20, 1984, Snell made his major league debut, pitching the eighth inning against the Red Sox with a big lead in front of 20,321 fans at Memorial Stadium. “There was nobody on, but I had butterflies,” he described. “Boston’s number two, three and four hitters were coming up. I struck out Dwight Evans, got Jim Rice to ground out to third, and struck out Tony Armas.”35
Four nights later, a late Orioles’ rally gave Snell his first big league victory, a one-run win over the Yankees. After he appeared in five of Baltimore’s last dozen games and posted a 2.35 ERA, he was invited to join the team’s post-season tour of Japan so manager Joe Altobelli could see more of him against left-handed hitters. “I wasn’t worried about right-handers based on what I had seen,” Altobelli explained. “But I didn’t know about left-handers.”36
Snell’s emergence was a feel-good story because he was believed to be the Orioles’ oldest rookie since Carl Powis27 years earlier. Powis had been 29 years and three months old at the time of his 1957 debut, about 10 weeks older than Snell according to team records. When Snell had to produce a birth certificate to get his passport to enter Japan, however, the Birds discovered he was actually 32.
“We all had a good laugh over it,” remarked Bob Brown, Baltimore’s director of public relations. “Obviously, this is an age-old baseball custom, to fib a little bit about your age.”37
“I know how old I am,” Snell told a reporter. “If it helps you to be a better prospect by being 29 than 32, wouldn’t you be 29?”38 Considering the Orioles had initially drafted him out of high school a dozen years earlier, perhaps they should have known better. Only Jehosie Heard, a 34-year-old veteran of the Negro Leagues and U.S. Army when he debuted in 1954, had first played for Baltimore at an older age.
The Orioles were much more intrigued by Snell’s numbers in Japan. Appearing in eight of 15 games, he went 4-0 with a 1.08 ERA and allowed only eight hits in 16 ⅔innings.39 As suddenly as possible for a guy entering his ninth professional season, he shot from being a longshot to make the club to actively figuring in the team’s plans. When a reporter asked where he’d been all this time, the pitcher replied, “Where have I been? I’ve been in the minor leagues. I’ve been dying every year.”40
Snell wasn’t a drinker or smoker. “Physically, he’s much younger than 32 because he doesn’t abuse himself,” Miller observed.41 But he did bring some of the benefits of experience. “He throws about 85-86 mph, but he throws all strikes. He’s got a good sinker, he won’t walk people, and he won’t make the mistakes young players do.”42
After making Baltimore’s Opening Day roster, Snell surrendered a homer in his season debut, but nearly four months would pass before anybody else took him deep. In the first two months of the season, he worked at least three innings in more than half his appearances, including 5 ⅔ innings of one-hit, shutout relief in Texas on April 22, and four perfect innings for a May 31 save against the A’s. Three times in May, Altobelli brought Snell into bases-loaded, one-out jams and the lanky South Carolinian escaped without damage every time. Until his 21st appearance on June 21, in fact, he didn’t permit a single inherited baserunner to score. “I don’t know how anybody could fill Snell’s role better than he has,” Altobelli said.43
Baltimore fired Altobelli on June 12 and lured Earl Weaver out of retirement to replace him. Nine days later, Miller left to become the new manager of the Twins. Meanwhile, Snell’s role grew even more prominent, and he lowered his ERA to 1.88 with a 10-out save in Kansas City on the Fourth of July. Five nights later against Miller’s Minnesota club, the 32-year-old earned his third win of his rookie season, but it was a costly one.
With one out in the seventh inning, Mike Stenhouse, the Twins’ left-hand-hitting DH, ripped a shot back at Snell that cracked two of the pitcher’s left ribs. Both Miller and Baltimore first baseman Eddie Murray told reporters later that they could clearly hear the sound of ball hitting bone. “When we watched the television replay, you could hear the sound on there,” Murray added. “That’s how loud it was.”46
“I didn’t see it,” Snell said. “And it hit me so hard I didn’t feel anything for a while. I’ve been hit in the leg and shin before, but never there. That one found me in a good spot.”47
Snell reflexively pounced on the baseball and fired to Murray for the out but spent the next two nights at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, coughing up blood with a bruised lung. Doctors told him the ribs would head in a couple weeks, but the soreness could sideline him longer.
After missing a month, he returned following a two-game rehab assignment at Rochester, but wasn’t the same pitcher who was leading AL relievers in innings and fewest homers per-nine-innings when he was hurt.48 “Like most sinkerball pitchers, I’m at my best when my arm is tired,” he explained. “That’s the best way to keep the ball down.”49
Though Snell finished the season with a team-best 2.69 ERA, the figure was a less impressive 4.18 after his return, when opposing hitters batted .325 against him, versus .231 before the injury. “It’s a terrible feeling when my arm is too fresh,” he lamented. “My sinker doesn’t do anything. It takes a vacation.”50
In 1986 he competed for a bullpen berth during spring training, but fell behind when he pulled a muscle in his left side and was sent to Rochester in the final round of cuts. Orioles’ pitching coach Ken Rowe was reportedly near tears when Snell’s fate was announced. “You pull for guys like that,” Rowe explained.51
Baltimore recalled Snell before April was over, and he spent the rest of the season in the majors except for a few weeks in August. His 3.86 ERA in 34 appearances was decent enough, but the Orioles finished in last place and released the 34-year-old in December.
That winter, Snell went to Venezuela and saved 10 games for the Tiburones de La Guaira. He made the Detroit Tigers after signing in February and fashioned a 1.06 ERA in his first 10 appearances. When he struggled over the next few weeks however, Detroit sent him to Triple-A, intending to convert him back into a starting pitcher. Snell went 6-1 with a 2.34 ERA in a dozen appearances –nine starts –for the Toledo Mud Hens and rejoined the Tigers in September.
In the heat of a pennant race, he appeared in four games. On September 11 against the Brewers, he threw seven innings of five-hit ball in his first big league start, but the Tigers’ bullpen squandered an eighth-inning lead. In what proved to be the final outing of his big league career on September 29, Snell got three groundouts at Tiger Stadium to finish off a 10-1 victory over the Orioles. He wasn’t on Detroit’s playoff roster after the team won the division on the final day, but Sparky Anderson made it clear that he wanted Snell and three other contributors in uniform anyway. “They helped us get there,” the manager explained.52
In 1988 Snell signed with Cincinnati. The Reds employed the youngest pitching staff in their division, however, and after 17 games split between Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A, Snell decided he wasn’t getting anywhere. After hurling his 1,000th and final minor league inning in the same ballpark where he’d thrown his first — Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami—Snell retired from baseball with a 3.21 minor league ERA, about the same as the 3.29 mark he fashioned in 104 games in the majors.
He was named to the Tennessee State University Hall of Fame in 1993.53
After baseball, Snell began working for United Parcel Service in the Baltimore suburbs in 1989 and stayed there for over 28 years. For the first five, he was one of the guys in a brown suit and brown truck, delivering packages. Then he switched to driving tractor trailer feeder trucks on the late shift, making it hard to get to the ballpark. “Funny,” said Orioles Alumni Director Bill Stetka. “When we started the alumni program in 2008, he was listed as lost. Didn’t know he’d been living right under our nose.”54
“There something about Charm City,” Snell said. “I’ve spoken to a lot of the players who’ve come here and there’s something about this city, it sucks you in. It’s that family feeling. Everybody loves baseball and everybody loves the Orioles.”55
Once his former team discovered where he was, Snell began making outreach appearances for Orioles Alumni, visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland and signing autographs before games at Camden Yards. “It’s always a thrill to know you’ve done something that the fans will remember what you did,” he said. “That they remember, recognize you, is something.”56
In 2017, Snell retired from UPS and moved back down south to Matthews, North Carolina, about 170 miles north of where he grew up. As of 2020, he and his wife Sheila had been married for nearly 37 years. Their daughter, Natalie, graduated from Hampton University and went on to earn Master of Arts and Doctor of Psychology degrees.
Special thanks to Nate Snell (telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, September 1, 2020)
This biography was reviewed by Gregory H. Wolf and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Evan Katz.
1 Tony Kornheiser, “The Years Go Quickly for Orioles’ Snell,” Washington Post, March 19, 1985: E1.
2 Though Census records and other entries on ancestry.com spell her surname “Anderson”, in an interview with the author Snell said “Andersen” is correct.
3 Unless otherwise cited, all Nate Snell quotes are from a telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, September 1, 2020.
4 Richard Reid, “Black History Month: Roberts High Was 1968 Baseball State Champ,” Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina), https://thetandd.com/news/local/black-history-month-roberts-high-was-1968-baseball-state-champ/article_d070dd7d-616c-59a1-881a-ff12be15f589.html (last accessed September 16, 2020)
5 “Snell Ready for Upstate Hard Hitters,” Times and Democrat, August 13, 1970: 8.
6 “Legal Right ant Public Policy,” Index-Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina), June 16,1971: 4.
7 Snell’s U.S. Baseball Questionnaire.
9 “Tigers Seek Depth in Grid Spring Practices,” Tri-State Defender (Memphis, Tennessee), May 12,1973: 14.
10 “Tenn. State Loses 13th Game,” Philadelphia Tribune, May 28, 1974: 10.
11 Luther Carmichael, “Tenn. State Baseball Team on Two-Game Winning Streak,” Atlanta Daily World, March 30, 1975: 10.
12 “Tennessee State Downs Tennessee Tech, 6 to 1,” Atlanta Daily World, May 15, 1975: 8.
13 “Tigers Win Three,” Tri-State Defender, April 3, 1976: 3.
14 “Tenn. State Pitcher Appears Headed for the Major Leagues,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 5, 1975: 9.
15 “Tenn. State Pitcher Appears Headed for the Major Leagues.”
16 Snell’s U.S. Baseball Questionnaire.
18 “Wing Tips,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 9, 1979: 2D
19 Greg Boeck, “Snell’s Career May Be in Jeopardy,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 28, 1979: D1.
20 Steve Weller, “Rookie’s Odds Not Half Bad,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, March 3, 1985, https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1985-03-21-8501110003-story.html (last accessed September 16, 2020).
21 “Wings Add Pitcher from AA Charlotte,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 13, 1981:24.
22 “Pitcher Wins Game with Bat,” The Sporting News, September 13, 1980:53.
23 Kent Baker, “Orioles Pitching Prospect Snell Finds There’s No Age Limit on Perseverance,” Baltimore Sun, March 26, 1985: 1D.
24 1986 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide, page 201.
26 Don Markus, “With Snell, Orioles Long on Relief,” Baltimore Sun, May 2, 1985: E1.
30 John Kolomic, Stefero, Snell Demoted as Verdi Shakes Wings,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 3,1984: 4D.
31 Ken Dixon, telephone interview with author, September 12, 2020.
32 1985 Baltimore Orioles media guide, page 182.
36 Jim Henneman, “Snell Comes Through in Japan,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1984: 49.
40 Irvin Molotsky, “At 32, A Shot at Last in the Majors,” New York Times, May 10, 1985: A21.
43 Jim Henneman, “Stewart and Snell Rescuing Starters,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1985: 14.
44 Richard Justice, “Orioles Find a Gem in Snell as Their Bullpen Sparkles,” Baltimore Sun, June 7, 1985: 1E.
46 Richard Justice, Soreness Main Concern in Snell’s Rib-Jarring Injury,” Baltimore Sun, July 11, 1985: 3C.
47 Jim Henneman, “Thundering Drive Hospitalizes Snell,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1985: 14.
48 1986 Baltimore Orioles media guide, page 200.
50 Richard Justice, “Snell’s Arm is Too Strong, So Sinker Doesn’t Sink”, Baltimore Sun, August 12, 1985: C3.
51 Tim Kurkjian, “Orioles Make Cruelest Cuts, But Decisions Remain,” Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1986: 1B.
52 “AL East Baseball,” The Sporting News, October 19, 1987: 29.
53 “Dent Among Eight Named to TSU Hall,” Tennessean, October 22, 1993:7.
54 Bill Stetka, E-mail to author, August 28, 2020.
55 Pete Kerzel, “For ex-O’s Reliever Snell, Baltimore’s Been Home Since 1985,” July 19, 2011, https://www.masnsports.com/orioles-buzz/2011/07/for-ex-os-reliever-snell-baltimores-been-home-since-1985.html, (last accessed September 18, 2020).