This article was written by Chris Rainey
In 1961 writer Bill Libby penned an article titled, “Portrait of a Baseball ‘Failure.’”1 The subject of his treatise was Nick Testa. who had spent 14 years as a ballplayer with just one major-league appearance to show for his efforts. Libby’s goal was to show fans that a man who does what he loves, and does it to the best of his ability, is by no means a “failure.”
Libby died in 1984. At the time of his death, Testa was still playing in an adult league in New Rochelle, New York. While Libby outlined Testa’s career from his 1946 debut in Class D ball to his 1958 brush with the majors and then through 1960, he had no idea that he had covered less than a third of Testa’s baseball life.
After the article appeared, Testa played three more seasons at Class A and Double A, wrapped around the 1962 season in Japan. He played from 1965 through 1970 in the independent Canadian Provincial League. By then Testa had joined the staff at Herbert H. Lehman College in the Bronx as a physical education instructor and head baseball coach. He spent the summer of 1971 and 1972 playing in the Metropolitan League in New Jersey with the Emerson-Westwood squad; Jim Bouton was pitching for the rival Ridgewood-Paramus team.
Nick packed his suitcase the next few summers and went to Red Deer, Alberta, in 1973; Grossetto, Italy in 1974; then back to Canada with Guelph, Ontario, in 1975. After he retired from coaching at Lehman (where he was an inaugural member of the college’s Sports Hall of Fame) he threw batting practice for the Yankees and the Mets for at least 15 summers. He proudly posed for the Yankees’ World Series Champion team photo in 1998 seated next to David Cone.2 He was 70 years young at the time. Testa was no “failure”; he was a true baseball “lifer.”
Nicholas Testa was the youngest of four children born to John and Frances Testa, both Italian immigrants. John had come to the United States in 1913, Frances in 1917. They both settled in New York City, where they met and were married in 1920. John worked as an inspector for the state.
Testa attended school in the city and graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 1945.3 He played sandlot baseball and football in the city, telling Libby that he was playing semipro baseball by the age of 13. When Testa filled out in adulthood, he stood 5-feet-8 and weighed 180 pounds. Libby described him as “darkly handsome in a physical, masculine way.”4
Testa was predominantly a catcher but he did occasionally play in the field. One summer (either 1944 or 1945) while playing behind the plate, he was involved in a crunching collision with a runner at home. Testa claimed that after the game he was offered a football scholarship to the University of Florida.5
Testa joined the Gators for football practice in the fall of 1945. An article in the Tampa Tribune mentioned him as the number five fullback. Since he did not earn a letter it must be assumed that he seldom, if ever, took the field. Things were quite different on the diamond in the spring of 1946. He became the starting catcher on a team that would go 4-17-2. Their only win in the Southeastern Conference came on April 13 against Auburn. Testa and pitcher Jim Cromartie were the stars for the Gators in the 4-1 win.6
After the 1946 college season, Testa returned home and began playing with the semipro Uncle Sam’s Blue Jays in Paterson, New Jersey. At some point during the season he was lured to Walden, New York, to play for the Hummingbirds in the Class D North Atlantic League. Planning on returning to college, he used the name Nick Warren to protect his amateur status. The author has been unable to discover Walden box scores containing Warren, but the Sporting News Baseball Guide for 1947 lists a Nick Warren as playing less than 10 games for Walden in 1946.7
Testa chose not to return to Florida in the fall of 1946 and instead enrolled at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, where he joined the football team.8 In 1947 he was signed by the New York Giants. Testa was assigned to the Trenton Giants in the Class B Interstate League. They optioned him to the Seaford (Delaware) Eagles in the Class D Eastern Shore League, where he quickly won the catcher’s job.9
Throughout his career, Testa was regarded as a strong defensive catcher with a good arm and quick release. For much of his career he was relegated to the number-eight spot in the batting order and not expected to provide much offense. The pitchers in the Eastern Shore League would beg to differ with the common characterization of Testa as “good field, no hit.”
The league released the first set of averages after the games of May 28. Eighteen-year-old Testa was sitting atop the batters with a .451 average (23-for-51).10 He maintained the .400 level and league lead into late June. When statistics came out after July 2, he had dropped to a mere .393.11 He wilted in the heat of the summer and the rigors of catching over 80 percent of Seaford’s games but still finished the season at .292 with a .355 slugging percentage. It was his strongest season at the plate until 1955 in the Eastern League.
Testa’s drop-off in batting did not adversely affect the Eagles, who led the league with a .299 team average and placed second behind the Cambridge (Maryland) Dodgers.12 In the playoffs both the Dodgers and Eagles won their first-round matches. The finale between the two teams went seven games. Testa had a timely single in Game 7 and helped guide pitcher Dean Crooks to a one-hitter in the Eagles’ 6-0 win.13 Testa was recalled by Trenton a few days later and ordered to report the following spring.
The Trenton Giants trained in Sanford, Florida, and Testa quickly won the number-one catcher’s spot.14 He became an instant favorite of the press and seemed to always have an adjective – peppery, hustling, iron-man, fiery – preceding his name. The Giants opened the season at home against Sunbury and Testa sent two runners home in the seventh with a single to give Trenton a 6-4 victory.15
Testa’s defense and leadership were vital to the success of the Giants, who finished in second place. Unlike his year at Seaford, Nick struggled at the plate. It took nearly a month before he recorded his first extra-base hit, a double. It was the first of just three extra-base knocks during the season, which saw him hit .184. Eventually Ed Trickey was brought in to share time with Testa. Trickey added some offense by hitting .276 with four homers. With Trickey available, Testa even found himself playing at third base when Stan Jok was injured.
The Giants finished one percentage point behind first-place Wilmington. They eliminated Sunbury in the playoffs and faced York in the finals. Trenton made quick work of the White Roses by winning in four games. That winter Testa enrolled at the University of Delaware to continue work toward his bachelor’s degree.
In 1949 Testa was assigned to the Erie Sailors in the Class C Middle Atlantic League. His hitting rebounded and he finished with a .267 average for the first-place Sailors. They captured the championship in a playoff series against the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies. The following year, 1950, Testa quit professional baseball in May.16 He played in the Pen-Del League with the Newark, Delaware, team for a while before returning to the Sailors. Erie finished third and lost in the first playoff round.
Testa went to spring training in 1951 and found himself bouncing from one Giants affiliate to another. After starting with St. Cloud of the Northern League, he was assigned to the Idaho Falls Russets in the Class C Pioneer League. With the Russets he played behind 31-year old Charles Hansen, who statistically was inferior to Testa offensively and defensively.17 For the first time in his career, Testa missed the playoffs.
Testa was never known for his foot speed, but he was a heady ballplayer. One of his highlights with Idaho Falls came on July 30 when he caught Boise napping and laid down a bunt down the third-base line. His craftiness opened the floodgates for a five-run inning on the way to an 8-2 win.18
After three seasons in Class C, the Giants management must have had a change of philosophy regarding Testa. They recognized his defensive prowess and the fact that he would never display power. Nick explained that he did not have a swing designed to hit 10 or 15 home runs. “I’m strong and I’ve tried [to hit homers] but it only fouls me up. I just hit those short drives to the outfield and hope they fall in.”19 For 1952 he was promoted to the Jacksonville Tars in the Class A South Atlantic League.
After two seasons of platooning, Testa became an iron-man for the Tars, playing in 125 games for the seventh-place team. He batted .268 and collected a career-high 21 extra-base hits. The sportswriters from around the league selected an 18-man all-star team with Testa as Jacksonville’s sole representative.20
Uncle Sam came calling, but it was not the semipro Blue Jays but rather the US Army. Armistice talks for the Korean War had broken off, making the future uncertain. Testa went through basic training, where one of the commanders learned he was a baseball player. He was assigned to Fort Belvoir in Virginia as a physical-fitness instructor.
Testa played for two military ballclubs during his time in service. The Fort Belvoir team was loaded with talent in 1953 with pitcher Tom Poholsky and shortstop Dick Groat. The team advanced to the All-Army championship tourney in Houston, Texas. In the finals, Testa caught African-American hurler Henry McLaughlin in Fort Belvoir’s 5-2 win.21
The victory advanced Testa’s team to the Inter-Service tournament the next week. They were eliminated by the Quantico Marines team. One of Fort Belvoir’s most notable games the following year came when they hosted the defending NCAA champions, the Michigan Wolverines. Testa tripled in two runs but the collegians won, 4-2.22
Testa, Poholsky, and Groat were also members of the Washington Military District Colonials, a team made up of the best players from all the bases near the capital. Testa played both third base and catcher for the Colonials.23
In August 1953 the Colonials entered the 32-team National Baseball Congress tournament. Poholsky defeated Quantico in the first round as the team advanced to the final rounds in Wichita, Kansas. The Colonials were eliminated in the semifinals by the Boeing Bombers, who finished in second place in the tourney.
Testa was mustered out in the late spring of 1954 and traveled west to join the Sioux City (Iowa) Soos in the Class A Western League. The Soos relied on the power of future NL President Bill White (league-leading 30 home runs) and outfielder Dick Getter (27 homers), who had been with Testa in Seaford. Their home runs were not enough as the Soos finished in the second division. Testa saw action in just 41 games.
Testa was assigned to the Giants’ Class A Eastern League affiliate for 1955. The team started as the Wilkes-Barre Barons, then transferred to Johnstown on July 1.24 Testa enjoyed his finest offensive season, batting .307 with a .403 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, out west the Dallas Eagles were battling for the championship in the Double-A Texas League. Early in August, their catcher, Ray Murray, broke a thumb and was lost to the team.
When Testa arrived at the ballpark in Johnstown on August 6, he was told that he was needed by Dallas. He was on a plane that night headed to Texas to join the Eagles. He arrived with the clothes on his back and his duffel of equipment; he had not even gone home to get his belongings.25 Testa played 16 games for the Eagles, who won the pennant over San Antonio by a half-game. His defense and handling of pitchers was superb, but he could manage only one hit, a double, in 33 trips to the plate. Dallas lost the first round of playoffs to Houston.
Testa had finished his undergraduate degree at Delaware a few years earlier. He would work towards a master’s at New York University in physical education, which would make him eligible to teach. Besides course work, he started playing winter ball. In 1955 he went to the Veracruz League in Mexico and was briefly with Cordoba. He left there just after bonus baby Harmon Killebrew arrived. His next stop was in Managua, Nicaragua.26 He played in Colombia during the winter of 1956-57 and finished in the top 10 of hitters with a .264 average.27 His winter-ball exploits appear to have ended when he earned his master’s in 1957.
The following summers were spent with Johnstown (1956) and Dallas (1957), where his 129 games were a career high. His Dallas manager was Salty Parker, Testa’s role model for managerial style. Parker was faced with the unfortunate political challenge of fielding a lineup in Shreveport in May. Louisiana racial laws forbade Negro ballplayers from playing in Shreveport. This meant that future major leaguers Willie McCovey, Tony Taylor, and others were forced to sit out. Dallas played the four-game series with just eight position players, which forced Testa to play third base.28 A true gamer, he played errorless ball, handling 19 chances.
Later that month, the fans were treated to the odd sight of Testa, with a batting average hovering around his weight and only four career home runs, batting in the cleanup spot. McCovey batted third. Parker had Dallas in first place and praised Testa as “the key man for us this year.”29 Dallas captured the title but lost to Houston in the playoff finals. Testa finished the year batting .235 with two home runs.
Testa earned an invitation to spring training with the Giants in 1958 along with four other catching candidates. Manager Bill Rigney kept three catchers: rookie Bob Schmidt, holdover Valmy Thomas, and the 30-year old Testa.
Testa made his major-league debut on April 23 in San Francisco’s Seals Stadium against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Giants were down 6-2 in the eighth but were rallying. Pinch-hitter Ray Jablonski (batting for Schmidt) drove in two runs with a two-out single and Testa ran for him. The next batter struck out and Testa remained in the game at catcher.
Marv Grissom came in to pitch for the Giants and surrendered an RBI double to Stan Musial. The next batter, Del Ennis, lofted a foul pop near the plate but the winds in San Francisco led to Testa muffing the catch.30 Ennis then flied out and no more damage was done. The Giants rallied against three Cardinals pitchers in the ninth to win 8-7 on Daryl Spencer’s home run. Spencer was two hitters in front of Testa in the lineup. Nick never even got to the on-deck circle in his major-league career.31
In mid-May Rigney asked Testa if he would take over as bullpen coach. The Giants released him, and he spent the balance of the inaugural season by the Bay in the bullpen. He earned $7,500, his largest payday in Organized Baseball.32 As a bonus, the Giants’ third-place finish earned him over $1,000.33 The following spring he got a jump on his conditioning by working in the Ken Boyer Baseball School in Tampa, Florida.
Staying in top shape was important to Testa. In a time when weights and weightlifting were frowned upon by baseball officials, Testa was an avid proponent of their use. He would alternate days between lifting and stretching exercises. He was not the Muscle Beach body builder or the max bench-press type of lifter. His goal was to maintain condition, tone, and strength. His stretching routine helped him to maintain flexibility. “I do try to make sure to get some exercise every day,” he said.34
In 1959 Testa was returned to Dallas, now called the Rangers and in the Triple-A American Association. The Rangers trained at Pompano Beach, Florida, and when camp opened, he was the primary batting-practice pitcher because he was in shape from five weeks at Boyer’s school.35
Testa was the Opening Day catcher for Dallas but played in only eight games before he was released in mid-May. The Omaha Cardinals of the same league snatched him up as a player-coach. Omaha optioned Jim Schaffer to Tulsa in the Texas League and used Testa along with Chris Cannizzaro. Nick went hitless in his first start, on May 31, but helped guide Ray Sadecki to a 3-0 one-hit win over Denver.36 He played in 73 games Dallas and Omaha and batted .235 (44-for-187). He was honored by the Omaha Booster Club with an award for the “finest qualities of sportsmanship.” His name was added to a plaque in the concourse of the ballpark.37
Testa got a taste of managing in September. Omaha manager Joe Schultz fell ill and Testa filled in for him. Testa earned rave reviews for his managerial work on September 4 when he “simply out-maneuvered Gene] Mauch in the tense ninth inning” of a 5-3 victory.38
Testa returned to the Bronx every offseason to live with his mother and sister. He spent a few winters as a stockbroker specializing in mutual funds. When his playing days ended, he admitted that he was never the best salesman and switched to teaching and coaching.
In the spring of 1960, Testa was without a team. He approached Bob Howsam about a spot on the Denver roster. Howsam did not have an opening but used his connections to find Testa an opening with Little Rock in the Double-A Southern Association.39
Testa was an immediate hit with Southern Association sportswriters. Local writer Charlie Adcock opined, “An arm that resembles a cannon, hustle to spare, experience, plenty of color – any one or all of these terms provide an apt description of … Testa.”40
When the season ended, Testa was the easy choice as defensive catcher of the year.
In 1961 Testa joined the Macon Peaches, also in the Southern Association. He embraced his popularity as a colorful character by engaging in some hijinks related to Birmingham’s slugger Stan Palys. Palys, who stood 6-feet-2, had earned the nickname “Monster” and when he came to the plate one day a short, stocky gorilla emerged from the Macon dugout with a sign proclaiming himself “Monster Junior.” Testa, wearing a rubber mask and padding under his uniform, strode to the plate swinging a broom and shook hands with Palys before retreating to the dugout. The distraction worked; Palys, who hit .333 that year, went hitless in the game.41
Testa batted .258 in 98 games for the Peaches. He tied his career high with two home runs. The following season he was one of the many Americans lured by big money ($15,000 in his case) to Japan.42 The Japanese League had had a three gaijin (foreign player) rule in effect since 1955 but suddenly in 1962 the owners opened their bank accounts, starting by signing Larry Doby and Don Newcombe.43 Testa joined the Daimai Orions in Tokyo. He appeared in 57 games but mustered only a .136 batting average.
Testa returned to the States and played in 1963 for Reno in the Class A California League, then joined Yakima in the Class A Northwest League in 1964. He batted .283 and .288, respectively. Six seasons in Canada’s Provincial League followed with Granby, Sherbrooke, and Trois Rivieres. A couple of years in semipro ball in New Jersey were next.
In 1973 Testa packed his bags and headed north again, this time to be player-manager of the Red Deer Generals in the Alberta Major Baseball League. He hit.307 and appeared in the league all-star game. The Generals won their division but lost to Calgary in the finals.44
Testa never married. His sister claimed he was afraid of the institution. Testa contended that life in the minor leagues was too uncertain to tackle matrimony. Even after he left Organized Baseball, it was obvious that Testa had a yearn for travel and life on the road that made marriage secondary. In 1974 his Lehman team captured the CUNY title.45 Soon after that season ended, he was off to Grossetto, Italy, for a summer of baseball. In 1975 he went back to Canada as a player-manager.
After 1975 Testa, 37 years old that year, confined his baseball to the East Coast and played in multiple leagues from New Jersey to Connecticut. Starting in 1978 he pitched batting practice for the Yankees and the Mets. He admitted, “It’s real tough juggling teaching and coming to the stadium, but the teams are so understanding.”46 His baseball background and knowledge of physical training led the Yankees to entrusting him to help rehab injured players. “Conditioning is my forte and I get them all some time or another,” he said.47
In 1980 Testa was asked by Yankees manager Dick Howser to help at spring training as a conditioning coach. His obituary mentioned that he was part of five World Series champions.48 If that figure is to be believed, he started with the 1978 Yankees and finished his run with the 1999 Yankees at the age of 71. He told a reporter in 1980 that he earned $20 a day, “but I love it because it keeps me involved in the game.”49
In November 1989 Testa was hired as a coach of the St. Lucie Legends in the Senior Professional Baseball Association. One-time Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles was the team’s first manager. With players like Vida Blue, George Foster, and Bobby Bonds, the roster looked potent. But the results were dismal. The team even ran afoul of the Association rules by employing an underage pitcher.50 But that faux pas paled to the 30-13 drubbing applied by Fort Myers on New Year’s Eve 1989.
Testa died on November 16, 2018, in New York City. His Mass of Christian Burial was held at St. Clare’s Church in the Bronx followed by burial in St. Raymond’s Cemetery. Few players can claim longevity in the game like Testa (1946-2000) and a scant number can match a career that saw him play or manage on four continents and in 10 countries.51
Thank you to my Canadian baseball card trading buddy Rob Padovan from Guelph who saw games there in the ’70s. Thanks also to SABR member Jay Mah from British Columbia, who has the indispensable Canadian baseball website attheplate.com. Thank you to high-school friend Steve Dick, who found a copy of the 1961 Sport magazine in his memorabilia collection and remembered reading the article as a kid. He had suggested that Testa would be an interesting subject for research. No truer evaluation was ever made.
This biography was reviewed by William Lamb and Len Levin. It was fact-checked by Alan Cohen.
1 Bill Libby, “Portrait of a “Failure,’” Sport, June 1961: 34.
2 “Team of Destiny,” New York Daily News, October 25, 1998: 22 (special).
3 An article from 1959 mentioned that the school had won the city baseball championship, but the author has been unable to confirm the claim.
4 Libby: 89.
5 Libby: 87.
6 “Jordan Fans 13 as Tigers Lose,” Auburn (Alabama) Plainsman, April 17, 1946: 14.
7 The team started in Newburgh, New York, and is often called Newburgh/Walden, but in the newspapers around the league it was listed simply as Walden by the time Testa would have joined them.
8 “Angels to Face Bergen College Saturday Night,” The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), September 19, 1946: 26.
9 “Opening Day,” Salisbury (Maryland) Daily Times, May 8, 1947: 13.
10 “Seaford Star Leads Hitters,” Salisbury Daily Times, June 4, 1947: 11.
11 “Deluca Gains Batting Lead,” Salisbury Daily Times, July 10. 1947: 13.
12 Official Baseball Guide and Record Book 1948 (Saint Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1948), 463.
13 “3,000 Fans See Eagles Win Playoff Final,” Salisbury Daily Times, September 24, 1947: 12.
14 “Heath, Hubbell Confer After Giants Bow, 5-3, to Fort Smith Batsmen,” Trenton (New Jersey) Evening News, April 16, 1948: 30.
15 “Almonte Hurls 6-4 Win in Opener,” Trenton Evening News, April 28, 1949: 34.
16 “Here and There,” Salisbury Daily Times, May 9, 1950: 10. Reasons for his leaving the game were not clear.
17 Testa batted and slugged .264/.340 while Hansen was .231/.268. According to the 1952 TSN Guide Hansen caught 80 games, fielded .960 and had 17 passed balls. Testa played 60 games with a .975 percentage and 5 passed balls.
18 “Buzzer Victory Checks Series Sweep Chance,” Great Falls (Montana) Tribune, July 31, 1951: 11.
19 Libby: 88.
20 “Sally League Writers Name All-Star Team,” Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) August 3, 1952: 28.
21 “Virginia 9 Is Army Champ,” Pampa (Texas) Daily News, September 13, 1953: 7.
22 “Michigan Wins,” Omaha World-Herald, April 8, 1954: 40.
23 “Giedlin, Testa Pace Colonials in Tourney,” Trenton Evening News, August 20, 1953: 27.
24 “Barons Split with Blue Jays After Learning Club Will Go to Johnstown,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Time-Leader, June 27, 1955: 6.
25 Bill Rives, “Why Nick Testa Went Shopping,” Dallas Morning News: 12.
26 Libby: 88. Testa mentioned that he was diagnosed with polio after his time in Managua. That diagnosis made him even more adamant about weightlifting and conditioning.
27 Luis A. Bello, “Fernandez’ .290 Bat Mark High in Colombian Loop,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1957: 32.
28 Bill Rives, “Race Law at Home Fails to Aid Sports,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1957: 35.
29 Lou Maysel, “Top O’ Morn,” Austin (Texas) American, May 26, 1957: 19.
30 According to numerous player accounts in Steve Bitker, The Original San Francisco Giants, The Giants of ’58 (Champaign: Sports Publishing Company,1998), the winds at Seals Stadium were more predictable than at Candlestick Park. There were still gusts and the park could still feel very cold.
31 Eddie Bressoud was in the on-deck circle when Spencer homered.
32 John Cavanaugh, “Ballplayer Going Strong at 52,” New York Times, August 3, 1980: CN5.
33 “Series $$$ Breakdown,” The Sporting News, October 22, 1958: 9. Testa’s $8,500 in salary and first-division money in 1958 is the equivalent of $75,410 in 2020.
34 Charlie Adcock, “Colorful Testa Earns Fans’ Respect,” Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock), June 12, 1960: 24.
35 “Dallas Holds First Bat-Swingin’ Drill,” Fort Lauderdale (Florida) News, March 10, 1959: 38.
36 “Stone, Sadecki Hang 16 Zeroes as Cardinals Sweep Two,” Omaha World-Herald, June 1, 1959: 9.
37 Wally Provost, “Not Forgotten,” Omaha World-Herald, August 1, 1963: 26.
38 “Omahans Hang On to Beat Millers, 5-3,” Omaha World-Herald, September 5, 1959: 9.
39 Libby: 89.
41 “Glennon Tries Snakes to Stop Travs’ Ace,” Arkansas Democrat, July 4, 1941: 20.
45 City University of New York. There were 16 schools at the time, but it is unclear how many fielded a baseball team.
46 Brian Gleeson, “No Minor at Age 56, Testa Still in Majors,” Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), June 17, 1985: 31.
47 Gleeson: 35.
50 “Did You Hear the One About…” Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida), January 7, 1990: 94.