This article was written by Campbell Gibson
At the turn of the century, professional baseball players had a general reputation for fast living and coarse behavior. While there were some notable exceptions, like Christy Mathewson, most players had little formal education, and many were poorly equipped for the transition after their playing careers ended.
One exception to this portrayal is Simon Burdette Nicholls, who was the first graduate of the Maryland Agricultural College (the forerunner of the University of Maryland) to play in the major leagues. Simon was born on July 17, 1882, in Boyds, Maryland, a small community 25 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. He was the son of George Nicholls, a farmer, and Courtney Burdette Nicholls, who died when Simon was five years old.
During his four years at college, Nicholls was the team’s shortstop and star player. Despite his reputation on the ball field, it was not clear that he would play professionally, due at least partly to parental objection. In a prophecy for the year 1935, the 1903 class historian of the Maryland Agricultural College envisioned Simon as a gentleman farmer with ample time to take part in local politics.
In September 1903, Nicholls was recruited by the Detroit Tigers who were short of infielders and who were in town to play the Washington Senators. He made his major league debut on September 18 in a doubleheader. In the first game, Simon had two hits and fielded well, but after getting a hit in the second game, he was picked off and lost his composure, making three errors in the field. The consensus of the Detroit and Washington papers was that he needed experience, but had played quite well for a young man jumping from the amateur level to the major leagues.
In the following two years, Nicholls played for several amateur and semi-professional teams, two of which won championships. In 1904, he played for the town of Ridgely on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Ridgely had only about 800 residents, but the team recruited widely and won the Maryland “amateur” championship, although several players were paid. Perhaps the most notable attribute of the team was that it included five future major leaguers: Sam Frock (p), Bill Kellogg (1b), Buck Herzog (2b), future Hall of Famer Frank Baker (3b), and Simon Nicholls (ss).
The following year Nicholls played for Piedmont, West Virginia, which finished first in the Cumberland Valley League. At Piedmont, Nicholls’ play impressed Charlie Babb (whose major league career ended in 1905), and shortly after Babb was signed to manage Memphis in the Southern Association in 1906, he signed Simon to play shortstop. Nicholls’ fine play in spring training drew attention, and John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, offered to purchase Nicholls, but was turned down.
The 1906 season was very successful for Nicholls and for Memphis, which finished second. Simon played every inning of the team’s 142 league games. He hit .260, well above the league average of .230, and was a standout defensively. Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, purchased Nicholls for $2,500, and Simon joined the A’s near the end of the major league season, playing in twelve games and hitting .182.
The Athletics’ starting infield for 1907 was set with veterans Danny Murphy (2b), Jack Knight (3b), and Monte Cross (ss), relegating Nicholls to a utility infielder role. In June, Murphy suffered a sprained ankle, and Simon was inserted at second base. Mack then traded Knight (and $7,500) to Boston for the aging star third baseman, Jimmy Collins. With Nicholls playing second base and Collins and Cross at their regular positions, the A’s won 15 of their next 20 games to move into pennant contention. Simon contributed to this spurt with a 20-game hitting streak during which he batted .413 and moved to the top of the American League batting race. His hitting dropped off, but when Murphy returned to the lineup in July, rather than bench Nicholls, Mack moved him to shortstop in place of the aging Monte Cross.
The American League pennant race in 1907 was one of the best in history, and in early September only two games separated the top four teams. However, Cleveland and Chicago dropped back, so that prior to the opening of a three-game series between Detroit and the Athletics in Philadelphia on Friday, September 27, the A’s trailed the Tigers by just one-half game.
In the first game, the Athletics left twelve men on base and lost 5-4. Saturday’s game was rained out, and because Sunday baseball then was illegal in Pennsylvania, a doubleheader was scheduled for Monday. As it turned out, only one game was played, and it was a classic, selected by baseball historian John Thorn for inclusion in his book, Baseball’s 10 Greatest Games.
Before a crowd of about 24,000 (including about 6,000 standing in the outfield), the Athletics built up a 7-1 lead; however, the Tigers scored four runs in the seventh inning with the aid of errors by Rube Oldring and Nicholls. Then, with the A’s leading 8-6 in the ninth inning, Ty Cobb hit a dramatic two-run home run to tie the game. After Detroit scored once in the eleventh inning, Nicholls doubled in the bottom of the inning and scored to tie the game at 9-9. In the fourteenth inning, the A’s Harry Davis led off with what appeared to be a ground-rule double into the center field crowd. However, after a prolonged argument and melee on the field, and disagreement between the two umpires, Davis was ruled out due to a policeman’s interference with center fielder Sam Crawford‘s attempt to catch Davis’s long drive. Murphy’s ensuing single, which would have scored Davis with the winning run, went for naught. After 17 innings, the game was called on account of darkness, and the A’s, who were hoping to win a doubleheader and regain first place, ended the day one and a half games behind Detroit.
Apart from his fielding error, Nicholls had played a good game. He had two hits (a single and a double) in six at bats, had two sacrifice hits, scored a run, and had four putouts and nine assists.
The Athletics won five of their remaining seven games, but it was not enough. The Tigers, inspired by escaping Philadelphia without a loss, won their next five games to clinch the pennant.
While the last series with Detroit and his costly error in the second game must have dampened Nicholls’ feelings about the 1907 season, it was a successful one for both the Athletics, who had not been viewed as pennant contenders, and for Simon. He hit .302 in 126 games to finish fifth in the League behind Cobb, Crawford, George Stone, and Elmer Flick, and just ahead of the great Nap Lajoie. Simon had also been versatile in the field, playing shortstop, second base, and third base. If there had been rookie-of-the-year awards in 1907, Nicholls would have been a prime candidate for American League honors.
Mack was optimistic about his club’s chances in 1908; however, the Athletics were out of the pennant race by July. The team’s hitting fell sharply, with Nicholls’ batting average plummeting to .216. This was not so bad for a shortstop, with the American League batting only .239, but his fielding fell off as well.
While Nicholls poor 1908 season raised some question about his future role with the Athletics, it was all the more uncertain because of four young infielders that Mack was grooming for stardom. By 1911, they would be known as the “$100,000 infield:” Stuffy McInnis (1b, though originally a shortstop), Eddie Collins (2b), Frank “Home Run” Baker (3b), and Jack Barry (ss).
It is worth noting that Collins and Barry reflected Mack’s lead in recruiting players with college backgrounds. In the last game of the 1908 season, Mack’s lineup included seven college men: Eddie Plank (p, Gettysburg), Doc Powers (c, Holy Cross), Davis (1b, Girard), Collins (2b, Columbia), Nicholls (3b, Maryland Agricultural College), Barry (ss, Holy Cross), and Jack Coombs (rf, Colby).
Nicholls was designated as a utility infielder for the Athletics in 1909, but Baker suffered a spike wound in an exhibition game, and Simon played third base on opening day, April 12, in Philadelphia against the Boston Red Sox. The game marked the opening of Shibe Park, the first of the new wave of steel and concrete stadiums, which was packed with an unprecedented 35,000 fans. This historic game turned out to be one of the best of Simon’s career. In the first inning, he singled to center to register the first base hit in Shibe Park and then scored the first run. Altogether, Simon had a double, two singles, and a walk and scored four runs as the Athletics won 8-1. For the season, Nicholls played in only 21 games and hit .211. Barry, the regular shortstop, hit only .215 and fielded poorly. However, he was only 22 years old, and Mack no doubt expected him to improve with age and experience.
In December, 1909, Mack traded Nicholls to Cleveland for outfielder Wilbur Good. On the human-interest side, the Cleveland Press noted that “Si” Nicholls was a farmer (like the great Cy Young) and described him as modest and good-natured with a smile for everybody. Simon reported to Cleveland’s spring training camp in 1910, but never showed the form expected of him, due at least partly to family concerns.
In October 1908, Simon had married 18-year old Marie Conneen of Philadelphia, and in the following September, their first child, a daughter, was born. Travel between Philadelphia and the Nicholls’ family farm in Maryland was relatively easy. Cleveland was a few hundred miles west of the two focal points of their lives. After appearing in just three games for Cleveland, Nicholls was sold further west to Kansas City of the American Association in early May. He refused to report and returned home to Maryland.
The Baltimore Orioles (then in the Eastern League) got off to a poor start in 1910 due to a weak infield. Manager Jack Dunn purchased Nicholls from Kansas City, and with Simon at shortstop, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Oriole infield was 100 percent improved.
The Orioles finished in third place as Nicholls hit .255, highest among the League’s shortstops. While he was no longer in the major leagues, playing regularly for a leading minor league franchise and close to home must have made the 1910 season especially satisfying. Dunn developed a strong friendship with Simon as well as respect for his leadership on the field and named him the Orioles’ field captain for the 1911 season. In February, Simon and his family moved from the Nicholls’ family farm to a house on Cator Avenue in Baltimore.
On March 5, the Nicholls’ second child, a son, was born, but what should have been a joyous occasion was tempered by the diagnosis received the previous day that Simon had typhoid fever. His case did not appear severe; however, after a few days, complications developed in the form of pelvic peritonitis, and an operation provided the only hope for his recovery. After surgery, hemorrhaging developed, and all hope for Simon’s recovery was lost. On the morning of March 12, George Nicholls saw his dying son for the last time, the dolorous scene being recounted in the Baltimore Sun:
“About 11 o’clock Simon’s father arrived at his son’s bedside. Simon was breathing hard and was conscious.
“‘Hello, papa,’ said Simon just above a whisper, as he feebly clasped the white-haired, stately old gentleman’s right hand between both of his.
“Tears trickled down the furrowed cheeks of the father as he looked at his dying son, the pride of his heart.”
The evening edition of the Baltimore News reported on the front page that the popular Orioles’ captain died about 1:45 that afternoon. Nicholls’ wife, weak from childbirth and the tragedy, had not been able to see her dying husband, and Simon never saw his newborn son.
After funeral services were held at the Nicholls’ home, Dunn accompanied the body to Philadelphia. Simon was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, just west of Philadelphia. The inscription on the tombstone reads: “My beloved husband, Simon B. Nichols, died March 12, 1911.” Unfortunately, the more common spelling of his surname accompanied him in perpetuity.
On April 11, the day before the opening day of the American League season, the Philadelphia Athletics, now World Champions, came to Baltimore to play the Orioles on “Nicholls Day.” More than 5,000 fans turned out in tribute to the memory of the young Oriole captain, and $3,000 was raised for his widow.
Perhaps the finest tribute to Nicholls appeared the day after his death in the Baltimore News under the by-line of “Danny,” a sportswriter whose surname is unknown:
“In the game on the field he was a fighter, but of the right sort. He was always out to win, and did everything in his power to do it, but never stepped beyond the bounds of what would be considered proper by a thoroughbred gentleman.
“Though the sport on the diamond was a big thing in the life of Simon Nicholls, he was a home man, not the make-believe sort, and that, after all, topped everything else.
“Nic thought well enough of Baltimore to become a citizen. He belonged to us, and we should feel it a duty to see that the widow and youngsters will realize to the end of their days that his death was not the earthly end of just a ball player, but a man respected and honored by everyone who had the pleasure to know him as a friend either off or on the field.”
Gibson, Campbell. 1989. “Simon Nicholls: Gentleman, Farmer, Ballplayer,” The Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 18, pp. 67-69. This article has been revised slightly for the SABR BioProject.
Maryland Agricultural College. 1900-1903. Reveille. Annual college yearbook.
College Park, MD.
Richter, Francis C. 1907-1911. The Reach Official American League Baseball Guide. Philadelphia, PA: A. J. Reach Company.
Thorn, John. 1981. Baseball’s 10 Greatest Games. Pp. 7-23. New York, NY: Four Winds Press.
Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, et al. 2001. Total Baseball. 7th edition. Kingston, NY: Total Sports Publishing.
Newspapers. These are identified by city or town or county, name of newspaper, and years of issues used.
Baltimore, MD: American, 1911; News, 1910-1911, Sun, 1904, 1910-1911.
Cleveland, OH: Plain Dealer, 1909; Press, 1909.
Detroit, MI: Free Press, 1903.
Memphis, TN: Commercial Appeal, 1905-1906.
Montgomery County, MD: Sentinel (weekly), 1911.
Philadelphia, PA: Bulletin, 1911; Inquirer, 1906-1909, 1911; North American, 1907, 1909, 1911; Sporting Life (weekly), 1907-1911.
Ridgely, MD: The Caroline Sun (weekly), 1904.
Piedmont, WV: Herald (weekly), 1905.
Washington, DC: Post, 1903, 1911; Star, 1903-1904, 1911; Times, 1903.