The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Pitcher and Broadcaster

16 July 2012

Nellie's Record Broken by Verlander

Nellie gets a mention in this article about the hapless hitting abilities of Justin Verlander. Somewhere up in heaven, Nellie must be happy to know someone broke this particular record!

29 March 2012

"The Lost Boys of Summer"

Here is an eloquent and moving essay about the "lost boys of summer" by the SF Weekly's Matt Coker. He interviewed Doug Gladstone, author of the 2010 book,  A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How the MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve, about the many MLB players who did not receive pension benefits. Nellie was one of them, and he was happy and honored to get to know Doug in the last year of his life. 

03 October 2011

Nellie on "Giving Back"

Nellie was always a firm believer in social justice and compassion. The Nellie King Fund, recently established by his daughters, will carry forth his efforts and writings on behalf of those who are struggling in our community.

Here's an indication of Nellie's views on social justice, taken from the introduction to his best-selling book, Happiness is Like a Cur Dog:

People who did not experience the Great Depression have no idea how difficult it was. There were no safety nets, no unemployment compensation, no medical or retirement benefits, and no social security. All you had was your job. My dad had always had steady work at the mine (when “steady” meant only two or three days a week). He was able to do something that so many others could not manage: put food on the table for his family. 
I remember men coming to our back door, asking if they could sweep the porches, rake leaves, or anything. They weren't looking for money to pay off credit cards. Struggling to survive from meal to meal, they only wanted a sandwich! 
Those who berate government assistance programs never experienced those terribly difficult years of want, fear, and humiliation. The benefits we now enjoy are taken for granted, as if they were always part of our lives. To use a baseball metaphor, too many people in this country have been born on third base, yet think they’ve hit triples! As a nation and people, we have become increasingly more arrogant and less tolerant of the less fortunate.

Image: Coal breaker-boys, anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania, 1930s. 

21 September 2011

From Battalion to Bull Pen: Nellie's Army Interlude

Nellie's baseball career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army during the first month of the Korean War. He began basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in the autumn of 1950. Thanks to a skill he picked up at the Milton S. Hershey Industrial School for Orphaned Boys, he managed to stay far out of the line of fire.

Here is an excerpt from a chapter of his book entitled "Army Interlude":

I was twenty-two years old, pitching for the Charleston (SC) Rebels, in the Class “A” Sally League, and ripe for the military draft when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. Within a month my draft board in Lebanon, PA informed me I had to report for my physical exam. Unable to travel home during the season, it was arranged for me to take my physical at Columbia, SC. The baseball season ended on Labor Day and on September 28, 1950, I was inducted into the Army at Fort Dix, NJ. It was to be another of those defining moments in my life.

After thirteen weeks of infantry basic training I learned to fire every small arms weapon used by a rifleman. I also did a lot of close order marching drills and learned why we did them one day during standing inspection as an orderly for the 60th Infantry Regimental Commander. The Lt. Colonel came up into my face and asked, “Soldier, why do we do close-order marching drills?” Drawing on my baseball team play experience, I replied, “Sir, we do it so we can learn to work together as a unit.” He loudly responded, “No soldier, you do it to learn to take orders. When we tell you to turn left, goddamnit, you turn left. When we tell you to turn right, goddamnit, you turn right. You don’t ask questions—you take orders in the Army!”

After basic training I entered a leadership training program to prepare me to be an infantry rifle squad leader, a position not known for longevity. As a cadre, I was pushing troops and also served on the Browning Automatic Rifle Committee, headed by Lt. Constantine Thomas, a veteran of WWII who was wounded in the early months of the Korean War.

One of my talents, of which the Army was not yet aware, was typing. After a day of training, Lt. Thomas remarked he needed a lesson plan typed and was concerned that nobody at Battalion Headquarters would be available to do the job. I innocently informed him I could type and he immediately took me to Battalion HQ and sat me down behind a Royal typewriter. I began to type the lesson plan, when I suddenly sensed someone was standing behind me. It was Major Jackson, the Battalion Commander. He said, “Soldier, you look like a pretty damn good typist.” I replied, “Yes, sir, I can type about 70 words per minute.” He uttered the words that changed my Army career, “We need a clerk typist at Battalion Headquarters.”

Thus ended my days as an infantryman. I spent the remainder of my two years behind a typewriter, not an M-1 rifle. No KP, no guard duty, no bivouac! I highly recommend learning typing. It’s the most under-rated job in the Army.

During those two years I was able to play baseball on the 60th Infantry Regiment baseball team. Also on the team were then unknown minor league players Frank Torre, Don McMahon, and Arnold Portacarrero. There were only two players, both young pitchers, who had played in the major leagues—Erv Palica, of the Brooklyn Dodgers pitched for the 60th Infantry, and Harvey Haddix of the St. Louis Cardinals was on the 39th Infantry team. The commanding officers of both regiments were baseball fans, which heightened the rivalry of the games.

I was to be discharged from the Army on September 28, 1952. A few weeks before that date, I received a letter from Branch Rickey, the General Manager for the Pirates. Always ahead of the curve in scouting talent, Mr. Rickey wanted to take a look at the young players from the Pirates farm system that were about to be discharged from the service. He asked if I could make it to Ebbets Field when the Pirates would be playing the Dodgers. Could I? Hell, I'd walk all the way to Brooklyn if I had to!

With two other players on the 60th Regiment team, we drove to Ebbets Field early enough to await the arrival of the Pirates’ team bus. When it arrived I introduced myself to Bob Rice, the Pirates’ traveling secretary, and showed him Mr. Rickey's letter. He was unaware of the workout and took me to the clubhouse to meet manager Billy Meyer. Surprisingly, Billy Meyer didn't know anything about the workout either, but told “Doc” Jorgensen, the team trainer, to get me a uniform. I put on a major league uniform and stepped onto a major league field for the first time that day in September 1952 at Ebbets Field.

14 July 2011

On the Golf Links

Between his days on the Pirates pitcher's mound and his years in the KDKA broadcast booth alongside Bob Prince, Nellie enjoyed a transitional period as a golf announcer that allowed him to watch the meteoric rise of fellow Western Pennsylvanian, "Arnie" Palmer. The last job Nellie held was that of golf coach for Duquesne University, a position he finally had to give up as his health failed in the early 2000s.

During the hazy, crazy, lazy days of summers in the early 1960s, Nellie witnessed, and reported on, a golden era of golf. Here is an excerpt from Happiness is Like a Cur Dog:

Arnie Palmer, a hometown boy from Latrobe, was about to become the biggest name in the game of golf in 1960. He captured his first major golf championship in 1958, winning the Masters. In 1960 he won his second Masters and the U.S. Open, coming seven strokes from behind in the final round. His aggressive style of play made him the nationwide favorite of public links golfers, who formed what became “Arnie’s Army.” Palmer’s success in the 1960s made professional golf an attractive TV sporting event. The game was on the verge of reaching the immense popularity it now enjoys.
National telecasts of golf in 1960 covered only the final two days of major tournaments, and usually only the final four or five holes of play.
With two 1960 major wins at the Masters and U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship slated at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, it struck me that this was a natural marketing event for the Latrobe radio station where I was working. So I put together a package of eight, 15-minute reports daily, from 12:45 to 7:45 PM, on Palmer’s play. I was successful in selling it to Joe Wentling, an avid golfer and successful local businessman, who owned the Wendon Oil Company. Joe was among the original members of the exclusive Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, PA.
The idea of providing listeners with hourly coverage of Palmer’s play for four days in three major golf tournaments was so successful that I continued it until I joined the Pirates’ broadcast team in 1967. I wasn’t aware at the time that I had applied the most important aspect of marketing by doing the golf reports on Palmer’s play until listening to Tom Snyder’s CBS-TV talk show years later. His guests were Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. Snyder inquired, “Here I am talking to two of the most successful businessmen in the nation, one of you sells chicken, the other sell hamburgers, neither are innovative or creative items.” He then asked, “What’s the secret?” Ray Kroc replied, “Find out what the people want, and give it to them.”
Joining a group of local professionals and businessmen, I covered my first Masters Golf Tournament in 1961. The group from Latrobe included Gabe Monzo, a good friend of Arnie’s who owned the Mission Inn; Moe Loughner, a salesman for Latrobe Brewing (Rolling Rock Beer); Americo Shifra, a local tavern owner; Don McMahon and Jerry Cooper, real estate developers; and attorneys Al Nichols and Pete Lampropolus.
We rented a home in Augusta for the entire week for $400, making the per-person cost for eight of us just $50! Today you can’t find a house or room in Augusta during Masters week. Gabe Monzo’s culinary skills were on display nightly with home cooked meals, and the dining room table was crowded with bottles of every drink imaginable. It made for a treasured week of golf, conversation, camaraderie, and memories that have lasted a lifetime.
Although these men were not covering the Masters for the media, their acquisition of press credentials gave them all the benefits: entrance to the tournament, press area, clubhouse, locker room, and dining facilities. We had a wonderful opportunity to play the Augusta National course the day after the tournament. We simply had to enter our names on the sheet in the Press Room for tee times starting at 7:00 AM. The only stipulation was to be off the course by noon, as former President Eisenhower, Masters week guest of Cliff Roberts, was to play the course. Don McMahon, Jerry Cooper, and Al Nichols, who had acquired press badges, joined me in a foursome to play this historic course.
Seeing Augusta National has been described as a religious experience, and I would agree. The ride up Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse is appealing, but doesn’t compare to the overall beauty and lush greenness of the course, which is breathtaking. The first time I played the course was in 1962, when Arnie Palmer captured his third Masters Championship....

09 June 2011

Thanks to Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

No royal treatment for King's family

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In this, the first full summer without being able to talk about life and baseball with her father, Amy King still moves confidently in that somehow hollowed out world.

It's a hurting place, an empty place, sometimes, but he has been gone since August and now again she thrives, more because of him than in spite of him.

"He was such a survivor," Nellie King's youngest daughter said over coffee Wednesday. "He always said, 'Make the best of whatever life gives you,' and he was the master of that. I know it's my destiny now to be the caretaker to my mother, but I just think, 'What would he do?' -- and that would be to say, 'OK, let's go, here's what has to be done.'

"It's been transformative."

For a time, Nellie King survived pneumonia, colon cancer and Parkinson's disease, all of which I guess wasn't terribly surprising from a guy who had survived traveling with the late Bob Prince.

But the timing of Nellie's Aug. 11, 2010, death was little short of a pity. It came eight months and 10 days before baseball commissioner Bud Selig stepped to a microphone in New York and announced a decades-overdue player benefit that substantially would have lightened the financial burden of those sickened final years for King, his seriously ill widow, and the three grown daughters whose hearts ached as they watched.

"Sometimes in life, it's just the right thing to do," Selig said that day in April. "I believe baseball is a social institution, and with that comes social responsibilities."

I believe he believes that, but baseball took forever to act on that belief, at least when it comes to players of King's era, players who never drew a pension even as the game's profit margins and salaries grew to obscene levels.

"It's better than nothing, but, in my estimation, it's a partial victory," said Doug Gladstone, whose book, "A Bitter Cup of Coffee" doubtless helped bring about the April announcement. "They announced with great fanfare that all these men who still are not vested, we're going to cut you checks for up to $10,000 for two years contingent upon your service. It's better than nothing, but it's not a real pension. It doesn't provide health-insurance coverage, nor will any player's spouse or loved one receive a designated benefit after the player passes.

"You can call it a guilt payment or reparations or what have you. But the foot-dragging for 31 years -- you didn't do anything about this? It's like telling the Nellie King family, look, he died at an inconvenient time for us. He should have stayed alive for this."

Gladstone there refers to 1980, when Major League Baseball was trying to steer away from a looming strike that would close the game for two months the following summer anyway. Baseball offered to lower the vesting requirement to 43 days for pensions and one game for health benefits. Prior to that, players were vested only after four years of service. King played parts of four seasons for the Pirates, but did not qualify. Some 900 players were in the same abandoned boat. The union happily accepted the new pension requirement when the 1981 strike ended, but no one on either side, not before or since (until April), had the courage or the political skill to make the benefits retroactive.

"Here's Major League Baseball, with all these guys making all these big salaries -- you know they could have paid it," Amy said without anger. "That's a leadership issue. More practically, it's a health-care issue. Most of those guys had families."

Players in King's situation brought suit against baseball in 2004 and lost, and Selig was quick to point out in this go-around that baseball was under no legal obligation to pay these guys anything.

It's puzzling because baseball has for some time now made good faith attempts to be magnanimous with former players, even to the extent of providing benefits for veterans of the Negro Leagues, none of whom Major League Baseball even employed.

Modern players don't have to worry. They're vested just about as soon as they show up.

"My position is, in all my travels, I get the sense that the union didn't tell contemporary players about these guys. Either [former MLPA chief Donald] Fehr and [Marvin] Miller [Fehr's predecessor] didn't tell them, or they told them and they don't care. Players like Nellie King helped grow the game. They allowed these salaries to occur."

The mid-'50s Pirates teams for whom King pitched would seem almost like an historical abstraction for someone like Amy King, except that her father was always so much a part of the Pirates family.

"He was so proud of that," she said, "even knowing all this stuff. He was one of the most cherished members of the Pirates Alumni. I mean, they fired the man [along with Prince from the broadcast crew in 1975], but he always loved them. You can't beat the loyalty out of some people."

Uh-huh. And, when you talk with Amy King, you realize you can't beat the dignity out of some, either.

08 May 2011

Jim Qualls, Chicago Cubs Outfielder and Tenant Farmer

A moving article by George Vescey in today's New York Times tells the story of former Chicago Cubs outfielder and pinch-hitting specialist Jim Qualls, who, like Nellie King, didn't qualify for a pension because he played in the big leagues for less than four years. Qualls is now a tenant farmer; his story was featured in Douglas Gladstone's powerful book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee. In today's New York Times article, Vescey interviewed Qualls:

“I didn’t qualify for a pension and I never expected one,” Qualls said the other day while waiting for the rain to subside so he could plant soybeans near the Mississippi River.

Qualls, who played in 63 games in bits of three seasons, is among approximately 850 former major leaguers whose lives have improved slightly in the past month because of a financial agreement for those who fell through baseball’s safety net. Some older players are emphatically not happy with the terms.

The issue is what contemporary athletes owe players who came before them. Some modern players acknowledge their predecessors’ low salaries and poor medical treatment. Others are busy building mansions and accumulating expensive cars and do not remember Jackie Robinson, much less Jim Qualls.

24 April 2011

Douglas Gladstone: MLB-Union Agreement only a "Partial Victory"; Pirate Legend Nellie King's Family to be Stiffed



In the wake of the recent joint announcement by both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) that inactive, non-vested men who played between 1947 and 1979 will receive up to $10,000 per year, depending on their length of service credit, as compensation for their contributions to the national pastime, Douglas J. Gladstone, the author of the controversial A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve, called the agreement "only a partial victory."

"We don't live in a perfect world, and this is far from a perfect solution to this problem. What was announced doesn't provide health insurance coverage, nor will any player's spouse or loved one receive a designated beneficiary payment after the man passes. So in my estimation, this is only a partial victory.

"I am, however, elated that these men are at long last finally going to receive some type of payment for their time in the game," continued Gladstone. "This was a wrong that should have been righted years ago."

Featuring a foreword written by the Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, Dave Marash, A Bitter Cup of Coffeetells the true story about a group of former big-league ballplayers denied pensions as a result of the failure of both the league and the union to retroactively amend the vesting requirement change that granted instant pension eligibility to ballplayers in 1980. As you may know, prior to that year, ballplayers had to have four years service credit to earn an annuity and medical benefits. Since 1980, however, all you have needed is one day of service credit for health insurance and 43 days of service credit for a pension.

Here's, in part, what the Midwest Book Review had to say about the book in its official review, which was published last May:

A wealth of interviews with former players, including heart-touching stories of the hard times some of them have endured, peppers this thoughtful and timely account, which gains especial relevance in light of the current debate about the state of health care in America.

 "I've said on numerous occasions that this whole disgraceful chapter in labor relations was a terrible inequity and injustice that stains baseball's history," said Gladstone.  "The announcement made on Thursday, April 21, 2011 is a step in the right direction, but I'd be interested in knowing what, if anything, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the head of the players union, Mr. Michael Weiner, plan to offer the families of Jay D. Schlueter, Bill Jennings, Nellie King and Jay Van Noy, each of whom died after my book was published. Regrettably, it appears they won't be receiving a plug nickel. And that is truly unfortunate."

Last August, the legendary Pittsburgh Pirate broadcaster Nellie King died at the age of 82. Most people weren't aware that Nellie was a pitcher before he started his second career in the radio and television booth. He had Parkinson's and was residing in Friendship Village, a retirement home in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania while his wife of 58 years, Bernadette, was confined to the Devonshire of Mount Lebanon Assisted Living Center, in Pittsburgh. His profile is featured in the concluding chapter of A Bitter Cup of Coffee.

The book was published on April 14, 2010. Once again, thank you, in advance, for your attention to this email.  If you'd like to speak with Mr. Gladstone directly, feel free to contact him at 1-518-817-8253. The executrix of Mr. King's estate, his daughter, Amy, is available to be interviewed as well. 

16 April 2011

New Details Emerge about Branch Rickey's Historic Signing of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers

Over at Bleacher Report, Tom Kinslow reveals a fascinating new spiritual dimension of Branch Rickey's decision to sign Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking the MLB color barrier.

Branch Rickey was  a devoutly religious man given to sermonizing and speaking to the players in parables. One such parable, which he told Pirates players at the start of spring training in 1955, is the source of the title of Nellie's book:

"Mr. Rickey likened happiness to a 'cur-dog.' There was a worker who was busy painting a garage. Just as he was beginning to paint he noticed a cur dog [a "mutt"] nearby. Fascinated by the dog, he reached down and tried to pet the animal. As soon as he did, the dog ran away. So the painter returned to his job and soon the dog returned. The dog nudged his leg; unaware of the dog, the man kept painting and whistling. Suddenly he felt the dog reaching up and pawing at his thigh. 
Mr. Rickey would go on to explain, 'That's what happiness is. You can't go out looking and searching for it, if you do, it will escape from you and run away like that cur-dog. But if you go about your work, enjoying it, happiness will be there right beside you'."
Today,  Jamie Crawford of CNN.com relates that Rickey came to the decision to sign Robinson after going to a church to do a little soul searching:

This is the era that Nellie writes about so warmly in Happiness is like a Cur Dog. It's a great summer read for baseball fans and history buffs of all ages, and a wonderful introduction to the golden age of baseball for young fans. Consider purchasing it today!

28 February 2011

R.I.P. Duke Snider, 1926-2011

The sad news arrived last night of the passing of Edwin Donald "DukeSnider, "The Duke of Flatbush."  Snider was the very first batter Nellie faced in the major leagues--and he struck him out! In Happiness is like a Cur Dog, Nellie recalls his debut on the Ebbets Field pitcher's mound, and the thrill and terror of pitching to Duke Snider.  

Being in the bullpen for the Pirates in 1954 at Ebbets Field was similar to having a rifleman’s MOS in the infantry. You knew you were going to get into the battle, but you weren’t sure when. The fans at field level were so close they could reach out and touch you. The wonderful intimacy was great for the Dodgers and their fans, but hell for the visiting team players, since the bullpen was located in foul territory down the left field line.

The Dodgers’ roster that opening day in 1954 was loaded with established veteran players. Junior Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, and Billy Cox. They didn’t waste any time unloading on Pirates’ veteran starter Max Surkont. They got to him for eight hits in four innings, including home runs by Gilliam, Robinson, and Campanella for a 7-1 lead. 

The bullpen phone rang in the fifth inning and Cal Hogue, a rookie right-hander with an outstanding curve ball, got the call. Cal pitched well, allowing only one hit in three innings before leaving for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth. When the Pirates played in Ebbets Field, the eighth inning was usually the Dodgers last inning at bat. This game was to be no exception.

In the top of the eighth inning, Sam Narron, the Pirates’ bullpen coach, answered the bullpen phone and in what sounded like an executioner’s voice, said, “King, it’s you.” With my major league debut moments away, I took off my jacket and began to experience intense anxiety.  I said a silent prayer, “Please God, get me out of here without too much embarrassment.” Additional thoughts began going through my mind– “You can't hide a bad performance in New York, there are so many media covering the game; I have to face at least one hitter before they can take me out…” 

I had been praying for this moment for a long time. As I looked at Duke Snider, I remembered the old adage, “Be careful what you pray for, you might just receive it.” Here I was, a right-handed, low-ball pitcher facing one of the best left-handed, low-ball, power hitters in the majors—and in a ballpark with a short porch in right field.

Atwell signaled for a sinker on my first pitch. Somehow I got it near home plate on the outside corner and Snider fouled it for a strike. I was now able to breathe, but I still couldn’t spit. I threw a curve inside for ball one, and then got a curve ball where I wanted it, low and inside off the plate, and Snider fouled it off for strike two. 

Atwell signaled for another sinker. As I made the pitch it was like I was seeing it in slow motion—I threw the ball, followed through and for some reason Snider, with two strikes on him, tried to drag a bunt and fouled off the pitch. I suddenly thought, “Damn, he struck out!” If you saw the emotion Johnny Podres displayed in the final game of the 1955 World Series at Ebbets field, you have some idea of how I felt inside. Now I could spit! I got through the inning giving up only one hit and no runs.

The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster