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

16 December 2010

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Features the Nellie King Fund

The first newspaper article about the Nellie King Fund appeared in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Nellie's family and friends thank Mr. Bill Zlatos, the author of the article. Here is an excerpt:

There may not be a bronze statue of late Pirates pitcher and broadcaster Nellie King outside PNC Park, but his family and friends are creating a memorial of their own....
Nellie King grew up in Shenandoah, Penna. during the Great Depression. His father, a coal miner, died when King was 6, and two years later he was shuttled off to the Milton Hershey Industrial School. After graduating from the orphanage's high school in 1945, he began a series of tryouts until he landed a job with the Pirates.
His daughters said the scholarship fund will serve King's twin interests of sports and journalism. There may also be a link to the Hershey School and Duquesne University.
Michael Murray, King's nephew and former president of the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, said King served on the chapter's board and helped raise money for it.
"He was always looking out for the underdog," said Murray.
Family and friends have raised $6,000 to date, but they need $19,000 more to start granting scholarships. Laurie King hopes the family will award the first scholarship in the fall of 2011.
"We think there's enough people who truly like and love this guy that they'll support his philosophy via a program such as this that will help children who are in need get an education," Murray said.

09 December 2010

A Warm Tribute to Nellie from his "Brothers" at Milton S. Hershey School

Here is a recent feature about Nellie's passing and his daughters' efforts to establish a charitable fund in his memory from Thy Traditions Dear, the alumni publication of the Milton S. Hershey School.

And here is the Milton S. Hershey School Pledge, which Nellie lived by:

(Click on the images to enlarge them.)

19 November 2010

A Wonderful Holiday Gift for Baseball Fans

Nellie loved the holiday season. Thanksgiving was probably his favorite; he always savored a good turkey dinner with all the trimmings! On Christmas mornings he would make pancakes with fresh sliced apples and cinnamon for his daughters, even long after they stopped believing in Santa Claus.

One of Nellie's most treasured memories of childhood was seeing a train set under the Christmas tree when he was four years old. He said that was the greatest thing Santa ever brought his family.

Sadly, Nellie will not be with us this holiday season. But his words, wisdom, memories, and laughter live on in his book. If you are still looking for that special gift for all the baseball fans on your shopping list, consider purchasing a copy of Happiness is Like a Cur Dog. Proceeds will go to support the newly established Nellie King Fund to create scholarships for underprivileged children, student-athletes, and sports journalism majors. Our mission is to create a lasting legacy in Nellie King's honor.

Here is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of Nellie's best-selling memoir:

This is the story of the wonderful journey that took me from the Milton S. Hershey Industrial School for Boys to the minor leagues, and then to a major league career as a relief pitcher for the Pirates. As such, it is a story about finding happiness, or rather, letting happiness find me.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow has a term for those moments in life when your senses are completely open to everything that is going on around you. He calls them “peak experiences.” Your mind is completely at ease and immersed in the “now,” while your senses are soaking up everything in vivid detail. How wonderful it is—and how rare—in a life in which our enthusiasm and energy is all too often sapped by our day-to-day obligations, worries about the future, and fears rooted in past experiences. When love and satisfaction with one’s work come together, peak experiences can happen.
I enjoyed my first peak experience in the summer of 1948. I was pitching for the New Iberia, Louisiana Pelicans in the Class “D” Evangeline League, and enjoying a truly successful season, winning 20 games and pitching 284 innings. I woke up early one morning after another winning game with a feeling of peace and serenity that was new to me. The mugginess of the bayou had not yet engulfed the day. A cooling breeze was lightly stirring the white lace curtains of the window near my bed, wafting in the sweet smells of the flowers opening outside. The pleasing songs of birds only accentuated the quiet.
I lay there for several minutes, completely enthralled with the sensation of profound contentment. “This is how life should be lived,” I thought. But the more I tried to hold on to the experience, the faster it ebbed away, until it finally evaporated. Yet, it was such a wonderful moment that I can relive it in my mind to this day. I've enjoyed other peak experiences in baseball, when moments are simply allowed to just happen and unfold. As a pitcher, I was deeply involved in “the now,” with no anxiety.
In my years of association with Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball from 1948 to 1975, I’ve seen the organization go through the whole gamut of human emotions. Pittsburgh is no stranger to hardship, and the Pirates have known their years “in the cellar.” Like the city itself, the team emerged from the darkness and soot of the 1950s to enjoy two shining decades that Bob Prince called “the halcyon days” of Pirates baseball.
Surely, it was a peak experience for the entire western Pennsylvania region to be a part of Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic home run at Forbes Field, clinching the 1960 World Series. Pittsburghers also enjoyed the honor of witnessing the excellence of legendary players like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. How lucky I was to have played and broadcast during these halcyon days of Pirates’ baseball!
In this book I attempt to capture an era in baseball that is rapidly fading. During my brief major league career I played against such Hall of Fame greats as Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, Ken Boyer, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, and many others. As a broadcaster I was privileged to view and describe the excellence of Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Lou Brock, and many more.
Committing these memories to paper has been personally satisfying. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I did living them.

13 October 2010

Announcing The Nellie King Foundation

The family of Nellie King is very proud to announce our partnership with The Pittsburgh Foundation in creating The Nellie King Fund to support non-profit charities in our father's honor and continue his legacy of serving those less fortunate in our community.  

Once the endowment reaches the $25,000 threshold, we will transition the Fund to our ultimate goal of creating a Scholarship Fund to aid and support underprivileged children, student-athletes, and sports journalism majors, amongst other charitable efforts.

Our mission is to create a lasting legacy in Nellie King's honor.

We appreciate your kindness, friendship and support, and invite you to help us honor Nellie's life and legacy by giving generously.


Contributors can donate online at The Pittsburgh Foundation's website, earmarking their gift to "The Nellie King Fund."  

Or donors may send checks* payable to "The Pittsburgh Foundation" to:

The Pittsburgh Foundation
5 PPG Place, Suite 250
Pittsburgh, PA 15222-5414
ATTN: The Nellie King Fund

*earmark your gift to "The Nellie King Fund" in the notes line of your check.


BUY Nellie King's book online and learn about his amazing life. All proceeds will be donated to The Nellie King Fund.

30 September 2010

Remembering Roberto Clemente's 3,000th (and Final) Hit

Amy King writes:

When Nellie asked Roberto Clemente in a June 28, 1970 interview "How many years do you want to play baseball in the major leagues?", Roberto prophetically replied, "I’m a very funny person because I think that I would like to play as long as I can help the ball club. Sometime, like last year, I played with a very bad left shoulder and it was very tough for me. I don’t want to play like that because I hurt myself, I hurt the fans and I hurt the Pittsburgh organization. 

"I would like to play until I get to 3,000 hits. I think that is something not too may fellows accomplished in the past and not too many are going to accomplish in the future either. So I would like to play until I get 3,000 hits."

38 years ago today on September 30th, 1972 Nellie King was set to announce the 4th inning when he graciously handed over the microphone to long time partner Bob Prince so he could go down in history calling Roberto's 3,000th hit... which ended up being his last.

Now that's class, sports fans...

16 August 2010

Nelson Joseph "Nellie" King ~ 15 March 1928 - 11 August 2010

Nellie was called to the Field of Dreams in Heaven at 1:55 a.m., Wednesday, 11 August 2010. His loving daughters were by his side as he slipped out of this world.

Here is a poem that the family shared with friends, colleagues, former teammates, and all who knew and loved Nellie, in person, or on the air. He will be sorely missed.

Game Called

by Grantland Rice

Game Called. Across the field of play

the dusk has come, the hour is late.

The fight is done and lost or won,

the player files out through the gate.

The tumult dies, the cheer is hushed,

the stands are bare, the park is still.

But through the night there shines the light,

home beyond the silent hill.

Game Called. Where in the golden light

the bugle rolled the reveille.

The shadows creep where night falls deep,

and taps has called the end of play.

The game is done, the score is in,

the final cheer and jeer have passed.

But in the night, beyond the fight,

the player finds his rest at last.
Game Called. Upon the field of life

the darkness gathers far and wide,

the dream is done, the score is spun

that stands forever in the guide.

Nor victory, nor yet defeat

is chalked against the players name.

But down the roll, the final scroll,

shows only how he played the game.

08 July 2010

The Art of Deception and a Perfect Day in 1956

The 1956 season was the most enjoyable season of my major league career. I was part of the Pirates’ team that moved into first place in the National League on June 12, 1956 after a game against the Reds that was particularly memorable for me. With the Pirates leading 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning with one out and runners at first and second, Bobby Bragan brought me in to relieve Elroy Face. The first batter I faced was Johnny Temple, a player I knew from  Columbia, SC when I was pitching for the Charleston Rebels in 1950. I jammed Temple on the first pitch with a sinking fastball which he hit on a two-hopper to third base for what looked like a certain double play, but Bill Mazeroski was not yet on the Pirates’ roster and we failed to turn the game ending double play.
With two out and runners at first and third, I had to face Frank Robinson, who, in his rookie season, was quickly building credibility for a Hall of Fame career. Catcher Hank Foiles came out to the mound to discuss the situation, telling me confidently, “We’ll start him off low and away.” To which I replied, “Hell, Hank, if I could start everyone off low and away, I wouldn’t be coming in now, I’d be starting!” We both laughed and agreed I would try to get ahead using my best pitch, a sinker that he fouled off. The next pitch was a curve ball that Robinson swung on and missed.
Now out in front 0-2, Foiles wanted another curve ball, which I threw just off the outside corner for show and it was taken for a ball. Foiles signaled for another curve ball, which I shook off. During an eight year career in the minors I had mastered the art of deception Branch Rickey had said was so necessary for a pitcher’s success. I learned how to move the ball in and out on batters and wanted to throw a fastball on the outside corner. My reasoning was that Robinson had seen three pitches, a fastball inside and two curve balls away. 
I wanted to throw a pitch on the outside corner with a fastball and have the pitch move back over the plate for a strike. I placed it as perfectly as I had ever done. I knew I had fooled Robinson, who was looking for another curve ball. Pitchers can see the look on the face of hitters when they are fooled; their eyes suddenly open wide and know they have to make a quick decision. That happened to Robinson, who swung late and struck-out.
I felt the pride and joy artists feel when they complete a painting as planned. To make it more rewarding, the Pirates moved into first place for the first time in many years. It was a new and exciting feeling for a group of young players. This was the beginning of the success the Pirates would feel in coming years, culminating in the 1960 World Series. Even though the 1956 success didn’t last through the second half of the season (we finished seventh), it was the first sign that our team could compete and win at this level of baseball. I was not a member of the Pirates’ team that won the 1960 World Series, but I shared the joy and satisfaction of that unforgettable season.....

20 May 2010

Bench Jockeys and Rabbit Ears

Some memories from Nellie's time in the farm teams in the 1950s.

Being tall and thin (6’6”, 180 lbs.) always made me a target for the usual comments — “Don’t drink any cherry soda, you’ll look like a thermometer by the fourth inning!” The most original remark I heard in my eleven seasons of baseball occurred in Macon, Georgia, in 1950. Half a century later, I still can still hear the comment and see the hitter who uttered the remark. 
The hitter's name was Phelps, a left-handed hitting outfielder. I went the distance for the win, making up for my less-than-overpowering velocity with control and a good moving sinker. Phelps went 0-4 in the game, and following each out, his frustration and anger grew. In the first at-bat, he grounded out to second base on an outside sinker. From the dugout, I heard him holler, “Is that as hard as you can throw skinny?” The next time up, he popped up to first base. From the dugout, I heard: “How the hell did you ever get into this league throwing that crap?" This line of attack continued after he flied to right field in his third time at bat. 
On his final at bat in the ninth, he grounded to first base, and as I covered the bag for the out, I expected to hear his comment up- close. But surprisingly, he quietly returned to the dugout. I thought, "well, okay; he’s done for the day," and was looking in to get the sign from my catcher when I heard Phelps bark out, “You tall skinny sonofabitch! What the hell do you do in the off season — clean the insides of rainspouts?” I laughed like hell, as it was the first and only original comment I’d heard from a “bench jockey.”
In baseball, most of the verbal abuse coming from dugouts or coaches, other than that directed at umpires, is directed at the pitchers. The reason is simple: Pitchers control the flow of the game. If you can break their concentration, you can affect their performance. The baseball term for these vocal pests is “bench jockeys.” To be effective, they need an audience, and pitchers who respond to their taunts become known as “rabbit ears,” since they hear everything.
During my 11-year professional career, I found ample support for my belief that bench jockeys’ vocabularies were equal to their batting averages. After all, why else would they be sitting on the bench, rather than playing? A pitcher’s ability to tune out bench jockeys is always related to the number of years he's spent in the game.  When I was 17 and pitching in my first year of semi-pro ball, I listened to one third-base coach ride me constantly. I had rabbit ears, and he knew it. Late in the game, with a runner at third, he suddenly went quiet and then gently asked me, “Hey kid, let me see the ball.” I was about to throw it to him when a veteran teammate loudly informed me that that wouldn't be a wise thing to do....
(Photo: Nellie enjoying the Gulf of Mexico on his last trip to Florida in March 2005) 

15 March 2010

Douglas J. Gladstone tells the story of pensions denied to former MLB players

A new book by journalist Douglas J. Gladstone, A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How the MLB and Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve, tells the story of hundreds of former big-league baseball players who were 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. 

Prior to that year, ballplayers had to have four years service credit to earn an annuity and medical benefits. Since 1980, however, all they have needed is one day of service credit for health insurance and 43 days of service credit for a pension.

Gladstone began working on this book after interviewing former players about the golden age of baseball. In the course of an interview with Jimmy Qualls, he stumbled upon the story of 847 players who were not included in the pension and benefits plan for former major leaguers. He recalls the moment that this book was conceived:
Admittedly, I never really paid much attention to the business side of baseball. These days, of course, it’s pretty hard to ignore that aspect of the sport. So, last June, when I was interviewing the former Chicago Cub, Jimmy Qualls, for a Baseball Digest story that was ultimately published in September 2009, and he casually mentioned that he wasn’t receiving a pension, being the inquisitive type, I asked him why. When he explained the reasons why he wasn’t, I knew I had the makings of a story that had to be told.
Nellie, who turns 82 today, is among the 847 players who don't receive pensions for their service on the baseball diamond. Gladstone interviewed him last year, and his story is featured in the final chapter of A Bitter Cup of Coffee. 

03 March 2010

Bob Prince, “The Gunner”

No history of Pirates baseball could be written without lauding Bob Prince, “the Voice of the Pirates,” or, as he was also known, “the Gunner.” No one dominated Pirates baseball more than this larger-than-life Pittsburgh media personality. The son of a career U.S. Army officer, Bob was widely traveled and worldly wise even in his teen years. He studied law, attending Harvard, Oklahoma, and Stanford with limited success, confessing he loved the social scene much more than books. Jack Henry, a Pittsburgh raconteur, described Prince’s college resume best: “Bob Prince’s diploma has more fingerprints on it than Elizabeth Taylor’s ass!” 

Everyone will agree that his talents would have been wasted in a courtroom. He was made for radio and baseball. I was fortunate to spend nine years working beside him. Our relationship, like the roller coaster ride at Kennywood Park, was all ups and downs, but never dull.

Prince gave the word “personality” a distinctiveness rarely seen in those days. He wore wild, flashy sports coats and a demeanor to match. You always knew when Bob was in the room. During his broadcasts you had no problem figuring out whether the Pirates were winning or losing. You either loved him or hated him, but you listened. Prince was well aware of the mixed audience response. Once, as he was leaving the press room to begin a broadcast, he shouted out for all to hear, “Gotta go to the radio booth. Twenty thousand listeners are getting ready to turn me off.”

Bob started his Pirates broadcasting career in 1948 under the tutelage of Rosey Rosewell, who began doing Pirate broadcasts in 1936. In those early days, baseball radio broadcasts were not done live since the owners feared fan attendance (and revenues) would drop. How wrong they were; radio broadcasts actually created more fans. 

Games were “recreated” in a studio by using the information sent from the site of the game over the Western Union wire ticker tape. By using sound effects--and the listeners’ imaginations--announcers created the illusion of  broadcasting the game live from the ballpark. 

One of the great advantages of not being at the park was that it gave the announcer the freedom to control the flow of the game by staying a half or a full inning behind the game descriptions coming off the ticker tape. It became obligatory for announcers to fill the slow or dead periods in every game. The good announcers did this by telling stories while still keeping the listener involved in the flow of the game. Rosewell was a wonderful storyteller, on and off the air, and also wrote and published poems. 

Bob Prince did not write poetry, but was his equal or better as a storyteller and master of ceremonies....

05 February 2010

An Ugly American: Nellie Recalls his Season of Winter Baseball in Mexico

As the snows of February swirl, anyone who has been involved in major league baseball begins to think not only of opening day--now just two months away--but also of the joys of spending six weeks in the tropics. Nellie and his family treasure glowing memories of splashing in the waves and walking on the beaches of Anna Maria Island on Florida's Gulf coast during spring training, but Nellie also remembers a less pleasant -- but highly educational -- trip to the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1955.

Eager to play winter ball in Mexico, I appreciated my wife’s willingness to join me in my first trip “south of the border.” Neither of us were prepared for the profound cultural differences that awaited us. Making adjustment matters worse was the damage done by a typhoon that hit Mazatlan a week before our arrival. Floods had washed out roads and cut off the electricity. My lack of understanding of the culture and anger about the daily inconveniences created by the storm grew each day. Looking back at this experience, I realized I was an “Ugly American.”
Our trip began with a flight from Newark, NJ to Tucson, AZ. We traveled by bus to Nogales, Mexico where we found accommodations overnight at a local motel. We left an early wake up call and arrived at the airport with time for clearing customs and having breakfast. Our flight included stops at Hermosillo, Los Mochis, and Culican before arriving at Mazatlan.
Before boarding the flight, we had time to view the 30-seat, two-propeller plane. It was not a comforting scene. Two laborers on ladders were working on the propeller engines with what looked like ordinary pliers. A youngster who was crying loudly was creating a disturbance that the stewardess corrected by whacking him on his rear and telling him to be quiet. His mother did not protest. Welcome to Aeronaves de Mexico!
The stewardess went through the ritual of showing us how to fasten our seat belts as the pilot drove the plane to the end of the runway for takeoff. As the plane began to move, I was certain we did not have enough speed to get off the ground.  My observation was correct. The pilot quickly hit the brakes and informed us that we would be returning to the terminal. We got off the plane while the workers returned with their ladders and pliers to work on the engines.  
(As an indication of our anxiety level on this flight, while typing this chapter I asked my wife to recall how she felt during that first flight on Aeronaves de Mexico. She answered, “How the hell should I know? I was too busy saying the Rosary!”) 
After some delay, the pilot decided to give it another try, but this time without passengers on board. He took the plane to the end of the runway and gathered what he was sure was appropriate speed to take off and returned to the terminal. We were asked to re-board, and despite the anxiety, all passengers returned to the plane. My wife was now heavily into the rosary and I told her, “Don’t worry, if the pilot didn’t think he could take off, he wouldn’t try it.” I was right and we had a safe flight.
We finally reached our destination at Mazatlan in the early afternoon and enjoyed our first sight from the air. The view of the crescent shaped shoreline and beach that defined the western limits of the city was marvelous. The view of the Pacific Ocean from our apartment was fantastic. Daily we would take delight in watching groups of swordfish and porpoises leaping from the water. The beach was named Olas Altos for the high waves that funneled into the crescent shaped beach. It attracted many swimmers who enjoyed body-surfing all day on the big waves.
Pleased with our accommodations, we agreed they were ideal. However, later that evening we discovered because of the typhoon that hit the area a week before, Mazatlan was unable to keep electric generators going for 24 hours. We assumed the generators would be working for the evening hours, but the city turned off the electricity after 6:00 PM and we had to live by candlelight until the next morning when the electricity returned.
A large hotel adjacent to our apartment had lights turned on all evening, which made us question why we didn’t. It turned out the hotel had its own generator and did not have to depend on the city’s electricity. I still questioned the decision to turn off power during the evening. I thought “how dumb these Mexicans are!”, and expressed my opinions loudly from our apartment.
With no electricity, the refrigerator defrosted at night. The melting ice dripped into a glass bowl we used to store the eggs. When Bernadette opened the door to get eggs for breakfast, the water and the eggs were frozen solid. I made more comments about the stupidity and ignorance of the Mexicans. I was embarrassed by my words when I discovered the electricity was available only during daylight hours so industrial plants and business could continue working, as they provided needed income for the citizens of Mazatlan.
Just as I had during my first journey through the U.S. south in 1946, I became aware of the prevalence and injustice of poverty. Despite their impoverishment and the need to repair the damage done by the typhoon, the people displayed an inner strength and a real joy for life.  The typhoon’s impact was evident during our first bus trip to open the season at Los Mochis. We arrived at a wide stream where the flood had washed out a bridge and I wondered how we would be able to continue. We did, thanks to the talent and “can-do” attitude of the Mexican workers. We were transported on a hand-made wooden flatbed barge, similar to the kind depicted in Tom Sawyer. We loaded all of or luggage from the bus onto the barge and two men rowed us across the stream with no problems, delivering us to another bus waiting to complete the trip.
We were warned not to drink any of the local tap water in Los Mochis and after entering my hotel room I knew why. The water from the bathroom tap was grayish and foul-smelling. I joined some of the players for dinner at a restaurant not far from the hotel. I can’t recall what I ate, but I do not recall drinking the water. I ordered bottled beverages as suggested. The next morning I awoke and had to wash up with the foul smelling tap water. I then made the mistake of brushing my teeth and in two days I had developed a bad case of the “Aztec two-step,” which soon developed into dysentery. I was in no shape to play baseball after this, but I persisted.
Games were scheduled on Friday and Saturday with a doubleheader on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday were off days, and Wednesday and Thursday were scheduled for practice. As the “American” pitcher, I had the number one spot in the rotation and was also expected to pitch in relief for the other games. Despite suffering from nausea and dysentery, I felt an obligation to pitch since I was making $700 a month in salary and the team had paid for our airfare and accommodations.
I was eager to see the end of the series at Los Mochis and return to cosmopolitan Mazatlan. As soon as I returned to our apartment, my wife could see I was very ill. She requested the manager to get a doctor to treat me. The doctor showed up the next morning and introduced himself as Dr. Corona-Corona. The double name was unique, but not so much as the fact he wore two pair of glasses. He diagnosed my illness as dysentery and dehydration, prescribed an antibiotic, and gave me intravenous fluids to reverse my dehydration. Bedridden for two days, I recovered enough to make practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
In the wee hours of Monday morning I got up feeling worse and asked Bernadette to call for a doctor. Bernadette, who served as a Red Cross nurse, was aware that this could not go on any longer. I recall her telling me, “If you say we are going home, I’ll call for a doctor. If you don’t, I’m not going to.” I told her we were going home and the doctor arrived and informed me that my condition was serious. I had lost 15 pounds in three weeks. We contacted the Pirates’ office to inform Branch Rickey, Jr. of my illness and the need to return home for health reasons. He agreed, and we joyously returned to the United States.
My Mexican experiences made me aware of the advantages I took for granted living in the United Stats. I felt then, and still do today, that if a leader offered and provided the benefits and social services people so desperately needed, Mexicans wouldn’t care if they were Socialists or Communists—anything had to be better than what they had in 1955. I understand why so many citizens of Mexico are eager to cross our borders. They are simply looking for a better life.
After playing ball at Mazatlan, I recalled manager Frank Oceak’s comment at York, PA: “Keep your eyes, ears and bowels open, and your mouth shut.” Mexico was the only place I was able to do that.

27 January 2010

Nellie's Interview on Baseball Digest Live

Nellie did a very colorful interview today on Baseball Digest Live.

You can hear the broadcast in the program's archives.

Thanks to Jay Ferraro for making this happen!

22 January 2010

Betting in the Bayou: Gambling in New Iberia, Louisiana

There's been a lot of news coverage lately about players behaving badly. Nellie is always sad to hear stories about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which are nothing new in baseball. If you have not yet seen it, take a look at the late Dock Ellis' recollections of the use of amphetamines ("greenies")--and other substances!--in this animation about his unusual no-hitter in 1970:

While playing in Louisiana, one of his favorite places in the world, Nellie discovered the world of wagering on games. Here is an excerpt from his chapter on his Bayou baseball days:
During the summer of 1948 at New Iberia, I encountered another vice: Gambling. Wagering was and probably still is a part of life in the Bayou country. Young and naive about the dangers of gambling, I spent a lot of my daytime hours in the downtown pool hall. The owner, Tom Spiros, invited all the players to use the pool tables “on the house.” Along with the pool tables, constant poker games were being played for high stakes.
The index finger of Tom's right hand was amputated halfway to the knuckle. I never asked how or why, but it was no handicap to him. I took interest in watching him play poker, particularly his method d for counting silver dollars. Using the stub of the partially amputated right index finger, he would stack five silver dollars exactly, picking them up with his thumb and middle finger. He was never questioned by anyone at the table.

The pool hall’s main attraction for me was a Western Union ticker tape that kept an up-to-date score of every major league baseball game being played on a given day. With many games played in daytime then, I took delight in following the scores and, on occasion, posting them on a nearby blackboard as they came in over the wire. It was an entertaining place to spend the daytime hours. I never saw or knew of any players getting involved in gambling at the pool hall. The stakes were too high for players who were earning from $125 to $200 a month. 
However, as the weeks went by, I began to understand why Tom Spiros was so willing to have us frequent his place. The conversations at the pool hall usually got around to the New Iberia game of the night before and the one to be played that evening. The habitues' interest was not strictly that of a fan. Gamblers are always looking for a slight advantage, and we were naively providing it by talking casually about our team, its strengths and weaknesses, and its strategies.
Gamblers who bet on horses can’t have the same relationship they do with baseball players. Horses don’t talk. Following the final game of the 1948 season in New Iberia, Pete McGarry and I retired to our usual bar. As I was about to leave, I expressed my thanks to the bartender for the many memorable evenings spent there. I was amazed when he said, “You know, you cost me a lot of money this year.” With my “social lubricant” working, I loudly inquired of him, “I won 20 and lost only 13, and you're blaming me for costing you money?” As a parting shot, I said, “You gotta be the dumbest-assed gambler in town.
The fans in the Bayou Country, and particularly at New Iberia, loved to wager. They bet not only on the outcome of the game, but on whether a pitch would be a ball or strike, which created animosity against the umpires, and frequently resulted in foolish fan retaliation. The most drastic reprisal I recall was when disgruntled fans poured sand into the gas tank of an umpire's car. 
In Houma, one of the towns in the Evangeline League, two players on the team that 1948 season got into trouble for stealing money from a bookie joint that took wagers on horse racing. They managed to develop a friendly relationship with the bookie and then worked a scam for making winning bets. According to the story, one player would distract the bookie; the other would turn the bookie's clock back ten or fifteen minutes. With a direct line to the track where the races were being run, they would get the winner then place their bet with the bookie. Trusting and unaware of the scam, the bookie took the bet and paid off.
This went on for a while before someone got wise. The players were barred from baseball. They were lucky some guys with flat noses from Chicago didn't come to visit them. If this betting on horses warranted expulsion from baseball, there really is no defense for any player who bets on baseball games. Warnings against this violation were posted on every clubhouse door,  from Class “D” to the major leagues. Pete Rose saw them every day, knew the rules, and still failed to abide by them. He paid the price. The Black Sox Scandal in the 1919 World Series nearly destroyed fans’ loyalty to the game and ushered in the first strong commissioner of baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis....

07 January 2010

"Nellie King Memoir a Warmhearted Winner"

Jerry Milani, writing in The Baseball Digest on 6th January 2010, gives Nellie's book yet another fine review:

Proving that it doesn’t take a great – or even particularly famous – player to have a lot to say in a book, former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher and broadcaster Nellie Kingcollects some of his best stories from 30 years in the game in Happiness is Like a Cur Dog (AuthorHouse, $15.40), a breezy narrative that gives fans a look at his life and at baseball in a very different era.
Most fans outside of Pittsburgh – and even many young fans there today – are likely unfamiliar with King and his career. A tall, slender righthander, King logged more than 1000 innings for 10 years in various minor leagues in places as small as New Iberia, La., and Geneva, Ala. and as large as Denver and New Orleans before cracking the Pirates roster in 1954. His minor league career was not just full of success on the mound, as he won more than 15 games four times and had an excellent 2.80 ERA, but the stories gleaned from his experience in these years make up the bulk of the best parts of the book.
Those who know King from his days as a broadcaster on Pittsburgh area stations and on Pirates broadcasts following his career may have heard some of the stories before, but for the large majority of baseball fans who have never had the opportunity, Cur Dog has recollections of baseball figures as well-known as Branch Rickey – whose comparison of happiness to a pawing, mangy mutt inspired the title – to forgotten ones like Pete McGarry, a catcher whose once promising career had stalled in large part from five years of service and was now his teammate on a Class D team in New Iberia.
What makes the book so interesting and different from many other baseball memoirs is the detail King includes on the people and places on these various stops along the way. He also recalls his frustrations at not getting more of an opportunity at higher levels at certain points in his career, but without bitterness. One of the best stories involves his trip from Pittsburgh back to Hollywood, Calif., on his demotion in 1955. Instead of “reporting directly,” as the rules stipulated, King and his wife made a leisurely trip back west along Route 66, stopping at the Grand Canyon. Later, a winter ball term in Mazaltan, Mexico, gives a colorful look at what some fringe big leaguers did to get extra time on the field, and his culture shock (he even calls himself an “Ugly American”) provides some humorous moments.
Similarly, King doesn’t dwell much on the arm injury that ended his career, preferring to move on to the stories which highlighted his nine-year stint as Pirates radio and TV broadcaster. It is from these years that he gives his perspective on players like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski, which are good but cover less new ground than his minor league and Pirates experiences.

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