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.