Last January, 18-year-old Dave Nicholson signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles and received $105,000 for the effort. He thus became one of the best-endowed "bonus babies" in the history of baseball. The Orioles sent him to a Class B league in North Carolina, and this is a report on his progress:
On one hot and blowy day in Wilson, North Carolina recently the wealthiest boy in town sat in the restaurant just across from the railroad station and gazed glumly into his frosted lemonade. His big, square face was slack and his enormous fingers curled limply around the glass. From a jukebox far back in the restaurant came the soft suggestion that he had the whole world in his hands, but Dave Nicholson was looking more like someone who carried it on his shoulders.
For one thing, he was suffering his first professional batting slump. He was playing for the Class B Wilson Tobs and was striking out all over the Carolina League. He was 0 for 15 now and his average was down to .230. He hadn't hit a home run in a week. On top of this, his girl had gone back to St. Louis after a four-day visit, his weight had dropped from 224 to 204 pounds since coming to Wilson, he had seen all three movies in town, and the night before he had lost four dollars playing blackjack on the long bus ride from Danville.
The four dollars was the least of his worries. On top of his $105,000 in January, he had collected two 1958 Pontiacs. One was for his father and the other, a red one, was parked out front.
"I can't hit anything," Nicholson complained, sunk deep in teen-age depression. "I'll foul off a couple. Then they'll get one by me. My luck's gone."
The night before, his manager had confided: "Nick'll be in the majors. I give him three-four years. He was scouted and we know what he can do. He can hit. He can field. He can throw. He can run. We put a stop watch on him the other day and he got to first base in 3.6 seconds. Mantle can only do a shade better than that."
Nicholson peered into his drink and slowly set the ice tinkling. "I got a letter from my mom today. She was mad because I didn't get home for a funeral. I couldn't do that. There wasn't any way I could get there. I wanted to, sure. But how could I? We only got three outfielders. Besides, my girl and her family had already started driving here from St. Louis." A brief pause. "I'd like to get married. Frank Zupo, he's the guy who hit that home run last night, he's married. Guess how old his wife is? She's 17."
His general manager's southern voice had chirped through the telephone: "The whole team's down, we can't beat nobody. But Nick'll come around. Baltimore sent him down here so he could find himself. He'll do it."
Nicholson raised his big, bare arm and languidly drained the lemonade glass. "I opened the season with Knoxville. That was great. The bus they had didn't break down. The one they got here, something's always wrong with it. It was the generator last night. Before that the muffler fell off. Before that the axle broke. Everything's wrong down here. The lights are so lousy you can hardly see the ball. And the outfield's no good either. A ball bounces around like a football."
Then there had been that young teammate, in the dark and musty dressing room, smiling although the Tobs had lost again: "Nick got an awful lot of money. It's a good thing he's a good guy. But he's going to be great. He never hit a 535-foot home run like they say he did. But you shoulda seen the one he hit down in Winston-Salem. Boy, he can hit that ball hard."
Nicholson sat there, blinking and cornered, fully aware of the confidence people had in him, fully aware after a few moments that there wasn't much else he could complain about. So he smiled, glanced at the watch on his ample left wrist and slipped toward the edge of the booth. "Come on. I'll give you a ride around town. There's nothing better to do."