The baseball player with the belligerent turn-of-the-century stance shown in the picture on the opposite page may well be the greatest hitter in the entire history of the minor leagues. But that is not the only talent that sets Rocky Nelson, first baseman of the Toronto Maple Leafs, apart from the multitude. In this era when college-bred baseball professionals have brought an atmosphere of gentility to the dugout that would do justice to Mrs. Astor's drawing room, Rocky is the direct spiritual descendant of Ring Lardner's brash and brazen rookie. In fact, if Rocky just wore a handle bar mustache and a box-shaped cap, they might try to gather him up and put him back in one of those old baseball daguerreotypes where he belongs.
Rocky, besides hitting .326 for Toronto this year, is one of the world's greatest living experts on food, travel and Cuban cigars, on bass fishing and card playing, on wing shooting and spitting, on handicapping horses and dogs and solving crossword puzzles, on religion and golf and pool and the modern novel, in fact, on just about any subject that happens to come up. And if he is wrong, there is always a pretty good reason which seldom involves Rocky himself. Someone else—or something else—goofed.
"At bridge," says Carl Erskine of the Dodgers, a team on which Rocky has been employed from time to time, "he could always explain how he lost. Somebody played the wrong card."
At the track, Rocky's horse never just loses. It stumbles coming out of the gate or the jockey is caught in a pocket. And at the plate it has always been a trick of fate when he struck out. "That pitch just turned over at the last minute," he used to tell Pee Wee Reese, or "it was outside all the way and then it just hit the back part of the plate."
One day at Montreal, Gino Cimoli remembers, Rocky took a second strike which brought Manager Max Macon rushing forth to beef about the call. He stormed around the box and argued with the umpire and finally, in disgust, kicked up a puff of dust before returning to the dugout. On the next pitch Rocky struck out.
"How do you expect a fellow to hit," he asked Macon, "with you out there kicking up all that dust so's he can't see the ball?"
TALK, TALK, TALK
Rocky is a nonstop, marathon talker because he is a compulsive talker—a soul mate, perhaps, of Yogi Berra. At the plate he directs a continued stream of taunts at the pitcher. If he hits, he yells, "You'll never get me out with that junk," as he runs to first base. If he makes an out, he yells, "You'll never get me out with that junk again," as he heads for the dugout. In any gathering of which Rocky is a member, sooner or later he is a sure bet to take over the talking.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he is able to explain why he is in the minors instead of up in the big leagues where he belongs.
"The reputation you get the first time you go up," he says, "is just about the most important thing that happens to you in baseball. It sticks with you, somehow. They say, 'Well, he was with so and so for a couple of years and couldn't get the job done. We don't want him.' And that's what happened to me. I got started with the wrong organization.
"When I was first with the Cardinals, they didn't need a left-hand hitter. All they were seeing was left-hand pitchers and they were hurting for right-hand power Kurowski was gone and Moore had retired and Cooper was gone. They needed right-hand hitters. So they used Bilko and Nippy Jones most of the time. I didn't have much of a chance.
"Then, the next year, they put Musial at first and that was that. They traded me to Pittsburgh, and then I went to the White Sox and all I ever did at either place was pinch hit. You know that most batters can't get their timing down unless they're playing regular, and that's the way I am.
"So, finally the Dodgers bought me—and look what happened. I broke my leg. I never did get in shape that year, and a guy out of shape wasn't going to push Gil Hodges off of first base.
"The next chance I had was with the Indians in '54. That was a funny deal," and Rocky shakes his head. "They gave me the position in the spring, sure, but they didn't spend all that money just to find out if I could hit in the spring. They bought me because of the great season I had in Montreal in '53. I've never been a good hitter in the spring. I need to get to know the pitchers. Even in the minors, what little hitting I do in the spring, I do against pitchers I've seen before. I never hit the new ones right at first. And that's the way it was up there. Just about the time I was learning what they could throw, I was on the bench. And then I was back at Montreal."
It was a slightly different situation when he went up to Brooklyn, for the last time, in 1956. "I always get tired in June," Rocky says. "Most hitters get tired in August or September. Well, I get tired in June. After that I'm all right. It's funny but look at my record and see for yourself."
So he went up to Brooklyn, tired, and failed again. The only thing he did show was that he now had power. In six weeks with the Dodgers he hit approximately 87 home runs. The only trouble was that all but four of them were foul. "If they had just moved the foul pole over about 10 feet," one writer with the team recalls, "Rocky would have broken Ruth's record in a breeze."
"Yeah, that's right," Nelson agrees. "I was hitting 'em foul. And I'll tell you why. Like I said, I was tired. So I was pressing. And instead of letting my normal timing do the job, I tried to force the bat around with my hands. Everything went foul."
YOU HAVE TO KNOW HIM
Rocky's explanations of his roller coaster career are usually brushed aside as representing a minority opinion of one. But strangely enough, under questioning and sometimes with a slight trace of guilt, some rather sharp baseball men—including several of those same managers who gave up on him—will now admit that there is just a chance that he is right. Dixie Walker, the old Dodger hero and Rocky's current manager at Toronto, is one expert on the subject who is sure the other managers erred when they gave up on Rocky.
"I think that part of his trouble was that most managers he played for in the big leagues never really had time enough to understand him. Last year I didn't understand him myself. You never have to wonder where Rocky is. You can always hear him. He does talk a lot. In fact, he spouts off. But now I know him and, brother, I really appreciate him.
"If a big league ball club would put him in the lineup and leave him there, before the season is out they would have a real stem-winder of a first baseman."
Yet where is Rocky Nelson now? Well, he is playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs and leading the International League in batting (.326), home runs (32) and runs batted in (93). Has this brought the big leagues aswarming to his door once more? Well, not exactly.
"I guess," says Manager Al Lopez of the Chicago White Sox, who was Rocky's onetime boss in Cleveland, "that everyone has just about given up on him."
"If he hadn't been up so many times before," said Cincinnati Scout Dutch Dotterer, who happened to be in Toronto watching a game the other day, "the way he is hitting right now there would be 16 major league teams after him with big money. As it is, I guess no one is interested. It's a funny case."
Funny may hardly be the proper word, for Nelson is not in the tradition of other minor league superstars, players like Lou Novikoff and Joe Hauser and Luke Easter, who could never click in the big leagues. Most of these had a weakness at the plate, which major league pitchers spotted right away and were able to capitalize upon, or else they couldn't run or were butchers in the field. Nelson, however, is plagued by no deficiencies such as these. Once considered an excellent first baseman, he remains a highly adequate one. He can run. And certainly he can hit. The pitching one sees in Triple-A baseball is not so consistently good as in the majors, but much of it is in the same class. And big league rosters today are loaded with the names of pitchers like Ford and Bunning and Lary and Friend and Newcombe and Donovan and Burdette who once upon a time, down in the International League and American Association, had a great deal of trouble getting Rocky Nelson out.
"When I was at Rochester in 1953," says Wally Moon of the Cardinals, who came up the next season to win the National League's outstanding rookie award, "he was the best hitter in the league. You couldn't fool him; there wasn't anything or anybody he couldn't hit. And left-handed pitching didn't bother him a bit."
Milt Smith, who was once up with the Redlegs but now plays alongside Rocky in the Toronto infield, likes to point out that the big leagues are full of players that can't carry Rocky's bat. "I know," says Smith. "I played with a lot of them and I know. This guy is a real hitter. He's got that wonderful swing and he's got power. He's sure of himself, too, I can tell you that. He knows he can hit. And he sure isn't scared. You know, when a left-hander is pitchin', some left-hand hitters don't like that sidearm curve. They see it comin' and they get out of there. Not Rocky. He don't budge an inch."
But Nelson's greatest admirer of the moment is Dixie Walker.
"He's a lot more than just a good hitter," says Walker. "He's tough and he plays for you even when he's hurt. He comes through when you need him; he gets the home run or the base hit that wins the game. And he's one of the few hitters in baseball who can adapt to fit the park and the situation.
"You understand, he's not one of those guys like Snider or Mantle who hits those towering drives out there 440 feet. He's really a small man—about 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds or so—and he gets his power from exceptional timing. When he hits the ball hard, it goes 350 or 360 feet. That's about his range. So when we go into a big park with a deep right field or when the wind is blowing a gale from right, he doesn't try to pull the ball over the fence. He lines it to center or he hits to left. He's hit seven home runs this year to left. He has the most amazing bat control I've ever seen."
Rocky, in some ways, is the Ted Williams of the minor leagues. A dedicated student of hitting, he has the rare knack of self-analysis and through constant experimentation changed himself, five years ago, from a line-drive spray hitter into a dangerous home run threat. To accomplish this, he adopted The Stance. The result is one of the most absurd-looking postures ever achieved by a modern ballplayer.
First, Rocky places all of his weight firmly upon his left, or back foot and then bends his knee as if he were of half a mind to sit down alongside home plate. He extends his right foot straight out ahead, the toe pointing directly at the pitcher. Then he lifts his chin into the air and gazes, with a defiant sneer upon his lips, at the enemy. No more imperious gesture has been seen in baseball since that day in Mudville when the mighty Casey struck out.
Absurd or not, The Stance achieved for Rocky what he hoped it would. It moved his hips around where he could pull the inside pitch, and he began to hit home runs.
Then why isn't Rocky Nelson in the big leagues?
Well, one theory holds that he wanted to be there too much. Perhaps this is the easy way out, but most baseball men who have given the matter real thought figure that Nelson's troubles are not physical but psychological. Rocky, they say, wanted to be a big leaguer so much that he tightened up every time he had the chance. He didn't quit. He simply tried too hard.
"Rocky talked a lot," says Al Lopez now, remembering the spring he had Nelson at Cleveland, "and he gave the appearance of being non-chalant. But I think part of this was just a cover-up. Inside he must have been burning."
"You should have seen him that spring," says Red Kress, one of the Cleveland coaches. "He was tighter than a drum. Just plain nervous. He looked terrible; he couldn't even catch the ball. And at the plate, it wasn't some particular pitch that he couldn't hit. He couldn't hit strikes."
"It was a complex of some kind," believes Fresco Thompson of the Dodgers. "Rocky looked just as bad for us as he looked good down in the minors."
The one remaining theory is the one that Rocky subscribes to himself. In fact, he practically invented it. "Not once," he says, "did I get a real good chance."
While Rocky waits for the next call, which now may never come, he manages to do all right. As Dixie says, they know him now in Toronto and they like what they know. He is perhaps the most popular athlete in the city's history, and on the ball club he is the leader, the man they all look up to. Beneath that pleasant, rather homely face and its open mouth there beats a heart of gold.
"He will do anything for you," says the Toronto trainer, Bill Smith. "He's everybody's friend and he treats you right. He's just a wonderful guy."
What the Maple Leafs have come to realize, as do all who know him well, is that all of the noise is more of a cover-up than anything else, that he is perfectly harmless and through all his troubles has managed to retain a rather remarkable sense of humor. Once, when he slid magnificently into third base, it was pointed out by the umpire that a teammate already occupied the spot. "O.K.," Nelson shrugged in the face of a withering glare from the manager. "Why do you think they call me Rocky?"
PRIDE AND AMBITION
He has a lovely wife, a warm and gracious girl who was also raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, married Rocky one night at home plate in Lynchburg, Va. and has spent the 11 ensuing years in travel. The Nelsons have no children but they are high on the waiting list of two adoption agencies. Around his pleasant suburban home Rocky is considered a good neighbor, a pillar of the church and a respected member of the community.
He is making more money than a lot of ballplayers in the majors, for Jack Kent Cooke, the wealthy Toronto publisher who owns the Maple Leafs, and Rudie Schaffer, his general manager, appreciate Nelson's considerable value both on the field and at the gate. "Rocky's salary," says Schaffer, "is in five figures." Although these are perhaps not the same five figures that are on Mickey Mantle's contract, at least they keep Rocky in big, expensive cigars.
"Baseball has been good to me," he says, "and I don't want to complain. They treat me great here, the fans are wonderful and we have a lot of friends."
Yet the fact remains that Toronto is still in the minor leagues—and Rocky still burns to get out. It isn't the holes in the screen or the small and dingy dressing rooms or the hard infields or the bad lights or even the long waits for planes and trains and buses. It is not even a matter of fame or money. It is the idea that this is the minor leagues and Rocky knows that he is a big league hitter.
"The whole thing," he says, "is that if you're any good, you want to excel."
"He doesn't brood about it," says Alberta Nelson. "He never has. There are times when he is awfully disappointed but he always comes back down and plays just as hard as he can. And we still feel that some day he's going to get another chance.
"If he doesn't, well, we'll, do all right. At least it's been an educational sort of life. I've been to a lot of places and I've met an awful lot of interesting people."
What Mrs. Nelson doesn't need to mention is that the most interesting person she ever met was probably Rocky himself.
PUBLIC PERSONALITY of Rocky recalls Joe E. Brown's famous Elmer the Great.
PRIVATE PERSONALITY of Rocky is actually that of a warm family man (shown here with his wife Alberta) who is considered a good neighbor and pillar of the church.