I Miss My Friend Nellie King
I can remember it as if it were yesterday. The family and I had returned from a “cook-out,” and my wife Barbara noticed a message on the answering machine. She informed me that it was from “one of those baseball people.”
I should explain that I am a member of SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) and I write for its Bio project. When I am writing player bios, I generally send a letter explaining why I would like to talk with them. I always include a “self addressed stamped envelope,” and ask them to provide a telephone number, a day(s) of the week and time for me to call. It is unusual that a player would call me.
That night, when I played back the message, I had a hard time determining who it was. The voice was both weak and lacked clarity. After several playbacks, I surmised that it as Nellie King.
You see, I was working on an article on Steve Blass. I had sent letters to several of Blass’ teammates, his former manager Bill Virdon, and Nellie King, who broadcasted much of his career. I had already completed the article by the time Nellie called, but I did not have the heart to tell him that.
So, I returned his call. After introducing myself to him, he asked what I would like to know about Steve. I asked him to share his reflections, which he did. Then I began sharing some of mine with him. Such as my feeling when Steve threw the last pitch of the seventh game of the 1971 World Series, and how I could see Rettenmund hit the ball up the middle, seeing Jackie Hernandez glide gently over, transfer it to his throwing hand and flipping it to Robertson’s outstretch glove. I shared how my heart pounded as Sanguillen charged out from behind the plate to begin the celebration as Steve leaped into Bob Robertson’s arms!
Nellie regaled me with stories that I had never heard before. Like a time when Steve ordered a bottle of Mateus wine at a fancy restaurant, or Pirate’s owner Dan Galbraith not remembering Steve’s name when a group of players visited Darby Dan’s horse stables. By the end of our conversation, I could tell that my friend was getting tired, but before hanging up he let me know how much he enjoyed talking baseball with me and to call him anytime I felt the urge. Our conversations grew into a weekly thing. Especially because I came from a small family, it was adopting an uncle. Our calls were something that I looked forward to; actually I think that Nellie felt the same.
One might think that our friendship began that night, but in a way, it began forty years earlier. My father was born and raised on the “north side” of Pittsburgh. He met and married my mother who was from Elizabeth, New Jersey. While we lived in the New Jersey, we spent each summer driving across the “Keystone state” to my grandparents in McKee’s Rocks, Pennsylvania.
Some of my favorite memories came from those summers sitting with my grandfather on his backyard patio, me sipping a can of soda pop, and him with his Lucky Stripes and Iron City beer as we listened to the Pirates game on an old Emerson radio. I can still hear him getting so annoyed with Bob “the Gunner” Prince. You see Prince had a propensity to drift away from the game, talking about everything else aside from the game. But the to him the broadcast’s saving grace was Prince’s sidekick, Nellie King. My grandfather liked him. So if you count those evenings, we knew each other for some time.
Our friendship evolved into weekly phone calls. Sometimes Nellie and I verbally walked down memory lane; we spoke about our favorite game in terms of yesterday and today. It did not take long for Nellie to become comfortable with me. He told me about a book about his life in baseball that he was writing and whether I would like to read it. It was. It seems that most of the publishers felt it had only regional appeal, that no one could be interested out of the Pittsburgh area. The book was (is) called: “Happiness is like a Cur Dog: A 30 year journey of a Major League pitcher and Broadcaster.”
Nellie and I became close, eventually our relationship reached a different level; this book substantiated it. I traveled a couple times to Pittsburgh to visit him and attended a couple of Pirates games with him. It was like having my very own color commentator.
Getting back to his book, it was more than about someone who happen to play and broadcast in Pittsburgh. Like the title indicates, it is more of a journey. It is about tremendous faith, and fortitude. Nellie crossed paths with such baseball luminaries as Branch Rickey, and Stan Musial, in addition to Pirates players such as Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski. “Happiness is like a Cur Dog,” which is based on a Branch Rickey parable, demonstrates that you do not need to search for happiness, because if you enjoy what you do, happiness will find you.
For those not aware, Nellie King’s life did not start off easy, his father died when he was five years old, and our country was in the grips of the “great Depression.” Since the country did not have a “safety net” as Nellie referred to it, there were not a lot of alternatives for those in desperate need. While he felt abandoned at the time, his mother did what she felt best for her young son and enrolled him in the Milton Hershey School of Orphans. So Nellie basically started his out life by being separated from his family.
After his time at the Milton Hershey school, he went on to play professional baseball. Unfortunately, he would be cut from two different teams during his first season. He never gave up, Nellie continued chasing his dream. He began his ascension up the professional baseball ladder, reaching “B” level. The Korean War in 1951 and 52 interrupted his climb. When he returned to baseball, he continued until making it to the big leagues!
Nellie pitched for parts of four years, but in 1956 he threw a pitch that made him wince from excruciating pain in his arm. The next year he struggled with the injury. His first daughter Laurie was born into his young family. Nellie’s arm pain proved to be too much and he was forced to retire from baseball in October 1957.
Nellie was now without a way to make a living and support his family. Bob Friend, a former teammate set him up with a job selling mutual funds. This did not work out for him, so he packed up his family and moved in with his brother in-law in New Jersey. He attempted another sales job. That did not prove to be successful. So Nellie moved back to Pittsburgh.
It was back in Pittsburgh when happiness found him. Jack Berger, the Pirates PR man, recommended him as a sports broadcaster for small radio stations around Western Pennsylvania. Nellie became a big hit, and made a name. Not only had his faith paid off, he was involved with sports again.
Nellie learned that the Pirates needed a “color man” for their broadcasts, and while he had not applied for the position, he was considered the leading candidate. Since he had nothing to lose, he auditioned for it. It would be the beginning of a nine-year relationship with Hall of Fame announcer Bob Prince and back in with the Pirates. Nellie had made it back to the “Big Leagues!”
Unfortunately, Prince ruffled the feathers of the team’s sponsors, and in 1975, both he and Nellie were fired. When Nellie inquired why he was fired, he was told in no certain terms “sometimes when you play in the water, you get splashed.”
Once again, he was unemployed. His family had now grew, it now had three daughters.
Not long afterwards, my friend Nellie was approached by Duquesne University and asked to recommend someone for the school’s Director of Sports Information position. Nellie recommended a writer from the Greensburg Tribune was a good choice. The school did not agree. Instead, they hired him. He went on to serve seventeen years at that position, coached the schools golf team until 2004, and broadcasted their basketball games. Nellie was honored by the school and also inducted into the Western Pennsylvania Hall of Fame.
About three years ago, my friend’s health issues got the best of him, but not his faith. I can still remember my last conversation with this great man. He was going into hospice, and he informed me that they were going to teach him to die. He was at peace with that and ready to go home to the Lord.
My son Matthew died at 14 years old five years ago, and my relationship with Nellie was so strong, that I asked if he would tell Matt that I loved him. Nellie assured me that he would!
Nellie King died on August 11, 2010. I miss him greatly…