September 23, 2021

Nelson, How Could You Forget?

February 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Back in the mid-70s, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old, I vividly recall asking my grandfather if he ever pitched to Babe Ruth. At the time, it seemed like a logical question; not knowing much about baseball history, nor about granddad’s career, I simply pulled from thin air the most famous old-time baseball player I could think of, and hoped for the best. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would have picked another player.

It’s ironic how things turned out. My grandfather, Nelson Greene, pitched 15 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers during parts of the 1924 and ’25 seasons. That’s a lot more knowledge than I had when I was a kid. Growing up, I vaguely knew he had pitched in the major leagues, and I probably even knew he pitched for the Dodgers; but as to the specifics of his days in baseball, I knew nothing. With Nelson in the National League and Babe in the American, I might have figured out that in those days the two leagues didn’t play each other, so the chances that a Brooklyn fringe pitcher would pitch to the greatest hitter of all-time would have been practically nil. I guess it made complete sense, then, when Nelson gave me the answer he did.

“No,” Nelson told me, “I never got to pitch to Ruth.” (I couldn’t tell if my grandfather was disappointed about that or not.) “But I once got to see him up close. One year,” Nelson explained, “my team played his team and from the dugout I watched him bat. He hit the ball harder and farther than anyone I ever saw. He was definitely the greatest hitter ever.”

I don’t remember my reaction to that answer, but I’m sure it was something like ‘Wow’!

Oh, Nelson, how could you forget?

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about my grandfather’s career. In 1923, as the star southpaw for the Richmond Colts, Nelson compiled a 19-11 record in the Virginia League. He was a big (6’2”, 185 lbs.), lanky lad who hailed from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and several years earlier he had interrupted an engineering education at Lehigh University to pursue a career in baseball. Despite his size, he wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher; in 263 innings in 1923, he struck out only 125 batters. But Nelson possessed a curve that, according to one contemporary account, was “one of the sharpest breaking… owned by a left-hander,” and Ben Egan, later his pitching coach with Brooklyn, once opined that Nelson was unquestionably endowed “with a lot of natural resources.”

In the fall of 1923, those resources landed the lefthander in the major leagues. While he was pitching in Richmond, Nelson got to play in exhibitions against major league teams (that may have been where he recalled watching Ruth from the opposing dugout). One of those teams was the Dodgers, against whom ‘Lefty’, apparently the requisite nickname of most lefthanders, “held the big-league hitters scoreless in several instances.” In short order, Brooklyn offered Nelson a contract, and on September 17, 1923, the 23-year-old joined the Dodgers for the final two weeks of the major league season.

Other than an exhibition game and some bullpen sessions, Nelson didn’t pitch for Brooklyn during those final two weeks. The following spring, though, he went to training camp and made the team.  His major league debut came in Boston, on April 28, 1924, when he pitched the final three innings of an eventual 8-0 Brooklyn loss. Yet following that outing a month passed before he made another appearance. When he did, it was very, very special.

On June 3, 1924, Brooklyn traveled to the Polo Grounds to play a doubleheader against their rivals, the New York Giants. Somewhat short on pitching, during the nightcap Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson looked to his bullpen for a starter and, surprisingly, sent Nelson to the mound. In what would be his only career start, in the bottom of the third the rookie allowed a monstrous two-run homer to shortstop Travis Jackson that “would be going yet if it hadn’t collided with the upper stand” in left centerfield. Despite that home run, however, according to the New York Times, “Greene,” who was pulled for a pinch-hitter in top of the fourth, “was not so bad.” The 3-2 Giants’ victory was the only loss of Nelson’s career.

The lefthander appeared in only two more games that year for Brooklyn before being sent to the minors. But in 1925, Nelson again went to spring training with Brooklyn. Two spots were up for grabs in the starting rotation, and he was reportedly a leading contender. On March 27, 1925, at Clearwater, Florida, Brooklyn’s spring training home, the Yankees paid a visit for an afternoon exhibition, and …

Oh, Nelson, how could you forget?

I certainly wasn’t looking for it. Several years ago I was researching the career of one of Nelson’s teammates, Jack Fournier, who in 1925 was at his peak as a power-hitter with Brooklyn. I had obtained Fournier’s player file from the Hall of Fame, and among the contents was an obscure newspaper clipping that reported on the game that day in Clearwater. Fournier had a great day, powering two home runs in an 11-10 Brooklyn come-from-behind win. It was just another routine spring training game. A pitcher named Jess Petty started for Brooklyn and pitched the first five innings. When New York came to bat in the top of the sixth, however, a new pitcher had taken the mound for Brooklyn; it was Nelson. In his first two innings of work, he held the Yankees scoreless. The two teams entered the eighth inning with the score tied, 7-7. Then in the eighth, New York figured out the lefthander’s offerings. Here’s how the action was described:

“Greene stocked up the bases with a pass, a hit by Jones, and a hit batsman, and Combs and Ruth emptied them with a pair of singles.”

There it was. Nelson had indeed faced Babe Ruth, and with the bases loaded, he allowed the Bambino only a single. In an otherwise obscure, very brief fifteen-game major league career, Nelson Greene faced the greatest hitter of all time and held him to a single.

If only Nelson had been around for me to remind him.

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