Thursday, June 4, 2009

Baseball’s First Bonus Baby

Dave Nicholson had the tools. He was big. He was strong. He could knock a baseball five hundred feet. Dave was born in Illinois nearly sixty years ago and grew up playing ball on the sand lots of St. Louis, where Yogi Berra and Joe Garigiola once played. At the age of 15, he was noticed by pro scouts. His pitching was average, but his power was awesome. There were many times when he hit three or four homers in a game. After graduating from Southwest High School, he signed a contract for the unheard of sum of $100,000.00. He hadn’t played a game in the major or even minor leagues. They called them bonus babies, and Dave was the first.

In today’s market, when Kevin Brown, former pitcher for the Wilkinson County Warriors, will make nearly twenty thousand dollars for every out he gets, Dave’s enormous salary seems so trivial. Early in his career, Dave Nicholson played left field for the Orioles of Dublin, Georgia in the Georgia - Florida League.

Dave was playing for a team in Collinsville, Illinois when he met Paul Richards, general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Richards and the Orioles pitching coach were so impressed with his power that they signed him to a contract upon his graduation from high school. Dave was assigned to an Orioles Class A farm team in Knoxville, Tenn.. The hits and the homers were few and far between.

Strikeouts were common. Dave was shuffled off to Wilson, N.C., where his hitting picked up a little. Strikeouts continued to plague the Orioles phenom. In mid July 1958, Dave was again transferred. This time he would play for the Orioles Class D team in Dublin. It was a demotion, but something had to be done - too many strikeouts.

Dave reported to Dublin and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup in left field. In his first game, Dave went 1 for 5 in a loss to the Brunswick Phillies. In the first few games his average hovered around the .200 mark, par for his career. His first home run for the Orioles came on July 28th against the Valdosta Tigers. In the next game, Dave nearly went for the cycle, missing it by a home run.

The Orioles were on a roll. They won eight games in row and began to challenge for second place in the league. Nicholson’s name disappeared from the box scores, probably due to an injury.He returned to the lineup during the third weekend of August. 0 for 4, 1 for 4, 2 for 4, and 0 for 5. Dave wasn’t hitting. He was swinging hard, trying hard, but missing badly. Dave closed the season with one of his best games. He went 2 for 6 with a double against Brunswick. Dave finished the year with a .227 average, 3 home runs, and 21 runs batted in. Dave played defense behind a future fire-balling left-hander, Steve Barber, who rose near the top of the American League with the Baltimore Orioles in the early sixties. His manager also played second base. If you are a baseball fan, you might remember his name. He was recently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The scrappy little man and baseball genius was none other than Earl Weaver.

Dublin lost its franchise in the Ga./Fla. League following the ‘58 season. After two weeks of disappointment in Amarillo, Texas at the beginning of the ‘59 season, Dave was shipped off to Aberdeen, South Dakota to play for his former Dublin manager, Earl Weaver. Something clicked. Dave began to hit for average, for power, and for distance. It was his best season in professional baseball. Dave led the Northern League with 35 home runs, nearly one in every twelve at-bats. He batted in 114 runs in 120 games and finished the season with an respectable batting average
of .298.

Dave went into the last game with a batting average of an even .300. The .300 mark is what every ball player strives to accomplish. It is the mark of a good hitter. He only needed one hit in his last three at bats to finish at .300. One out of four would drop him a fraction below. He got the critical hit in his second at bat. Dave was assured of his goal. Even with the out he made on his third trip to the plate, he still had the mark. Weaver asked “Nick” if he wanted to be taken out to freeze his average at .300. Nick said, “No, I’ll keep swinging.” He made an out on the 4th at bat. There was still a chance. A hit on the fifth at bat would bring him back to .300.

The mark Dave wanted so badly never materialized. He made an out in his last at bat of the season and finished at .298. Chuck Hinton, Nicholson’s teammate and future star outfielder for the Washington Senators, said it plainly, “When he went 1 for 5 he almost cried. He was sick.” The .300 plateau eluded Dave for the rest of career. He never came close again.

Hinton marveled at Nick’s power. “He hit the longest ball I ever saw hit. It’s got to be the granddaddy of ‘em all. It went over the left field fence at Aberdeen and landed almost two full blocks away. I’d say it went 625 feet. It’s the truth. They never did measure it, “ Hinton commented. Fred Valentine witnessed another tape measure job in the ‘58 season at Wilson, North Carolina. “It was well over 500 feet,” Valentine said.

Dave hit well with the Miami team of the International League to start the 1960 season. His .260 average led to his promotion to the “Big Show” in 1960 with the Baltimore Orioles. The strikeouts kept coming - one out of every two at bats. Meanwhile, fellow Dublin Oriole Steve Barber had a fabulous rookie season going 10 and 7 with a 3.21 E.R.A.. Dave was sent back to the minors (again). Twenty home runs and a .248 average at Little Rock in 1961 earned Dave another shot in Baltimore in 1962. The second time around was a little better. He only struck out two out every five times, but his batting average dipped down to .173. Baltimore had seen enough. They knew he had potential, but there were too many strikeouts. In January of 1963, Dave was traded to the Chicago White Sox along with Hall of Fame Pitcher, Hoyt Wilhelm and two other players for Hall of Fame Shortstop Luis Aparicio and a minor player.

The ChiSox gave Dave a chance and he responded. He started and played in 123 games for the Sox, who finished in second behind the league champion Yankees. Dave hit 22 home runs and drove in 70 runs. Not too bad for a young ball player. What was bad was the strikeouts. His ratio went down. That was the good news. The bad news was that he struck out 175 times. At the time it was a major league record, not the kind you would brag about. Dave held the A.L. record for strikeouts until 1986. The boos were unbearable, but Dave took it. He was a ball player. He loved baseball. He wouldn’t quit. Manager Al Lopez suggested a heavier bat, but that didn’t work. During a practice in May, 1964, Lopez suggested that Dave raise his left arm to get a better look at the ball and to protect the outside of the plate. It worked. Dave hit three homers in a double header. One landed on the left field roof of Comiskey Park, one of the longest home runs in history. He had his stroke back and was leading the Sox in most offensive categories. The swing which bloomed in the Spring, faded in the summer heat. His strikeout ratio increased and his average dipped 80 points down to a season ending .204.

It only got worse in ‘65. His average dropped to .153. In 1966, Dave had a respectable year with the Astros. His .246 average was a career best. His home run total was lower, but so was his strikeout ratio. Dave played 9 games with the Braves in ‘67 and averaged one strikeout a game. Dave had one last shot. It was a good one. He hit 34 home runs in the International League in 1968. He was picked up by the expansion Kansas City Royals in 1969, but never played another game. When he hit the ball, he hit it hard. When he hit the ball, he hit it far. When he swung, he missed too many times. What he might have done had he kept up his pace Spring of ‘64 pace is up for speculation. But, that’s baseball.


  1. al lopez ruined dave Nicholson with that ridiculous stance

  2. The MLB bonus rule was established in 1947. Dave was not the "first bonus baby".