Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rocky Nelson, 1924-2006

I had not spoken with Rocky Nelson in a while, but I always meant to give him a call.

The one-time Pittsburgh Pirate lived part of the year on Anna Maria Island, and we always said we’d meet for lunch some day, but that day never came.

In the meantime, Rocky was a great source for stories, adding the historical perspective that only someone who spent most of his career in the minor leagues in the 1950s but enjoyed just enough days in the majors can provide.

He’d end our conversations the same way: “Call me any time.”

It caught me by surprise earlier this week when I learned Rocky died last Oct. 31 in his native Portsmouth, Ohio. He was 81.

The name Rocky Nelson is not known to a great many baseball fans, but Pirates fans of a certain age will always have a place in their heart for the left-handed power-hitting first baseman, whose two-run homer off Bob Turley in the first inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series helped the Pirates pull off the improbable upset over the mighty New York Yankees.

Some may remember Nelson as the Pirates' first baseman the night Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose everything – the perfect game, no-hitter and ball game – in the 13th inning.

Nelson spent most of his career in the minor leagues, where he compiled a .319 lifetime average and slugged 234 home runs. Make him a catcher, and he’s Crash Davis.

Nelson won three International League MVPs and three IL batting titles, including the two years when he won the Triple Crown.

He did all that while averaging fewer than 35 strikeouts a year.

It’s been written that Triple-A pitchers didn’t know how to pitch to Nelson, and Triple-A managers wondered why their pitchers were still faced with that problem.

Nelson broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. He also played with the Pirates, Chicago White Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. He played in the 1952 World Series with the Dodgers and won his only World Series ring with the 1960 Pirates.

Early in his rookie season, Nelson was involved in a bizarre play against the Cubs in Chicago.

Batting with two outs and runner on first and the Cubs trailing 3-2, Nelson smacked a sinking line drive to center field, where Cubs center fielder Andy Pafko made what Pafko thought was a shoestring catch. The umpire ruled Pafko trapped the ball.

Furious, Pafko argued the call while Nelson and the other runner continued to circle the bases.

By the time Pafko realized time had not been called, it was too late to get Nelson at the plate.

The two-run, inside-the-glove home run helped the Cards win that afernoon.

Rocky Nelson is already missed.

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