Obituary: Dave Nicholson (1939-2023)

RIP to Dave Nicholson, a powerful outfielder who played for 7 seasons in the majors in the 1960s. He hit 61 homers in his career, but one of them is still considered as one of the longest ever hit. Nicholson died on February 25 at Wabash Christian Village in Carmi, Ill. He was 83 years old. He played for the Baltimore Orioles (1960, 1962), Chicago White Sox (1963-65), Houston Astros (1966) and Atlanta Braves (1967).

David Lawrence Nicholson was born in St. Louis on August 29, 1939. His size (Baseball Reference lists his playing height & weight at 6’2″ and 215 pounds) and power made him stand out as a prospect as early as his sophomore year at Southwest High School in St. Louis. He was a good pitcher, but his ability to club home runs was noteworthy. He played for a team called the McMackins in a Ban Johnson League over the summer of 1957 and hit .350. His ability for power was clear in a 17-2 win over the Twin City Reds. Nicholson homered twice, including a grand slam. When he graduated from Southwest and became eligible to play pro ball, 15 of the 16 teams (all except Detroit) entered into a bidding war for his services. The Baltimore Orioles and scout Del Wilber made the first and biggest offer — a reported $110,000 — and waited for the other 14 teams to fall out of the bidding. The Orioles reportedly threw in a new family car and hired Nicholson’s father as a scout as well. Baltimore at the time had a notoriously weak outfield, so Nicholson had the opportunity to advance quickly with them. Those who had seen him play, like McMackins coach Roy Lee, expected great things. “I was in organized ball for 17 years. I went step-by-step from Class-D to the majors and I can tell you one thing about Dave — he’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Roy.

Nicholson played on three different teams in the Baltimore organization in 1958 and put his power on display, to the tune of 15 home runs. However, he hit just .222 between Class-A Knoxville, Class-B Wilson and Class-D Dublin, with 158 strikeouts in 118 games. His breakout season came in 1959, when he slammed 35 home runs for Class-C Aberdeen and hit a fine .298. He also drove in 114 runs and, as a pitcher, won 3 games with a 2.91 ERA in 9 appearances. His outfield defense, still very much a work in progress, improved as well. A late-season promotion to Double-A Amarillo didn’t prove as successful, but it didn’t dim what was otherwise a great season. The $100,000 project who bore a striking resemblance to Mickey Mantle was finally starting to play like Mantle, too.

Nicholson started 1960 with Miami of the International League. He was brought to the majors in May, even though he wasn’t hitting particularly well at the time. He would have been promoted regardless of how he was playing, in reality. When he was sent to the minors at the end of spring training, the Orioles used their third and final option on him. Had he remained in the minors for longer than 30 days, he would have been eligible for the minor-league draft at the end of the season. The Orioles still had a pretty mediocre outfield, with veteran Gene Woodling the only regular who was above replacement level. Manager Paul Richards threw him into the starting lineup with some regularity. Nicholson made his major-league debut on May 24 and was 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout. His first hit came on May 29 against Boston; it was a single off Tom Borland. For a while, it was his only hit, as he started his career in a 1-for-25 slump before banging a triple against Cleveland on June 18. The hits began to fall in more frequently, and his first home run came on June 25 against Kansas City A’s pitcher Ken Johnson. In 54 games with Baltimore, Nicholson hit .186, with 5 home runs and 11 RBIs.

The Orioles kept Nicholson in the minors for all of 1962. He asked to be sent down to Double-A Little Rock of the Southern Association when he found himself as the right-handed half of a platoon in Triple-A Rochester. That way, he could play regularly. “I keep trying,” he told Benny Marshall of The Birmingham News. “One thing I found out early, there are a lot of good ballplayers and not all of them are in the major leagues. I suppose I thought it, I know I wanted to make it with Baltimore right off, but it isn’t easy… They say the average time for making the majors is five years. I’d sure want to do it by then.”

Source: Longview Daily News, May 7, 1964.

As it happened, Nicholson’s fifth year in professional ball was 1962, and that was the year he stayed with Baltimore for the entire season. Again, the Orioles were in a position of keeping him in the big leagues or losing him to another team, so they used him as a reserve outfielder. He played in 97 games and spent time at all three outfield positions, slashing .173/.289/.364. He homered 9 times and drove in 15, but he also struck out 76 times in 173 at-bats. By comparison, Brooks Robinson played in all 162 games for the Orioles and struck out just 70 times. Manager Billy Hitchcock worked with Nicholson to alter his batting stance, and it brought about some improvements. Ultimately, Baltimore decided to move on from their young slugger. In January of 1963, Nicholson was part of a big trade that also sent Ron Hansen, Pete Ward and Hoyt Wilhelm to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Al Smith and Luis Aparicio.

Aparicio is in the Hall of Fame now, but the deal wasn’t an awful one for the White Sox. Hansen, Ward and Nicholson all became regular starters in 1963, and Wilhelm was the closer for a White Sox team that won 94 games and finished in second place, 10-1/2 games behind the Yankees. Nicholson appeared in a career-high 126 games, with a .229 batting average, and reached career bests in most offensive categories, including 11 doubles, 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, 63 walks, 53 runs scored and 103 hits. He also struck out 175 times, which led all of baseball and was 24 more than AL runner-up Don Lock’s 151 whiffs. It actually shattered the old record of 142 strikeouts in a season, set by Harmon Killebrew in 1962, and it would remain the record until Bobby Bonds struck out 187 times in 1969. In his second season as a semi-regular in 1964, Nicholson’s batting average tailed off to .204 in 97 games, and he homered just 13 times. One of those home runs generated plenty of headlines.

The White Sox swept the Kansas City Athletics in a doubleheader at Comiskey Park in Chicago on May 6, 1964, by scores of 6-4 and 11-4. Nicholson was the hitting star on the day, as he banged out 3 home runs (two in the first game and one in the second) and drove in 5 runs. Both of his homers in the first game came off A’s pitcher Moe Drabowsky, and one of them soared over the double-deck left field stands and out of the park. The ball landed not far from 12-year-old Mike Murillo. “I was listening to the game on my radio in the park behind the stands while my dad was playing softball,” he said. “I didn’t see the ball bounce. All I know is it didn’t land far from me. I thought dad had hit a homer. Then I realized a ball had come over the stands.”

There was some discussion about whether the ball had bounced on the roof before sailing out of the park. Howie Roberts, White Sox traveling secretary, said that if the ball had hit the roof, “it would have had a visible tar smear on it. It cleared the roof.” Comiskey Park superintendent Ed Holstein paced off the distance of the homer and came up with 573 feet, which would have made it (unofficially) the second-longest home run ever hit, topping the 565-foot homer that Mickey Mantle hit in Washington DC in 1953. Babe Ruth reportedly hit a 600-foot home run in 1926, but obviously all of these numbers are not exact measurements. It was only the fourth home run ball to leave Comiskey Park, putting Nicholson in the company of sluggers Jimmie Foxx, Mantle and Eddie Robinson.

Dave Nicholson shows off the famed home run ball and bat. Along with him are Mike Murillo, the boy who found the home run ball, and A’s coach Jimmy Dykes, who was a teammate of Jimmie Foxx when he hit a ball out of Comiskey Park. Source: Longview Daily News, May 7, 1964.

White Sox owner Art Allyn was flying from Minneapolis to Chicago on his private plane, with the game on the radio. He heard the home run but didn’t quite understand why the radio broadcasters were so excited. “My wife, Dorothy, met me at the airport and said, ‘Let’s get to the park right away. Something big has happened,” he later said.

Nicholson was pretty humble about the homer. “Moe Drabowsky threw me a slider and I met it. But I’ve hit some base hits just as good. This one just went farther.” For Drabowsky, the mammoth home run was another in a streak of ignominious accomplishments. “My bad luck is holding out,” he said. “I give this famous home run pitch, I give Stan Musial his 3000th hit, I lost when Early Wynn won his 300th game… How do you like them apples?”

The less exciting part about the game was that Nicholson struck out three times in the doubleheader, which put him well ahead of his record-setting strikeout total of the previous year. Had he not been moved out of the starting lineup over the final two months of the season, he might have topped his own record. As it was, he fanned 126 times in 97 games in 1964, which in that era was unsustainable. He was used in a part-time role in 1965 and batted .153 with 2 home runs in 54 games. After the season, his contract was sold to the Houston Astros.

Nicholson enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in a new league in 1966. He had been given so much advice on his hitting, scouts reported, that he was lost at the plate with the White Sox. The Astros took a more hands-off approach to the slugger. Originally ticketed for the minor leagues, Nicholson stuck with the Astros and, as of mid-June, was among the top hitters in the NL, batting over .300. “He has done it all himself,” said Houston manager Grady Hatton. “I just told him to forget the home runs, just hit the ball.” While Nicholson was hot, the Astros reached as high as second place in the National League. Both the team and the player cooled off, though. Houston finished in eighth place, and Nicholson ended up with a .246 batting average and 10 home runs. He spent part of the offseason playing in winter ball, working on his pitching in the hopes of extending his major-league career. He didn’t pitch badly, but Houston seemed to have little patience for his switch. That December, Houston traded Nicholson and pitcher Bob Bruce to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for pitcher Arnold Umbach and third baseman Eddie Mathews, who was in the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career. The Braves later added infielder Sandy Alomar to the deal. Nicholson spent most of 1967 in the Braves’ minors, where he hit 21 homers but struggled against Triple-A pitching. He was brought to the majors in September and played in 10 games, getting 5 singles in 25 at-bats for a .200 batting average. Nicholson spent all of 1968 & ’69 in the minors for the Braves & Royals, respectively. The power was still evident — he homered 34 times for Richmond in 1968 — but the strikeouts continued to mount. He hit 3 home runs for Omaha on April 30, 1969, driving in 8 runs to lead the team to a 15-14 win, but he was injured for much of the season. With no overtures from any major-league club, Nicholson retired from the game that September.

In parts of 7 seasons in the majors, Nicholson slashed .212/.318/.381. His 301 career hits included 32 doubles, 12 triples and 61 home runs. He drove in 179 runs and scored 184 times. He had 573 career strikeouts against 219 bases on balls. In 7 seasons in the minor leagues, Nicholson hit 141 home runs. Factor in a couple of years of winter instructional ball, and he had a total of 208 professional homers.

Nicholson owned an operated a sporting goods store in the Chicago suburbs in his retirement. He later was in the tool and die business. “Looking back, it was disappointing because I wanted so bad to do better,” Nicholson told The Evening Sun in 1982. “If you think you can shoot 70 in golf, and you shoot 80, you’re not happy. But I always hustled and played good defense. I did the best I could.”

Nicholson is survived by his wife, Jeanne, and children Tracy, Denise, Cara and David Jr.

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2 thoughts on “Obituary: Dave Nicholson (1939-2023)

  1. Thanks so much for remembering my Dad. He never thought he’d done anything special by playing professional baseball. I told him, how many people get that chance. He was always special to us…Sincerely, Tracy Pavese

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Sam. I love my brother-in-law so much I was in Comiskey Park when he hit that long home run my mother and I jumped up and said that’s our brother-in-law. That’s our son-in-law! We were so proud of Dave. Do you know I’m still proud of Dave I love him will always, Mary Kay Taber.

    Liked by 1 person

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