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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Facing Down Dodger Blue
By Nellie King

It was an overcast, cold, 40-degree day—April 15, 1954, at Ebbets Field—as the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their home season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The game was in the eighth inning and I was ready to make my first pitch as a major leaguer.

It had taken me eight years, including two outright releases in 1946 and two years in the army, to get to this moment at Ebbets Field. I thought of all those innings I had spent pitching in small minor league towns in the Class D Alabama State League—Geneva, Ozark, Brewton, Troy, Dothan, Greenville, Andalusia, Enterprise—during my first season in professional baseball. Of the eight teams in the league, only four had grass infields, and my home field at Geneva was barren of any grass whatsoever. The contrast between Ebbets Field and those minor league towns and fields only magnified the satisfaction I was feeling.

After having viewed Ebbets Field only in black and white photos and on television in World Series games, I was now seeing it for the first time up close—in full color—with me in the center of the picture. In my seventh decade of life, the memory of the moment is so vivid I can still visualize the well-manicured infield, the colorful ads on the outfield walls, the manually operated scoreboard in right center, the slight angles at the base of the right field wall that created crazy ricochets for outfielders, the zany Dodger fans who seemed to always be in your face, and Tex Ricard, the public address announcer who sat in a folding chair on the playing field adjacent to the Dodger dugout, where he also had the job of providing baseballs for the home plate umpire.

Fred Haney, the Pirates manager, had me in the bullpen that day. Being in the bullpen for the Pirates in 1954 at Ebbets Field was similar to having a rifleman's MOS in the infantry. You knew you were going to get into the battle; you just weren't sure when. The fans at field level, like in all the old parks, were so close they could reach out and touch you. The wonderful intimacy was great for the Dodgers and their fans, but it was hell for the players in the visiting team bullpen located in foul territory down the left field line.

The Dodgers' roster that Opening Day in 1954 was loaded with established veteran players: Junior Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, and Billy Cox. They didn't waste any time unloading on Pirates veteran starter Max Surkont. They got to him for eight hits in four innings, including home runs by Gilliam, Robinson, and Campanella for a 71 lead. The bullpen phone rang in the fifth inning and Cal Hogue, a rookie right-hander with an outstanding curveball, got the call. Cal pitched well, allowing only one hit in three innings before leaving for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth. When the Pirates played in Ebbets Field, the eighth inning was usually the Dodgers' last at bat. This was to be no exception.

In the top of the eighth inning, Sam Narron, the Pirates bullpen coach, answered the phone and, in what sounded like an executioner's voice, said, "King, it's you." With my major league debut moments away, I took off my jacket and began to experience more anxiety than ever in my career. Throwing right-handed and sidearm, I used the pitching mound nearest the field box seats. As I was making my first warm-up pitch, the fans were leaning so far over the railing, I thought I was going to hit them with my sidearm delivery. To ease my concern, but mostly to improve my concentration, I moved to the mound nearest the foul line. This put me physically, but not audibly, apart from the fans, who kept up their one-sided conversations.

There is a psychological moment for a pitcher that can have a positive or negative effect on his attitude. It occurs immediately after picking up a baseball. If it feels small and light in your hand, you begin to feel stronger. That feeling continues on an upward spiral as you step on the pitching rubber and look in at the catcher. You think you're a lot closer than the sixty feet six inches from which you are throwing. All of these positive feelings were with me as I warmed up. My anxiety began to dissipate and my confidence increased. As I got further into my warm-ups, other positive things began to occur. I was throwing everything for strikes. My best pitch, a sinker, was really moving, and I was keeping it down low in the strike zone where it was most effective. As I was finishing up, I noticed one final positive sign: my catcher, Vic Janowicz, was having trouble handling my pitches, dropping almost every one. Buoyed by this upward spiral of confidence, I put on my jacket as I headed to the Pirate dugout on the third base side.

The Pirates' eighth inning was lengthy, as we scored three runs to chase Monk Meyer, the Dodger starter, and make it a seven to four game. As the inning continued, I found a seat next to my roommate, Vern Law. Aware it was my big league debut, he inquired how I felt. I told him of the positive things: the ball was light, it looked like I was standing right on top of the catcher, my sinker was moving, I kept it low, I was throwing strikes, and, I added, "The catcher was dropping almost everything I threw." He stopped me and asked, "Who was catching you?" "Vic Janowicz," I replied. (Janowicz was an All-American football player at Ohio State who had no professional baseball experience. However, he received a large bonus from Pirates owner John Galbreath, a big Ohio State booster, and had to be carried on the active major league roster for two seasons.) Just as the Pirate inning was ending, Law said, "Janowicz? Heck, he has trouble catching everyone."

I didn't need to hear that! As I took my first step from the dugout to the mound, that upward psychological spiral began a sudden downward movement. I started to think, Maybe I wasn't throwing that well. Anxiety began to rise and, with it, a complete disassociation of where I was. As I got to the mound, facing center field, I picked up the Spalding Official National League Baseball for the first time in a major league game. I turned toward home, stepped on the pitching rubber, looked in toward the plate—and couldn't believe what I was seeing. Toby Atwell, my catcher, looked so far, so very far away. If you have looked through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, you have some idea of what I was seeing. Negative thoughts were quickly destroying any concentration I might have had. This can't be the mound, I thought; I must be on second base. I don't think I can throw a ball from here to Atwell without bouncing it.

My warm-up pitches did nothing. The only thing moving the ball was gravity. I thought Atwell was laughing at the lack of movement on my pitches. Atwell acquired the nickname of "Buster" because, like the old-time silent film star "Buster" Keaton, he rarely said anything. As I waved my glove to signal my final warm-up pitch, I knew Atwell wasn't about to come out to offer any encouragement. He didn't.

As the ball was making its ritual movement around the infield, I heard Tex Ricard, the PA announcer, proclaim, "Now pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, number twenty-nine. King! Wayne King!" "Hell, Wayne King is an orchestra leader," I said to myself. Ben Wade, a former Dodger pitcher, informed me later that Tex, who rarely knew the first names of rookie players, would trustingly seek help from the Dodger dugout. The players always gave him any name but the correct one, and Tex would gullibly announce it. In 1955, Gene Freese, then in his rookie season with the Pirates, made his first appearance at Ebbets Field when Tex Ricard introduced him as "Augie." To this day, Freese, who had a long major league career, still goes by that nickname.

Hearing my introduction as "Wayne King" and waiting to receive the game ball from third baseman Eddie Pelligrini, I said a silent prayer: "Please God, get me out of here without too much embarrassment." Additional thoughts began going through my mind—You can't hide a bad performance in New York; there are so many media covering the game and I have to face at least one hitter before they can take me out—even though I had been praying for this moment for a long time. As I looked at Duke Snider up at the plate, I remembered the old adage "Be careful what you pray for; you may receive it." Here I was, a right-handed, low-ball pitcher facing one of the best left-handed, low-ball power hitters in the majors—and in a ballpark with a short porch in right field!

Toby Atwell signaled for a sinker on my first pitch. Somehow I got it near home plate on the outside corner and Snider fouled it off for a strike. I now was able to breathe, but I still couldn't spit. I threw a curve inside for ball one and then got a curveball where I wanted it, low and inside off the plate, and Snider fouled it off for strike two. Atwell signaled for another sinker. As I made the pitch, it was like I was watching in slow motion: I threw the ball, followed through, and for some reason, Snider, with two strikes on him, tried to drag bunt and fouled off the pitch. I suddenly thought, Damn, he struck out! If you saw the emotion Johnny Podres displayed in the final game of the 1955 World Series at Ebbets field, you have some idea of how I felt inside. I got through the inning giving up only one hit and no runs.

After eight years in the minors, it was personally gratifying to have finally pitched in the big leagues. After the game when we returned to the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, I was anxious to get the early edition of the New York Daily News and read Dick Young's story on the game. I saw my name in the box score. The line read, "King, 1 inning, 1 hit, 0 walks, 1 strikeout." That's all I had to see. If I never threw another pitch, this verified I had pitched in the major leagues. It was right there in the New York Daily News!

The next morning I got around to reading the complete story and game notes by Young. In his notes he stated, "Nellie King, a tall, thin right-handed, sidearm pitcher who resembles Ewell Blackwell, pitched the final inning for the Pirates, allowing only one hit." Being compared with Blackwell caught my attention. He had been my idol since I began my career in the minors. Like him, I was tall, thin, a right-handed, sidearm, sinkerball pitcher, but sadly lacking Blackwell's velocity. As I continued to read Young's article, he asked Jackie Robinson, "Does Nellie King resemble Ewell Blackwell?"

Robinson's reply: "He does, until he lets go of the ball."

—EFQ

NELLIE KING played eleven seasons of professional baseball, including four years in the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates. From 1967 through 1975, he worked with the legendary Bob Prince doing radio and TV broadcasts of Pirates games. He is currently completing a book about his baseball career.

© 2006 Nellie King

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