Roger Nelson just kept missing out.
The right-hander from California was one of the most promising pitchers in baseball as the 1960s drew to a close. A combination of injuries and poor timing, though, kept him from being part of two dynastic teams as well as a third group that was one of the most dominant in the American League throughout the mid-to-late 70s.
Nelson, 76, was the first player chosen in the American League phase of the 1968 Expansion Draft. He had spent the previous two seasons with the White Sox and Orioles, respectively, putting up strong numbers in a swing role between the bullpen and the starting rotation. But shoulder issues limited Nelson and gave Baltimore just a bit of cause for concern, enough that they left him unprotected in the fall of 1968 as baseball was preparing to add four more teams and break into four divisions for the 1969 season.
That Nelson was selected as the top pick came as a surprise and a disappointment to him, especially since Baltimore had become an AL powerhouse through the late 60s. The Orioles would be one of baseball’s most successful teams over the next three seasons and remain strong into the early 80s but Nelson wouldn’t be there to enjoy the success.
Nelson also missed out on playing for Cincinnati’s back-to-back World Series teams in 1975 and ’76, and though he returned to Kansas City towards the end of his career, he wasn’t there long enough to enjoy the success the Royals would have from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.
Along the way he proved that, when healthy, he could be one of the best pitchers in the game. Ultimately he wound up retiring early because of his shoulder and then embarked on a highly successful career with UPS. His timing couldn’t have been worse as far as baseball was concerned but Nelson is not bitter, particularly because his baseball career path also put him on a path to his post-baseball career.
“I missed the World Series with Baltimore then I missed it with Cincinnati,” Nelson said. “When you get into baseball, there are things you want. You want a championship, a ring and a watch. Sometimes it’s just tough to get that stuff.”
“1972 was so good but I don’t like to look back and say what would have happened if I stayed healthy. Look at what I did it 1972. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about it.”
EARLY SUCCESS HIDES SOME ISSUES
Nelson signed with the White Sox in 1963 after pitching for Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. and was assigned to Middlesboro of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League. He appeared in 16 games [eight starts] and was unremarkable, going 5-4 with a 4.78 ERA. He struck out 83 but he also walked 50 in 64 innings. Still, a promising spring in 1964 was on the horizon.
“I had a tremendous spring training [in 1964] but we had a lot of rainouts and I wasn’t getting to pitch,” said Nelson, who began the season at Portsmouth of the Class-A Carolina League. “I didn’t get into a game so they sent me to Sarasota [of the Class-A Florida State League] and one of my first games there I pitched 14 innings against the Daytona A’s and my shoulder was gone the next day. The first pitch of the game Al Lewis hit a drag bunt to the second baseman and beat it out and that was the last hit they got.”
Nelson was tremendous that day, striking out 22 in 14 innings, which is still an FSL record for an extra-inning game. He didn’t get the decision, though, and despite his shoulder pain he still managed to begin his time in Sarasota with a 31-inning scoreless streak that was snapped on May 21.
“Back then they never heard of a rotator cuff,” Nelson said. “Back then they didn’t have medicine like they do today. What would have happened if we had just gotten one run in that game against Daytona? I went 14 innings in a 0-0 game. Why would a manager [Ira Hutchinson] leave a young kid out there like that so early in the season? In the long run, the first stupid manager I had caused all my shoulder problems. I have no rotator cuff.
“I was kind of being stupid, too. I was having a good time and bringing it for 14 innings. I forget how many guys I struck out but when you’re a kid you don’t think about it.”
Nelson struck out 72 in 65 innings and posted a 2.35 ERA for Sarasota despite his aching shoulder. He spent all of 1965 with Portsmouth [9-7, 3.12] and moved up to the Double-A Southern League in 1966, where he went 6-10 with a 3.78 ERA in 22 games [17 starts] for Evansville. The shoulder/arm issues would persist for the remainder of his career, though.
He pitched for Indianapolis of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1967, going 3-3 with a 4.42 ERA in 37 games to earn a September call-up to Chicago. Nelson made his Major League debut on Sept. 9, tossing a third of an inning of mop-up duty in a 7-3 loss to Detroit. He allowed one run in seven innings over five appearances that month, striking out four and not walking a batter.
Perhaps it was his strong September showing that made Nelson marketable because the Orioles traded for him that fall along with Don Buford and Bruce Howard. Buford would go on to be a staple in the Orioles’ outfield during their World Series runs in 1969-70-71 while Howard would be out of Baltimore by mid-1968 and out of the baseball following the 1969 season.
Nelson proved his worth, though, to the O’s in ’68. While he pitched at Triple-A Rochester briefly [3-0, 1.29 ERA in four starts], the majority of his work was done in Baltimore, where he went 4-3 with a 2.41 ERA in 19 games [six starts]. He struck out 70 in 71 innings.
He had his biggest success of the season during a one-week stretch in September at Boston on the 18th and at home against the Tigers on the 23rd. While Nelson took the loss against the Red Sox, he fanned 13 in six innings. He followed that up with a splashy effort against Detroit, outdueling 30-game winner Denny McLain. Nelson allowed a run on five hits over seven innings to top McLain, who allowed two runs over the same stretch, to deny him his 32nd victory.
“That [Baltimore] team was unbelievable,” Nelson said. “I was lucky to make the team in spring training. I came to spring training late after National Guard duty but I had a tremendous spring, so they took me. I didn’t think they needed another starter so as a rookie pitcher back then, I pitched out of the pen. Then I went against McLain, who was going for 32. I faced him as a rookie and beat him.
“That’s why I was kind of in shock when I got drafted. I didn’t want to leave Baltimore.”
KANSAS CITY, KANSAS CITY HERE I COME
The 1968 MLB expansion draft took place over two days [Oct. 14-15] in Boston. The National League entrants, the Padres and the Expos, made their selections on Day One with San Diego selecting San Francisco’s Ollie Brown first. Montreal followed by taking Manny Mota from the Pirates. There were 60 players chosen and each new team was limited to picking players from their own league.
While the National League draft went off smoothly there was some drama surrounding the American League selections, specifically, who would be the top pick. The Yankees had left Mickey Mantle unprotected at the time of the draft, largely because they weren’t sure if he was going to retire and because they didn’t think either team would take the aging slugger. Mantle, after all, was the Yankee of the last 20 years and the Bombers front office assumed he would be accorded that respect and be left alone.
But as the draft drew near, there were rumblings that either Seattle or Kansas City would take Mantle. Seattle had the top pick but agreed to switch with the Royals in order to have the second and third picks and by all accounts, Kansas City was more than a little interested in picking The Mick. Rumors continued to surface that the Royals were prepared to offer Mantle a two-year, $200,000 deal and they were loud enough that the Yankees contacted both teams and the commissioner’s office in an attempt to thwart what would have been an uncomfortable situation.
In the end, it mattered little because a mysterious telegram was sent to the Royals with Mantle’s name on it saying he would retire if selected. The Royals ended up passing on Mantle and he officially retired the following spring.
“No way the Mick would’ve agreed to go to Kansas City, even if the Yankees had foolishly left him unprotected,” long-time New York sportswriter and Yankees historian Bob Herzog said. “I’m absolutely certain he would’ve retired instead. If he had anything left in the tank, he would’ve kept playing. The Yankees definitely wanted him to do just that.
“Mantle bled Yankees pinstripes. So did I. In fact, I was among the crowd of more than 60,000 at Mickey Mantle Day on June 8, 1969. I don’t even have to look up the date. I took part in the eight-minute standing ovation. He was trying to silence the crowd with gestures, but they just cheered louder. My tears flowed. In his speech, he got emotional when he thanked and praised Yankees fans. He would never have worn another uniform.”
The same could not be said for Nelson, who was pitching in Baltimore’s Instructional League that fall alongside Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer. Palmer had missed almost all of 1967-68 with his own arm/shoulder issues and appeared to be at the end of his career before it even started. He, too, had been left off Baltimore’s protected list but was not selected by either the Pilots or the Royals.
“I didn’t want to get drafted but Palmer wanted to get drafted,” said Nelson, who had gone to instructs to work on his breaking ball. “He was upset with the Orioles. He came in that day and said congrats to me, you’re the Number 1 pick. I told him I know you’re funning because Seattle had the pick. Joe Foy was the best player available and they knew the Royals didn’t want Foy so they swapped.
“From what I was told, Baltimore had me protected as their 15th player but Lou Gorman and John Schuerholz went to the Royals [front office from Baltimore]. The Orioles thought they were going to pick Don Baylor so they protected him and that’s how that evolved. I was not real happy.”
The pick was widely praised, though. Washington Senators farm director Hal Keller told The Sporting News following the draft that “Baltimore was hardest hit purely by losing Roger Nelson”, a sentiment echoed by Red Sox manager Dick Williams.
The Royals also selected future Hall-of-Famer Hoyt Wilhelm with the 49th pick in the expansion draft. He stayed in Kansas City for less than two months before he was traded to the Angels. Nelson, who pitched with Wilhelm in Chicago, believed that deal was a mistake, pointing out that if the Royals had kept the knuckleballer they would have won at least 10 more games than the 69 victories they collected that first year.
Seattle used the second and third picks on Don Mincher [Angels] and Tommy Harper [Indians], respectively.
A ROYAL TIME
While Nelson wanted to remain in Baltimore, he quickly endeared himself to the Kansas City fans, going 7-13 with a 3.31 ERA over 29 starts. He would pitch a career-high 193 1/3 innings that year but battled shoulder pain throughout. He tossed eight complete games and was hurt by the team’s lack of offense. The Royals were blanked in six of his losses.
Nelson had his moments early, going 4-4 through his first 13 starts. He pitched 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball against Seattle on April 14 to pick up his first win as a Royal and earned a complete-game victory in which he allowed only one run at California on May 4. The high-water mark of the season, however, was May 21 at Cleveland when he pitched a complete-game shutout, scattering seven hits and striking out five.
His shoulder issues were taking their toll by the second half of the season, though, and he went 1-6 over his last 10 starts.
Nelson’s shoulder problems continued into 1970. He made only four appearances [two starts] – two in April and one each in May and June. The following year wasn’t much better. He appeared in 13 games [one start] and finished 1971 having pitched only 43 innings over a two-season stretch.
“The doctor told me in 1970 to take a year off and rest and that’s what I [finally] did,” Nelson said. “In ’71 I did some stuff after I met Pee Wee Barrett, a referee and gym teacher. He looked at some film of me pitching and made these exercises that I needed to build up my strength.
“He went to a truck tire store and bought some inner tubes and stripped the inner tubes and made elastic bands with handles. He showed me all these motions and I worked on that through the offseason. Still, I had to beg my way into spring training in 1972.”
1972 would be the high-water mark of Nelson’s career and the season for which many Royals fans still revere him. He showed Kansas City what he was capable of that spring and made the team despite their worries about his health. He was their best reliever for the first three months of the season, posting a 0.95 ERA in 14 games through June 27. He then moved into the rotation on June 30 and stayed there for the rest of the season.
Nelson pitched a four-hit shutout against Detroit in his second start on July 4th and pitched back-to-back shutouts at Chicago and California on July 27th and 31st. Toss in two more August shutouts and that brought his ERA entering September to 1.91. He finished the season 11-6 with a 2.08 ERA following a season-ending shut out of Texas on Oct. 4.
He led the league with what is still a club-record 0.871 WHIP. His six shutouts are also still a Kansas City standard as is his 2.08 ERA as a starter.
“I was lucky enough that when I got between the lines that I showed them enough to keep me around,” Nelson said. “1972 was so good but I don’t like to look back and say what would have happened if I stayed healthy. Look at what I did it 1972. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about it.
“The people in Kansas City must have thought I was running for mayor that first year . They had gotten baseball back and everywhere you went, you were pretty popular in Kansas City. I still meet people that remember me, especially from 1972.”
MOVING AROUND TOWARD AN UNCEREMONIOUS END
That Nelson was so good in 1972 made the fact that he was traded to Cincinnati that winter even more astonishing. Perhaps Kansas City general manager Cedric Tallis had a true sense about Nelson’s health, perhaps he was simply trying to improve the team. Whatever the case, he sent Nelson packing, along with Richie Scheinblum, on Nov. 30 for Wayne Simpson and Hal McRae. While Simpson amounted to nothing, McRae would go on to become one of the greatest and most beloved players in franchise history.
“That was the worst thing that could have happened,” Nelson said of the trade to Cincy.
It turned out to be not so great for the Reds. Nelson’s shoulder was still unstable, limiting him to 28 games [20 starts] over two seasons. While Nelson did have a superlative outing against the Mets in the 1973 NLCS – he pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 3 following the Bud Harrelson-Pete Rose brawl – it would be his last great gasp.
“I pitched in the game with the big fight,” Nelson said. “I came in after. That was terrible. The fans were throwing everything. I had just come off the DL and here I am coming in to pitch after everything had been settled. The umpire comes up to me and says we don’t want you throwing at anyone and I told him I haven’t pitched in two months; I’d be lucky to find the plate.
“That series was a shame. Our team was so good. We totally blew it. We were so worried about [Tom] Seaver and the Mets pitching staff.”
The White Sox purchased Nelson’s contract from Cincinnati following the 1974 season. While the Reds would go on to win their first of back-to-back World Series in 1975-76, Nelson would languish in Tucson for the entire 1975 season after being released by Chicago in March and signed by Oakland in April.
“I had an ungodly spring that year but I didn’t have an agent so I was calling around looking for a job,” Nelson said. “Finally I ran into a sportswriter who knew Charlie Finley and Finley calls me and got me out there [to Oakland]. I never got called up, though.
“They [the Tucson equipment people] carried around an Oakland uniform for me all year but I never got called up. Those are the breaks when you have a bad arm and get sent down. You have to be in the right spot at the right time.”
Nelson appeared in three games with the Royals in 1976 but spent most of the year and all of 1977 in Triple-A Omaha. He was in Triple-A for the Pirates in all of 1978 and for one game in 1979 when he realized he needed to put an end to his career.
“I just got to thinking ‘what’s the point?’” Nelson said. “It was a waste. I wasn’t going to get back to the Major Leagues. I played one year in Mexico after that. You can’t cry over spilled milk, though. I’m more than happy where I am sitting now. UPS was very good to me. It was a lot of hard work and long hours but it was well worth it.”
It seems that “playing” for UPS would be the one time that Nelson didn’t miss out.