Always monumental hitter, Nicholson gets just due from Chestertown fans

John Steadman

November 11, 1991|By John Steadman

CHESTERTOWN -- Soon there will be a monument erected in the town square to honor a baseball player, an action that is unusual, if not unprecedented, but the chorus for approval rings loud and clear. This is a different kind of a man, given to gentle ways and an enormous ability to swing a bat with booming gusto.

Bill Nicholson became known as "Big Swish" because of the physical power he demonstrated. And when he broke the sound barrier, hit or miss, it was an awesome experience to observe and to hear. There was this demonstrative display of force . . . then the subsequent noise that "went swish." For 16 years, he played in the National League, a four-time All-Star choice and vital component in the Chicago Cubs' last World Series appearance, 46 years ago and counting.

He never made speeches or held public office. Not a statesman nor politician. Merely a good neighbor, who was modest and respectful of his fellow man and carried himself with exemplary humility. He combined the best of athletic talent and citizenship. The town folk, not easily impressed, recognized the extraordinary characteristics and, because of what he represents, decided by acclamation to immortalize him in a bronze sculpture.

Friends, admirers and former teammates gathered here for a moving testimonial on the campus of his alma mater, Washington College, class of 1936. Nicholson has fought diabetes for most of his adult life, even when he didn't know it, and was dismissed from the hospital only hours before the Saturday night banquet that put him front and center as the guest of honor.

From baseball came Andy Pafko of the Chicago Cubs; Spook Jacobs of the Philadelphia and Kansas City

A's; Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons, Dallas Green and Frank Hoerst, all former pitchers of the Philadelphia Phillies, one-time manager Eddie Sawyer and coach Maje MacDonnel.

"My hero, until I met Bill Nicholson, was Lou Gehrig," exclaimed Roberts. "I looked up to him so much and when he was traded to the Phils in 1949 I finally got to know him. There was never a ballplayer who came to the park better prepared. In batting practice, even if the pitchers or extra men were hitting, he'd be shagging in the outfield and playing every ball as if it was a game condition.

"I remember once in Brooklyn, he went up to pinch-hit for Russ Meyer. The Dodger manager, Charley Dressen, came out to talk to Don Newcombe. They had a long discussion, obviously about how to handle Nicholson. The first pitch he drove the ball over the rightfield fence. It must have gone 400 feet. To this day, I still wonder what Dressen told Newcombe."

Simmons remembered the way Bill enjoyed playing "pepper" and slamming the ball at them from 30 feet away. "My shins still have marks on them," he said. Green followed up by saying, "The game would be so much better today if we had more Bill Nicholsons."

Sawyer, who traded Harry "The Hat" Walker to the Cubs to get Nicholson, dealt away an outfielder who had batted .363 in 1947, followed by .292 the next year. "Walker was injected with a phonograph needle; he never shut up," remarked Sawyer in a whimsical recall. "But he didn't have any power and could hardly drive a ball 90 feet. We needed someone who could hit us a fly ball. That was 'Nick.' What a pleasure to be around him."

It was pointed out that Nicholson became the first National Leaguer to lead in homers and RBIs in consecutive seasons, an accomplishment that had only been done twice previously in the American League -- by fellow Marylanders Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. He lost the MVP award to Marty Marion by a single vote in 1944, hit four straight homers in a doubleheader that same year and in the 1945 World Series drove in eight runs.

Nicholson had then complained of illness and went to a Chicago hospital but it wasn't until 1950, when he was with the Phils' "Whiz Kids" edition and on another World Series team, that the problem was finally diagnosed as diabetes. So after 16 major-league campaigns he retired to the quiet life of his Chestertown farm.

His two sons died, one in an auto accident and another of cancer. His first wife was killed in an air crash and his second wife passed away a year ago. So Bill Nicholson goes on living, making the good fight without a word of complaint, taking treatments for diabetes but realizing relatives and friends care deeply about him.

They think so highly of this soft-spoken man of 76 summers they are paying with voluntary contributions to erect a statue in downtown Chestertown. A baseball player of stature, yes, but, more importantly, one who personifies the profound good of the human spirit.

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