William Nicholson, 81, played for Cubs, Athletics, Phillies

March 10, 1996|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

William B. Nicholson, who reached the peak of his career in the Chicago Cubs outfield and earned the nickname "Swish" for the sound his bat made as it split the air in the on-deck circle, died Friday of a heart attack at his home in the Broadneck area of Chestertown. He was 81.

Mr. Nicholson was inducted into the State of Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame in 1962 and was the first athlete honored with a statue in a Maryland town. His bridge club in Chestertown raised money to place a statue of him swinging his bat in the Chestertown square in 1992. Mr. Nicholson seemed almost embarrassed by the honor, said Sun sports columnist John Steadman, a friend. Mr. Nicholson was born Dec. 11, 1914, on the family farm near Chestertown. He entered Washington College in 1932.

"When you had a close game and a man on base and Bill came up [to bat], you knew you were going to make the run," said Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a teammate of Mr. Nicholson's on the Washington College baseball team.

Mr. Goldstein recalled that Mr. Nicholson had a tendency to hit the ball high in the air, and Washington College coach Tom Kibler spent hours working with the big, powerful hitter.

"He was a real gentleman and a great ballplayer. He brought a lot of glory to himself and to the Eastern Shore," Mr. Goldstein said.

Mr. Nicholson was ready to accept an appointment to the Naval Academy after he graduated from Washington College in 1936, but he failed the physical exam because he was colorblind.

He played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1936 to 1939, the Cubs from 1939 to 1948 and the Phillies from 1949 to 1953.

He impressed other players with his dedication. Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who got to know Mr. Nicholson after he was traded to the Phillies in 1949, recalled in 1995 how hard the outfielder worked at early practices. "He didn't just shag balls, but reacted to everything as if it was a game condition, running down every hit and playing the carom off the fence and throwing to second or third as if he had a runner to catch," Mr. Roberts said.

Mr. Nicholson acquired the nickname "Swish" when the Cubs played the Brooklyn Dodgers. The outfielder would stand in the on-deck circle swinging his bat. Dodger fans, hearing the sound, would call back, "Swish!"

Mr. Nicholson's career peaked in 1944, when he had a .287 batting average. He hit 33 home runs and drove in 122 runs that year to lead the National League in both categories. He missed the Most Valuable Player award by one vote. In 1945, the Cubs went to the World Series, but he batted only .243 and hit 13 home runs. He said later that he believed diabetes had begun to affect his vision, although the condition was not diagnosed until 1950.

Mr. Nicholson retired in 1953 and returned to the Eastern Shore to farm. He became an avid duck hunter and worked to preserve wildlife. He knew sadness in his life, Mr. Steadman pointed out in a 1995 column. In addition to the diabetes he suffered, two sons from his first marriage died, one in an auto accident and another from cancer.

His first wife, the former Nancy Kane, is deceased. His second wife, the former Diana Hudson Curlett, died in 1990.

Services for Mr. Nicholson will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Chestertown. Burial will be in the church cemetery.

He is survived by a stepson, John Martin Curlett of Kennedyville; five stepdaughters, Emily Joiner of Chestertown, Priscilla Whiting and Charlotte Gonzalez of Greensboro, Caroline Withers of Betterton, and Julia Ann Stap of Kennedyville; and several grandchildren.

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