My Friend, Nellie King
Nelson “Nellie” King, pitcher and announcer of the Pittsburgh Pirates – author of one of the most distinctive baseball autobiographies ever written – one of the special people, beloved by most everybody who got to know him – passed away early this morning at the age of 82.
Few of us today can understand the necessity of persistence. Nellie lived it. He determined to pitch in the big leagues when that first meant convincing an independent club in the South to hire you, and another one to hire you after the first one changed its mind. Learn and practice and sweat and stick to it for eight years and you’d finally get there, as he did with the Pirates in 1954. And then watch it vanish due to an injury within four years.
So he started anew in another field: broadcasting. He did it not the way a player will today, stepping directly from the field to a big league booth. He went out and learned it, working at a series of small radio stations in suburban Pittsburgh – going to Forbes Field to report on the very team he had just been pitching for – and doing that for another seven years before getting a big break and a spot with the Pirates’ announcing team.
When fickle management made that end eight years later, Nellie King persisted again, going to Duquesne University as Sports Information Director, color announcer on the school’s basketball broadcasts, and golf coach. This career, his third, stuck. He only retired from the last parts of it six years ago.
Nellie recounted all of this in an extraordinary autobiography called Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog which I recommended at length here in this blog last November. The book is available here, and a wonderful obituary has been posted on the blog of the Duquesne radio station.
I had spoken to Nellie last Saturday and for what we both knew to be goodbye; the conversation was upbeat and philosophical and there were even some laughs. And though I was the one getting up and going back into the world and not he, the reassurances and the encouragement came from him to me.
I understand that was pretty much everybody’s experience with Nellie King, every day. I don’t think there’s anything better you can say about someone’s life. Farewell, Nellie, and — and I know it’s an odd word at a time like this – congratulations.
Wow. It really has been a rough year, hasn’t it? Thanks for posting this, and I’m sorry to hear that he passed. Beautiful entry, Keith…. and I hope we can go for a long while without you having to write another eulogy. As beautiful as they are… you know? Hugs.
Keith, deepest sympathies on the loss of your friend. I never get tired of telling you how much I enjoy your writing, and this article is no exception. If only the circumstances were happier.
At the risk of sounding corny at a time when you?ve been dealing with such staggering loss, one thing stands out to me about Messrs. Sheppard, Steinbrenner and now King: How long-lived they were. At the time of their respective deaths, Sheppard was 99, Steinbrenner 80, and King 82. I can’t help but wonder if baseball, and specifically their love for the game (and Steinbrenner’s love for the wheeling and dealing end of it), contributed greatly to their undeniable productivity and longevity.
So, along with the folk wisdom of ?an apple a day,? it might be wise for all of us to get more involved in baseball.
I was going to say that I had the distinct pleasure of working with Nellie King (and then consulted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article which said that couldn’t be true, since I started working at KDKA some five years after Nellie and Bob Prince were fired from the broadcast booth). Still, I did get to spend some time with him, when he’d come around and visit the station, for some Duquesne activity or commercial voicetracking. He was everything that anyone has ever said in praise of the man, yet for all his celebrity, he truly never once exploited any of it. Even now I will recall his explanation of what makes for a pitcher’s stats, and while I’ll never be able to use that information, will always treasure the pitching tips that made him one of the greats in baseball.
I have saved my first ever posting to the internet to honor one hell of a man.
Nellie King could capture a radio audience with a style so natural and reassuring that it softened the sting when the Pirates got shutout or when our Duquesne Dukes got blown out… again.
On those few occasions in recent years when Nellie would sit-in with the Buc broadcasters, the game on the field once again morphed into a patch of Americana, as those of us in radioland tuned into real-time audio evidence of how baseball once claimed authentic rights as the national pastime.
He was that good.
If only more sports fans had known of Nellie King.
Keith, I am thankful that you and Nellie clicked. And yet, I am not surprised that you did. You do find the good ones.
Nellie King attended Milton Hershey School in the 1940’s – a school for boys with one or both parents who died. I attended the school nearly 30 years later. One of my fondest memories of my time at the school is of a trip with my houseparents, the Stoughs, to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates play in 1972. I. Mr. Stough took me up to the press booth and asked the security guard to tell Nellie King that a student from Milton Hershey wanted to talk with him. I could not believe it when Nellie King actually invited me into the press booth where we had a chance to talk about our respective experiences at Milton Hershey. Later that year my classmate Bob Wable answered the door at his student home and found Neliie King standing in the doorway. All he managed to sputter out was: “You’re Nellie King.” Nellie laughed and responded “Yes I am.” Bob had sent Nellie a letter and he stopped at his student home to say hello when he was traveling through Hershey. Thank you Keith for sharing your thoughts about this incredibly gracious individual and for sparking these memories of this wonderful man.
Today we lost an icon, a mentor, a friend and a loved one. I played for Nellie King during my tenure @ Duquesne University as the captain of the golf team. I showed up late as I transferred from a basketball/golf endeavor in Michigan prior to joining the Dukes. Ironically, my best sport may have been baseball, so Nellie and I swapped many a story while travelling the East Coast on golf trips. Our relationship went far beyond golf, baseball, or basketball and turned into a true friendship where the words, “I love you,” were perfectly okay. The lessons learned from Nellie will be passed on to my children and hopefully for generations to come.
Mr. Olbermann, you are exactly right about the tenacity of this man and his willingness to do whatever it took to “get it done.” Hitch-hiking to the next try-out with spikes on and glove in hand. I still can’t pass up a logging truck without thinking to myself, “there’s a lot of base hits stacked up on that truck.” (a constant quote of my friend)
Nellie was so much more than a baseball guy, or a broadcaster, or even a golf coach. In fact, my golf swing was the last thing on his mind. “Quit worrying about your swing,” was a frequent comment. “Just learn how to be at peace with yourself and learn how to score. You have a great short-game…use it and quit trying to be perfect!”
The quotes can go on and on, so out of respect to Mr. Olbermann and his blog, I will stop here and let the rest of you chime in. In a wild way, I look forward to this weekend and I look forward to sharing so many wonderful memories of Nellie with so many wonderful people. I’m honored to be considered one of his closest friends and honored to be accepted by the family. I loved Nellie as I know he loved so many of his friends. He was a family man through and through and put no one above his beautiful bride and three lovely daughters. So many of us can only hope to have comments like these left behind when we’re gone.
I’ll leave you with the most frequent and memorable quote I received from this legendary man…”Follow your heart, kid…” My heart is taking me to Pittsburgh this weekend. God Bless his family and God Bless all of us who miss him. BD
This once-Pittsburgh girl thanks you for this beautiful and moving tribute, both here and on “Countdown.” (Seeing the photo of Nellie at Forbes Field made me homesick to the point of tears. ) Our Bucs were and are special because of players like King. Jan in Santa Clarita
I purchased and read Mr. King’s book on your recommendation. As you suggested, it was a terriffic book and, as a longtime Bucs fan, re-introduced me to Mr. King. Rest In Peace Nellie and say hello to The Great One.