People will little note nor long remember what Steven Jackson did pitching in relief last season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. For that matter, not until now, were they likely to remember what Nellie King did pitching in relief for the Bucs in 1956.
Without both of these men, and all others like them, baseball would cease to exist.
2009 was an encouraging year for Jackson. Up from Indianapolis, he pitched 40 times for a total of 43 innings, 21 strikeouts, 22 walks, two wins, three losses, and a 3.14 ERA. This was the culmination of nearly six years along a heavily-guided, clearly-lit, little-left-to-chance route that began when Howard McCullough of the Diamondbacks started scouting him at Clemson in 2003. The next year, Arizona drafted him in the tenth round, and, despite the fact he was already 22, they started him in the instruction-focused Pioneer and Northwest Leagues. The Yankees were following him, too, and when they worked out a deal to return Randy Johnson to Arizona, Jackson was one of the pitchers they demanded. New York began to work Jackson in relief in ’07 and their instructors helped him find a new arm slot that turned a mediocre sinker into an out pitch. He was the third arm the Yankees called up from the minors last April, but they wasted his last option by letting him sit in the bullpen for a week without an appearance. When they tried to sneak him off the major league roster, the Pirates pounced and picked him up on waivers. Within weeks, he was a regular in the Pittsburgh bullpen.
This tortuous recital of the provenance of Steven Jackson – scouted, trained, guided, instructed, groomed (and paid around $275,000 in his first big league season) is provided to underscore a point about ex-Pirate reliever Nellie King’s wonderful new book Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog. In King’s first full season in the bigs, in 1956, he appeared 38 times in Pittsburgh, pitched 60 innings, won four and lost one, and finished with a 3.15 ERA (and earned about $6,000 – still just $47,000 in 2009 dollars). This was the culmination of eleven years of fighting to get anybody to notice him long enough to invite him to a mass tryout camp, then possibly to spring training, then possibly onto the roster of a minor league team like the New Iberia Cardinals of the Class-D Evangeline League.
As he vividly recounts in this warm, understated memoir, Nellie King’s career began in a time when a ballplayer had at least three jobs: what he did during the actual season, what he did delivering packages or bailing hay during the off-season, and what he had to do 24 hours a day to make sure he didn’t get released with no more than ten days’ notice and not even a bus ticket home. It is almost unfathomable to consider the pioneer-like hacking through the woods of hidden opportunity that King so fondly recalls. A part-time Cardinals’ scout liked what he saw of him in a glorified summer high school league and invited him to a tryout. He got a uniform with a three digit number on it. Hooking on with a team in Louisiana he arrived there by bus in the middle of the night, clueless of who to contact or where to go. He was released twice before his 19th birthday, and made it back into organized ball only because that first scout had gone to work filling out the rosters of some independent clubs. And that only got him into the Pittsburgh system because the owner sold those obscure franchises to the Pirates.
And that’s when he got to begin his climb up the ladder in a Pirates’ farm system that was a little smaller than most – it only had about a dozen clubs. Having won 15 or more three separate times for Pirates’ farms (a feat which today would put him on the cover of The Baseball America Prospect Handbook) and having survived, unfazed, two years at Fort Dix during the Korean War, Nelson Joseph King finally got to the big leagues in 1954.
“It had taken me eight years, including two outright releases in 1946, plus two years in the Army, to get to this moment at Ebbets Field. I thought of all those innings and games I spent pitching in small, minor league towns such as Geneva, Ozark, Brewton, Troy, Dorhan, Greenville, Andalusia, and Enterprise, in the Class “D” Alabama State League during my first season in professional baseball. The contrast between Ebbets Field and those minor league towns and fields magnified the contrasts and the satisfaction I was feeling. Having viewed Ebbets Field only in black and white photos and on television in World Series games, I was now seeing it up close, in full color and from the center of the picture. In my eighth decade of life, the memory of that moment is so vivid I can still visualize Ebbets Field…”
Injuries would end King’s pitching career in 1957, and he went into radio – following the same steep staircase that described his playing days – through local markets in Western Pennsylvania. Finally, a decade after he stopped pitching for them, he rejoined the Pirates a decade later as an announcer, and the primary partner of the legendary Bob “The Gunner” Prince. Once again the reality of the business of today and that of an earlier time is underscored. As the third announcer of a major league team just 42 years ago, Nellie King was paid $13,000 – and even that only translates to $83,000 in today’s money.
The remarkable part of King’s story is that the struggle and the finances seem to have made every step, and every misstep, all the more satisfying. Nellie King’s story is a triumph of perseverance and contentment. Even the title comes from one of the odder of the aphorisms of the legendary Branch Rickey, for whom King worked in the Pittsburgh organization. Figures like Rickey, and Bill Mazeroski, and Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell, populate its pages, but Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog should not be mistaken for the kind of dramatic but sometimes self-important recent biographies of, say, Satchel Paige or George Steinbrenner. And though King goes into depth about the two epic Pirates’ World Championship years he covered, he does not seek to elevate either to world-changing status, such as a recent book on the 1912 Series does.
Nellie King has simply written a book about the backbone of baseball, a tale like that of 75 percent of the players in the game’s history. And in its own matter-of-fact style, it’s terrific. It’s available from the usual suspects like Amazon, but more directly (and economically) from the publisher
, and Nellie and his family have also launched a blog
CORRECTIONS AND NOTES:
In advocating for Danny Murtaugh’s Hall of Fame qualifications I gave him credit for one more NL East title than he deserved. I’d forgotten Murtaugh retired four times as Pittsburgh skipper, not three, and the 1972 crown belonged to Bill Virdon… And having composed this as MLB Network rolled out its World Series highlight films, these trivial observations about Yankee Stadium. The boxes remained in the “opera style” – no permanent seats, just as many hard wooden chairs as you needed or could fit in – through at least 1943. And the dirt stripe from the mound to the plate, most recently resurrected in Detroit and Phoenix, was in place in the Bronx through at least 1947 – but gone by 1949.