Back in the day a greasy old filling station on Route 213 was kind of like Chestertown’s Ellis Island. There was a Trailways stop there that offered a couple of visitors every day their entrance into the ancient place. That’s where I disembarked and walked into the town for the first time in my life. It was 1983 and I was 18. As I strolled around the place before a scheduled admissions appointment at Washington College, I was oblivious to the incredible eighteenth-century federal architecture. And the languid pace and rhythms of the town, a source of charm to so many others, only struck me as evidence of insignificance. When I failed to find any statues, plaques or notations of historical residents or events, I concluded that it was a 300-year old chronic condition. This complete lack of bustle or civic ambition suited me since I expected to spend the next four years here engaged in serious study. (The serious study of brunettes, blondes, and redheads.)
In addition to my “studies,” I took a job at the office of college relations the summer between my junior and senior years. I was hired to write press releases and other materials relating to our membership in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference. It should have been a mostly forgettable experience except that in my zeal to spice up our prose for a league publication I referred to several rivals as “pansies.” This description skulked past both my bosses and the editors at the conference office, but seemed to gyrate lasciviously under the outraged noses of the insulted schools’ administrators.
Instantly, the offended parties struck back with censure and epithets aimed at both Washington College and me. The school, seeing its reputation sink with every single word I pecked out on its behalf, decided it was time to give me a new assignment. I was taken off public relations and told instead to write a feature story for the alumni magazine about Bill “Swish” Nicholson, the best athlete in school history. The assignment, I was told, should last the rest of the summer. That wasn’t an estimate, but a rather forceful demand.
I approached the project with mild interest. Swish Nicholson was an old outfielder who prowled the verdant lawns of the National League in the era of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. I was a lover of baseball and an enthusiastic reader of its history since a boyhood worshipping Brooks Robinson. My obsession with the game grew as I did, so that by the time I entered high school my father wondered out loud how I was failing “Introduction to Typing” (among other classes) and yet somehow knew the current batting averages of every utility infielder on the Yankees and Red Sox (two teams I detested). “When I was in school,” he thundered, “the kids went outside during typing class and smoked dope. And they still got a ‘C’!”
Despite my interest in baseball, I had never even heard of Swish. Therefore my twenty-year-old brain instantly dismissed him as a “Chestertown celebrity,” a big leaguer, maybe, but long forgotten. In 1986 he was nothing more than an aging farmer and a hunter, isolated and obscure. If he was a big fish it was only in relation to the puny guppies plopping around the Chester puddle.
Even the shoddy research of which I was capable quickly revealed that I was a moron. (Why was I the last to know?) Swish Nicholson was a big star in his day, as big as the National League had to offer. Spending almost his entire career with the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies, he played a pivotal role in two historic pennant races. In 1945 he helped the Cubs achieve their last World Series appearance in the twentieth century. And in 1950 he was one of Philadelphia’s famous “Whiz Kids,” a group of upstarts that unexpectedly grabbed the National League pennant.
Nicholson’s individual accomplishments were more than impressive. He led the National League in home runs and runs batted in in 1943, and then again in 1944, achieving two thirds of a Triple Crown in two straight years. Of all the great and fearsome sluggers to ever play the game, very few had ever done that.
On July 23, 1944, against the New York Giants, he hit four consecutive home runs. When he came up with a chance to make it five in a row, the bases were loaded. But Giants manager, Mel Ott, had seen enough. He simply surrendered and ordered his pitcher to intentionally walk Nicholson. Giving a player a free pass with the bases loaded is one of the rarest occurrences in baseball. Though there is some dispute about this, it is believed Nicholson was just the third batter in history to be accorded this extreme show of respect. It wouldn’t happen again for another 54 years, when Arizona waved the white flag at Barry Bonds, who may or may not have been enjoying a better career through chemistry.
By the time I arrived at Nicholson’s farm, I had completed my background research. Viewing photos in an old, school file of both the man and the ballplayer it was hard to ignore that he was a pretty nice looking guy in his prime – tall, solidly built, and thick of hair. When he smiled he was all flashing teeth and dimples. In those days of elaborate haberdashery, he sported crisp suits, snappy fedoras, and wingtips shined to glassy perfection. He didn’t look so much like a baseball hero as he did a Hollywood director’s conception of one.
And it was a good thing that he looked like a hero. After his two historic seasons in ’43 and ’44, his career seriously declined. He went from leading the league with 33 homers to managing just 13 in 1945. The next season, at the prime age of 32, he would hit only eight. This was a mystery I intended to explore with him.
Nicholson’s farm sat along the Langford Creek. His well-maintained home was simple but attractive. The front porch featured a couple of old hunting dogs, drowsing in the early evening. As I approached the house these brutes lifted their heads indolently, pushed up on their paws, and wagged their forlorn tails.
I rapped on the screen door a couple of times and Swish appeared. He was no longer the 205-pound ballplayer who retired in 1953. He was 73 now, trim but sinewy, and probably still a pretty tough customer. The thick, perfect brown hair I saw in his playing-day photos was gone--all gone. I myself had an exceedingly beautiful head of brown hair at that time, and I remember thinking: “If it could happen to him….” But I stopped myself since the notion was preposterous, paranoid and, if possible, too tragic to contemplate.
Swish extended his hand to shake and welcomed me into his home. We sat down in his living room and after exchanging stiff pleasantries I commenced the interview. My first question was calculated to be easy. “How did you get the name Swish?”
“Well, I had a habit,” he said. “I would slowly swing my bat across the plate while I was waiting for the pitcher to deliver. I was a pretty big fella and I swung a pretty big stick, so in Brooklyn, they started chanting, “Swissshhh” every time I swung the bat. Eventually, everybody called me that.”
As we talked baseball the many obstacles of formality, familiarity, and age faded until we were just two guys discussing a game we both loved. Eventually, the conversation took on a warmth I hadn’t expected and he started volunteering stories that weren’t even on my list. In one of them, Nicholson plays a key role in a tale that later became celebrated in American literature and film.
“I played ball with a first baseman named Eddie Waitkus,” he said. “We were roommates. One day I was in the hotel and Eddie was out when a call came from a girl. She said her name was Burns and that she had grown up with Eddie in Boston. She was staying at our hotel and said that she would like him to stop by so they could catch up. When I gave him the message, he said that he didn’t remember her but that the name sounded familiar since it was Irish and typical of the Boston area. He called her back and went up to see her. When he entered her room she had a gun and shot him. She had been following him around. I guess she was in love with him. But they had never met.”
That awful event became the basis for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, a dark novel about an mysteriously gifted ballplayer who, in a moment of moral repose, is shot by a beautiful stranger and robbed of his grand potential. In the early 1980s this story was memorably adapted for film by Barry Levinson.
There were mysteries to Nicholson, too. When I asked him why his skills diminished in the prime of his career, he candidly confessed a great fear.
“In 1945 I should have had my best season. The Cubs won the pennant and I was going to the World Series. But I wasn’t myself. Something was working on me.”
Nicholson didn’t know what that something was, but he had an idea. He was losing strength and feeling generally unwell and his imagination was running away with him. He had convinced himself that he was being ravaged by cancer. Fearing a confirmation he suffered in silence and refused to be seen by a doctor. Finally, and probably at the insistence of the ball club, he was examined, but misdiagnosed. “Nothing wrong but that you smoke and drink too much,” the doctor told him.
Nicholson knew that wasn’t true, but he let the matter drop.
After a lackluster performance in the World Series, the one in which the Cubs were supposedly cursed by an irate farmer and a billy goat, his career sputtered for several more seasons, reviving then dropping. By 1949 his best days were permanently behind him and so were the Cubs. The former star attraction was unceremoniously traded to Philadelphia.
The Phillies were assembling enough good young talent to seriously contend for the National League flag. Nicholson could have provided valuable veteran leadership to a club like that, but he could barely contribute. He was feeling worse and worse and losing weight at an alarming rate. Finally, on Labor Day, he collapsed. The Sporting News called it “a near fatal attack.”
Nicholson disputed the severity of his condition but admitted that he was taken to the hospital where he was finally diagnosed properly. The ailment that robbed him of so many more potentially great seasons was not cancer; it was diabetes, a treatable condition. “A few people in my mother’s family had it,” he said. “Why didn’t I think of it?”
After we concluded our interview we ambled toward the front door laughing and chatting. On a table near the front of the house, he had prepared a treat for me. Before I got there he had laid out artifacts from his big league career for me to examine -- bats and gloves and baseballs. He let me hold these great and dated tools.
It occurred to me while I gripped one of his old Louisville Sluggers, an instrument far too big for me, that I must have appeared like a little boy. Nicholson looked at me, and his mood changed. He lost the lightness of his bearing and became very serious.
Suddenly he started to tell me the story of how he had lost one of his two sons. “He had long hair and he came here very late one night and asked me for some money,” he said. “When I wouldn’t give it to him he took off for Florida, hitchhiking. He got hit by a truck on the way down there.”
I got the impression that his son had been lost to him sometime before then. I didn't know what to say, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You know, I don’t tell very many people about that,” he said. “Please come back here anytime you like.”
But the next time I saw Swish, about a month later, it wasn't at his home, it was at the Kent County Hospital. He was laid up. Word of my story had gotten around the Eastern Shore, and several newspapers sought my permission to republish it. One of them, the Easton Star Democrat, made it the cover article for its weekly magazine, Currents. When I walked into Swish’s hospital room, I had a few copies fresh off the press under my arm.
Nicholson wasn’t feeling well, but he was extremely pleased to see me. He introduced me to his roommate, another elderly man who was an old friend of his. I showed them the magazine and they sat up in their beds while I read. I looked up occasionally to see their bristling gray cheeks and their rapt attention.
My piece was essentially a defense of Bill Nicholson’s career. It was about a man who started with incredible talent and who ascended to the highest heights in his profession. It explained the mystery of his sudden demise on his own terms, with complete sympathy for his point-of-view. There was no analysis or criticism of how his fear had truncated his great career. When I finished reading my piece, neither man spoke for a while. I looked at Nicholson and I could plainly see him awash in the pleasure of it. Finally, he commented on my writing style which, in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, led the two old men to spew some outrageous epithets about a newspaperman they both knew and despised.
Gathering himself together before I left, Nicholson cheerfully told me: “You should become a professional writer.” I said thanks, but after listening to those two work over the profession I had no idea if that was a compliment.
Ultimately the piece was published in the college alumni publication, reprinted in two Eastern Shore newspapers, and sought by two different national sports magazines – Baseball Digest and a startup called Sports Heritage. I sold it to the latter for the princely sum of $500, and then promptly blew it all on a preposterous 1978 Chrysler Cordoba. The signature feature of that old rust box was a roof of raw steel. According to the guy who sold me the car, the vinyl had been peeled away by a gang of monkeys at a New Jersey wildlife preserve. It must've been true because who would make up that story?
In the process of enlarging my piece about Nicholson for Sports Heritage I tried to contact a few of his former teammates. The only one I reached was the most famous one, Richie Ashburn. I tracked him down on the road where he was working as a broadcast announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies, his old team. Ashburn had been a centerfielder in the golden era of that position, in the years of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snyder. Though not as well known as that trio of star New Yorkers, Ashburn was a career .308 batter who set several major league records with his glove. At the time of our conversation, he was a few years short of being elected to the Hall of Fame. Ashburn played side by side with Nicholson, a right fielder, so I asked him how well Swish handled his glove. I stupidly assumed that Nicholson, a big man, was competent though unspectacular. So I asked Ashburn if Nicholson compared to Gary Roenicke, a Baltimore player of my era. He took offense to my correlating the two, and sternly rebuked me. “Nicholson was an outstanding fielder," Ashburn said. "He wasn’t at all average like the player you mentioned.”
Then he asked me a question: “Why are you calling to ask about Bill? He’s okay, isn’t he?”
The desperation in the question was sad in its own way. No one would have feared a reporter inquiring about the career of Williams or DiMaggio. Or even Ashburn. Because I was calling to ask about a long forgotten player, because I was calling about Bill Nicholson, Ashburn assumed I was preparing an obituary.
In fact, with a little perspective, I came to realize that the opposite was true. Instead of sculpting Swish's death mask, I was affording him new real estate in the sun, a chance to have his sultry days reexamined and contextualized for contemporary consideration.
And, indeed, he experienced one last revival. With a surge of interest in his career by the town and his friends, a testimonial dinner was held for him at Washington College. The proceeds were used to erect a handsome statue of him in Chestertown. I attended that dinner and when I arrived, I immediately sought him out to say hello. But I was taken aback by his appearance. Swish was thin and enfeebled, no longer himself But he was happy to see me and we exchanged pleasantries.
Several former major league players and coaches attended this evening of a thousand corny stories. The best one, the only one I remember, was from an old teammate who recalled a plane trip with Swish and the team.
“We were bouncing around and we were afraid the plane was going to go down," the old ballplayer said. "So we turned to Bill, our leader and a real veteran, and we said, ‘Bill, do something.’ Well, he calmly removed his hat and passed it around and instructed all of the players to put money in it. Finally, one of us had the courage to ask him what in the hell he was doing. ‘We’re all gonna die,’ Swish said, ‘so I figured we ought do something religious.’”
With yet another baseball season in motion, I recently dug out my old article about Swish Nicholson and reread it. I was shocked at how mawkish and poorly written I found it. I was embarrassed to see it.
When I wrote my first piece about Nicholson in 1986 I was 21, precisely the same age he was when he began his baseball career. As I write these words, I am the same age he was when he quit the game. Much is made of how ballplayers “retire” while they are still young, but I think the best of them hang it up not in their youth, but rather in the first flickering almost imperceptible days of old age.
I’m married now and the father of two. My own career has flashed great promise and suffered humiliating and inexplicable defeats. I have returned to Chestertown many times since I was graduated from Washington College in 1987. One of those trips was to attend Swish’s funeral, which was held in a rustic church just a mile or two down the road from his farm. When I go back to Chestertown these days, I always stop downtown to look at him in bronze. If a visitor came today and wandered around, like I did so many years ago, he would finally have a plaque to read. But thinking it over I would say the Chestertown to which I first came was a far better place.
In those days, Bill Nicholson really lived there.