Brewers analyst Dave Nelson, who played in the big leagues for 10 years, was an All-Star in 1973, and served as a major league coach for 14 seasons, passed away today. Nelson was a firecracker of a player, stealing 94 bases between 1972 and 1973, but he was an even better interview. He was easily one of the most informative players I talked to for The Baseball Codes, spending the better part of an hour with me in the visitors’ dugout at AT&T Park before a Giants-Brewers game.
Herein are some of the best stories he told that day:
“I almost got into a fight in the major leagues one year because I stole home when we had a four-run lead in the seventh inning. It was against Blue Moon Odom, who was with the White Sox then. Paul Richards was their manager. I was playing for Kansas City, and Whitey Herzog was my manager. I stole home because Odom wasn’t paying attention, and he got all upset and said the next time he faced me he was going to hit me in the head. I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. Did I do anything wrong?’ I was always taught was that managers would like to have at least a five-run lead going into the ninth inning, so at least they know a grand slam can’t beat them. We had a four-run lead, but this was the seventh inning and the White Sox had an awesome offensive team.
“So before the next game I was running in the outfield because we were getting ready to take batting practice. Their pitchers were running on the left field line. I’m running toward center from right, and Odom stopped running and began to yell at me, saying that he was going to hit me in the head. So I went up to him and asked, ‘Hey, what’s your problem?’ He said, ‘You showed up me and my team.’
“So I went over to Paul Richards, who was their manager, and I asked him, ‘Did I embarrass your team? Because I don’t think I did anything wrong.’ He said, ‘Dave, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was a great play on your part.’ I had already asked Whitey Herzog about it, and Whitey said it was a great play. But if Paul Richards thought it was a bad play, I was going to apologize to him. But he said, ‘No, that was great. It was Blue Moon’s fault for not paying attention to you. You can’t assume anything in this game.’
“We almost got into a fight over that. I always try to win, but I don’t want to do anything dirty to win.”
“One of my greatest thrills was playing against Mickey Mantle. By the time of my rookie year, Mantle was playing first base because his knees were bad. I’m leading off for the Indians in a game against the Yankees, and I push-bunt a ball between the pitcher and Mickey for a base hit. I was walking back, thinking, ‘Boy, what a great thing I did,’ and Johnny Lipon, our first base coach, says, ‘Dave, you don’t bunt on Mick out of respect.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s right. He can’t move, but he’s a great player. So I’m standing on first base, and I’m thinking Mickey is going to say, ‘If you ever do that to me again I’m going to pinch your head off,’ or something like that. But he pats me on the butt and says, ‘Nice bunt, rook.’ I look at him and say, ‘Well, thanks, Mr. Mantle.’ Underneath my breath I said, I’ll never do that again. I was just thinking about how I want to get on base. I never thought about how revered this guy was.
“Later in the game he hits a bullet toward second base. I dive to field it and throw him out. He says, ‘Hey rook—give me a break, would you?’ ”
“In the old days, a manager would say, ‘I want you to knock this guy down. I want you to drill him.’ Billy Martin would say it. I remember in 1975, playing a game with the Rangers during spring training when Bill Virdon was managing the Yankees. Billy was our manager. We had hit Elliot Maddux, and I’m coming up to face a former teammate of mine, Denny Riddleberger. I just kind of knew that I was going to get drilled or knocked down because I was leading off the next inning. Well, the pitch came, and—boom!—knocked me down. It was good, old-fashioned chin music, and I hit the ground. So I said, okay, it’s all over and done with.
“Well, the next pitch—foom!—almost hit me in the head. I got up and I charged the mound. And Denny stood there and just looked at me and dropped his hands and said, ‘Dave, I’m sorry—I was ordered to do it.’ So what could I do? I can’t hit this guy. He’s my buddy, plus he was saying that he was ordered to do it. He had to save face. If your manager tells him to drill somebody or knock him down, then you’d better do it.
“So now there’s yelling and screaming going around, and Bill Virdon comes out and says, ‘That’s right, I told him to do it. How about that?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re the guy I ought to swing at!’ and I took a swing at him. He was a ways away from me, with some people between us, so I never made contact. He’d probably have tore me up. That guy was strong, boy.
“So I got kicked out of the game and all that stuff, but the funny thing about it was that later that year I had surgery on my ankle that was going to put me out until August. We had this charity golf tournament in Arlington Texas, and I was riding around in a golf cart. The Yankees had an off-day, and Bill Virdon was playing in that tournament. He sees me and says, ‘You’re a scrappy little guy, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I just don’t like being thrown at. I have to defend myself, because if people throw at me and I don’t say anything about it, then they’re going to continue to do it. I just want people to know that I’m not going to take it.” He said, ‘Well, that’s the way to go.’ ”
“One time, playing against the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, Bob Coluccio was the hitter. He hits a double, the throw comes in to me at second base, I tag him and Bill Kunkel, the umpire, says, ‘Safe!’ I said to Bob, ‘Hey, why don’t you step off the bag and let me clean the dirt off of it.’ He steps off, and BOOM. It wasn’t the hidden ball trick or anything like that. He steps off the base, I tag him and the umpire calls him out. He kind of laughed about it, but when he went to the dugout, his manager, Del Crandall, jumped all over him.
“So now he comes back out as I’m running off the field after the third out, and he says, ‘You embarrassed me and my team, and I’m going to kick your butt.’ He says, ‘You better watch out when I come in to second base.’
“I said, ‘I didn’t embarrass your team, you did—for being stupid enough to step off the base.’
You try to do anything you can to win, as long as it’s not trying to embarrass somebody or do something dirty. But that’s just . . . that’s just playing baseball.”