The Year Of The Card–Roger Nelson, 1969

As has been mentioned in this space plenty of times, the expansion-era Royals, led by general manager Cedric Tallis, had a knack for acquiring overlooked players, letting them put up good performances, and then correctly deciding which ones to keep and which to trade for long-term pieces. A fine example of this is Roger Nelson, who gave Kansas City two solid seasons before being dealt for a future member of the franchise’s Hall of Fame.

Roger Eugene Nelson was born on June 7, 1944, in Altadena, California. After starring at Charter Oak High School in nearby Covina (and acquiring the nickname “Spider” for his success at stealing passes in a basketball game), Nelson pitched one season at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut. The Chicago White Sox signed him as an amateur free agent, and Nelson began his professional career with a Rookie League team in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in 1963.

He was not an immediate success, posting a 4.78 ERA in 64 innings, mostly due to the 50 walks he allowed (against 83 strikeouts). But his control improved, and in 1964 he had a 2.35 ERA and 75 strikeouts compared to 32 walks in 65 innings for Class A Sarasota. He earned a late-season promotion to High-A Tidewater. In 1965, still at Tidewater, he went 9-7 with a 3.12 ERA. He continued progressing, with a 6-10 mark and 3.78 ERA for Class AA Evansville in 1966 and, working out of the bullpen for the first time, a 3-3 mark and 4.42 ERA for Class AAA Indianapolis in 1967. He made his major-league debut on September 9 of that season, and pitched in five games for the White Sox before the season ended.

But Nelson would not be on the South Side of Chicago for long. In the offseason, he was part of a trade that sent outfielder Don Buford and pitcher Bruce Howard to Baltimore for future Hall of Fame shortstop (and previous White Sox great) Luis Aparicio, plus outfielders John Matias and Russ Snyder.

The late-1960s Orioles were a tough place to break in for a young pitcher. Nelson’s cause wasn’t helped by his military duties, a common occurrence for players in those days. Nelson missed two weeks of the season, plus 10 weekends, including some in spring training. 

“That didn’t hurt me as much as it would a breaking-ball pitcher. I don’t have to be that fine. I just try to throw my fastball over the center of the plate, knowing it won’t go there, anyway. My control’s not that good, so I wind up hitting the corners.”–Nelson, quoted by Doug Brown, The Sporting News, October 12, 1968

Indeed, he was outstanding in four starts for Class AAA Rochester, and contributed a fine 4-3 mark and 2.41 ERA in 19 games for the Orioles. He was especially good in September, holding Boston hitless for six innings in one start and striking out 13, then outpitching Denny McLain in another start (remember, this is the season McLain won 31 games). It looked like Baltimore had found its fourth starter, and most observers figured he would be one of the 15 players the Orioles protected ahead of the expansion draft.

As you’ve probably figured, Baltimore did not protect him, instead choosing to protect a minor league outfielder named Don Baylor. Given the two players’ eventual careers, it was the right move, but at the time it was a surprise. The Seattle Pilots won the coin flip for the AL portion of the expansion draft, but chose to let the Royals have the first pick (giving Seattle the second and third picks). Kansas City happily snapped up Nelson, expecting him to help anchor the rotation. The Royals had hired Lou Gorman, a former member of the Baltimore front office, as director of player development, and he was well aware of Nelson’s potential. 

Nelson was among those who was surprised.

“I couldn’t believe Baltimore would let me go in the draft. I was told when the season ended that I would be the number four starter. I was working when I was drafted. A friend told me about it. Although I was surprised, I’m very happy to be with the Royals.”–Nelson, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, February 15, 1969

Despite Nelson’s solid end to the 1968 season and his status as the first pick in the expansion draft, it was another pitcher the Royals plucked from Baltimore, Wally Bunker, taking the mound for the franchise’s first game. Nelson would have to wait until the second game to make his debut. It was a mediocre one, as he held Minnesota to four hits in five innings, but also walked five batters. He did pick up six strikeouts and allowed three runs (two earned) and got a no-decision in the Royals’ win. 

However, Nelson followed that up with three solid starts before the Twins knocked him around for 12 hits and seven runs in his final start of April. Nelson ended the month with a 1-2 mark and a 3.82 ERA.

The righthander started May with a complete-game win over the Angels, then had to face his old Orioles teammates in consecutive starts. Despite limiting them to six runs in 13 innings, he received a loss and a no-decision. Things improved as he shut out Cleveland–the first shutout in team history–and followed that up with two good efforts, ending May with a 3-3 mark and 3.04 ERA. With a 21-25 record through two months, the Royals were off to a surprising start.

But the KC offense struggled in June, scoring just 99 runs in 28 games. Nelson had a 3.05 ERA in his six starts for the month, only to end up with a 1-4 mark for the period.

Nelson rebounded to win back-to-back starts as July began, with consecutive complete games. But the Royals scored six runs combined in his next four starts, and Nelson ended up with three losses despite finishing the month with the same 3.04 ERA he had at the end of June. Even worse, while the Royals were in Detroit near the end of the month, Nelson was mugged while walking near the team’s hotel. Although one of the group of young men who accosted him pulled out a knife, Nelson was unharmed, but he was $30 poorer.

Nelson missed almost two weeks in August for more military service, but showed no rust as he returned with one of his best starts of the year, holding Boston to six hits in eight innings. Of course, he was charged with the loss as the offense did nothing in a 1-0 defeat. Nelson was then knocked around in his next two starts, ending the month with a 6-13 mark despite a still-solid 3.39 ERA.

The Royals, after going a combined 31-53 over June, July, and August, were happy to see September. Nelson kicked off the month with a complete-game victory over Detroit, holding the Tigers to three hits. This time, the offense backed him up in a 6-2 win.

There was, in retrospect, a warning sign about Nelson’s future. The Royals seemed to have noticed it, but didn’t exhibit much concern.

“Nelson hasn’t struck out as many men as we thought he would. Look at his figures and you’ll see he’s averaging only about four strikeouts a game. He’s not even up with (Wally) Bunker, and as I said, Bunker isn’t a strikeout pitcher. Nelson has been working on his breaking stuff a lot and this is probably the reason he isn’t getting more strikeouts.”–Royals manager Joe Gordon, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, September 6, 1969

But Nelson was actually battling a sore shoulder, perhaps not surprising given that he had jumped from a total of 99 innings pitched in 1968 to more than 190 in 1969. Nelson didn’t pitch for 10 days after that start against Detroit, then left his final game of the year after just one inning.

So Nelson ended his season with a 7-13 mark, despite a 3.31 ERA in 193 ⅓ innings. He struck out 82 batters and walked 65. He excelled at keeping the ball in the park, allowing just 12 home runs. All of that gave him a 3.6 bWAR score that was second on the team to Bunker’s 4.3. Regardless of the record, that was a solid season.

But the shoulder injury, eventually determined to be a torn tendon, would essentially cost Nelson the 1970 season, as he pitched in just four games before being completely shut down in late July. To say the least, Nelson was concerned about his baseball future.

“I was close to frantic. I had to ask myself what I could do if my arm didn’t come back. And I didn’t have an answer…I don’t mind telling you I was depressed. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I don’t have any interests outside of baseball. And I couldn’t do anything. Even jogging would jar my arm, so all I could do was sit around and get out of shape.”–Nelson, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, December 12, 1970

Fortunately, the rest seemed to help. Nelson pitched in the Florida Instructional League that fall and reported no pain. He also found that his control had improved, and began working on adding a slider to his arsenal. A minor knee injury and a virus set him back some in spring training, and he began the 1971 season at Class AAA Omaha. He pitched well enough there (3.80 ERA in 11 starts) and eventually made his way back to the majors in late June. Working almost exclusively as a reliever, he tossed 34 innings and had a 5.29 ERA. 

Once again, he followed the regular season with a trip to the Instructional League, this time in order to add a knuckleball to his repertoire. But, as a non-roster invitee to spring training before the 1972 season, he impressed onlookers with restored velocity on his fastball, showing he didn’t need the knuckler to keep pitching. Nelson began the season in the bullpen but was moved into the rotation at the end of June, shortly after he was diagnosed with a circulation problem that caused pain in his pitching hand. Nelson decided to forgo surgery and pitch with what he described as feeling like a bone bruise. As a starter, Nelson had even more success than he had enjoyed in the bullpen, and ended the year with an 11-6 record and 2.08 ERA in 173 ⅓ innings, including six shutouts, which is still the team record for a single season. It was an inspiring comeback, to say the least.

But here the Royals made one of those shrewd trades I mentioned earlier. On November 30, 1972, they sent Nelson and outfielder Richie Scheinblum (also coming off what would be the best year of his career) to Cincinnati for pitcher Wayne Simpson and outfielder Hal McRae. While Simpson was only in Kansas City for one season, McRae would become one of the best players in franchise history, and one of the most important leaders as well–George Brett would famously credit McRae with teaching the young Royals who came along in the mid-1970s how to win (as a somewhat ironic sidenote, the Royals indicated they might try McRae at third base when they acquired him; he had played some there and some at second base for the Reds. But Brett’s emergence quickly ended that plan).

Scheinblum would bounce around for a couple more seasons, playing just 158 games combined in 1973-1974 after playing 134 for the Royals in 1972. Nelson was plagued by elbow problems in 1973, appearing in just 14 games. After the season, he underwent surgery to relieve pressure in the ulnar nerve, which probably was the cause of that hand pain from the previous year. Nelson was ready for the start of the 1974 season and pitched effectively, but once again shoulder issues popped up, and he pitched in just 14 games for the Reds that season as well. The White Sox purchased Nelson from Cincinnati after the season, only to release him before the 1975 season began (but not before Nelson pointed out to a young hurler named Rich Gossage that he should change his position on the pitcher’s rubber, a tip that helped make Gossage into an All-Star relief pitcher that year, his first great season on the way to the Hall of Fame). Later, it was revealed that the White Sox had promised Cincinnati a pitcher in return if Nelson made the team, then decided they would rather not part with a younger arm.

Oakland signed the veteran, but kept him at Class AAA Tucson before releasing him in August. The Royals signed him again the following spring, and he pitched well enough at Omaha to earn a September callup. That month, he appeared in the final three major-league games of his career, although his joy at being back in the majors was probably offset by two incidents: another mugging, this one in Oakland, which left him with two sprained wrists, and his car catching on fire in the parking lot at the Truman Sports Complex. Nelson would pitch one more full season in the minors, for the Pirates organization, before his career ended with one game in 1979. The Sporting News also mentions him pitching a game for Chihuahua in the Mexican League, but there don’t seem to be any official statistics floating around the internet.

Had Nelson played in this era, medical science likely would have kept him on the field more and he would have had a more memorable career. As it was, he had two really good seasons, and the Royals were fortunate enough to employ him for both, then deal him for a franchise cornerstone. 

Roger Nelson’s best games of 1969:
7/4 vs. SEA: Held Pilots to four hits and struck out seven in 13-2 complete game win.
5/21 @ CLE: Scattered seven hits and picked up five strikeouts in 4-0 shutout.
9/2 vs. DET: Stopped Tigers on three hits, pitched complete game in 6-2 victory.
6/21 @ SEA: Allowed five hits and racked up six strikeouts in 1-0 loss.
5/4 @ CAL: Limited Angels to four hits and pitched complete game; also had two hits, one RBI, and scored a run in a 15-2 rout.

About the card:
Since it’s a 1969 card, Topps didn’t have pictures of any players in Royals gear. So the airbrush specialists had plenty of work to do. I think that’s an “S” on his jersey, so this is probably a photo from his White Sox days. I do find it odd the number on the back is a completely different blue than his cap and sleeves; would it have been that hard to match it? On the back, the cartoon notes Nelson’s 22 strikeouts in a 14-inning game. You might think pitchers are babied today, but I do appreciate that teams would not allow such a thing now. That is no way to treat a 20-year-old prospect. Or non-prospect, even.

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