On first reflection, you might feel that life has not been kind to Rob Nelson—Class of '71, Cornell University, where, among other things, he was a member of the baseball team and a philosophy major. After all, when Nelson looks around at his friends from his college days, he sees wealthy and respected business executives, corporate lawyers and doctors. For himself, Nelson acknowledges that, no, he doesn't own a condo or a house, and that, no. he doesn't own a nice suit. For that matter, he's often not certain what day of the week it is.
"Wait a minute," Nelson says. "That's not entirely true. I know when it's Sunday because the comics in the paper are in color."
Nelson is also eager to come to his own defense regarding his appearance. "Yeah, well, I may not own a suit, but I do own a pair of good shoes," he says. That comment, however, is followed with a laugh. "But honestly, most of the shoes I wear have writing on them."
April 8, 1990
"You know, like Nike or Adidas."
But don't shed tears for Nellie, as he's known throughout the baseball community. Not many people have been able to spend most of their adult life playing baseball, and playing it all over the world, for the sheer fun of it.
In the 18 years since he finished his brief (22-day) professional career in the St. Louis organization under the name Dave Raymond, Nelson—a lefthanded pitcher (no surprise in that)—has served up hanging curves on three continents. He has been able to make this hardball odyssey because of the annual six-figure income he receives from Big League Chew, a bubble gum product that he and Jim Bouton came up with in the mid-1970s at a time when both were in the bullpen for an obscure Oregon team. "As far as the nation's dentists are concerned, Jim and I are perhaps the most popular people in America," he says with a grin.
That's why Nelson doesn't own a condo or a suit: "I'm always on the road, usually spending four months of the year in Portland, Ore., four months in Australia or South Africa and four months someplace else. And I'm always either playing ball or coaching little kids. Most of the time, though, I'm pitching."
There are a lot of people who say, borrowing the line about the British Empire, that the sun never sets on Nellie's baseball career. "Yeah, but there are a lot more baseball people who say that the sun never rose," says Nelson. "Let's face it, in college I was nothing more than a fringe pitcher. Then again, I wasn't much of a student, either. I guess I was a fringe player and a fringe philosopher, too."
Truth is, in his senior year at Cornell, Nelson finished with a record of 6-2, the losses being to Michigan State, which won the Big Ten title that season, and Harvard, which won the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League crown. And he did it, he says, "with nothing more than a big sweeping curveball, no fastball at all and so-so control. But I do have an excellent move to first...."
Obviously, Nelson is what they call, in baseball parlance, an original. In the spring of 1972 he got a tryout with a Cardinals farm team in Sarasota, Fla. To make himself a more attractive prospect, the crafty lefthander "borrowed" the name—and the Social Security number—of Dave Raymond, a friend from back home in Massapequa, NY. Apparently Raymond wasn't much of a ballplayer, but he was 19 years old, a more attractive age, in baseball thinking, than Nelson's age at the time, 23.
"I was throwing just as hard as I possibly could to impress the Cardinals brass, says Nelson, "and, lo and behold. I got signed on May 1 during the rookie league's spring training. It took a while, though, to learn to respond to the name Dave Raymond. Guys would keep calling, 'Dave, Dave, 'and I had to teach myself to turn around."
Alas, he was released on May 23, his career lasting less than the month of May. "In a nutshell, I pitched about five innings during my stint," says Nelson, "and, well, the best you could say about me was that I was ineffective. Let me give you an example. One afternoon, I'm on the mound and I got nothing. So I'm loading the ball up with everything—suntan lotion. Vaseline, you name it. My catcher, Randy Poffo [destined to become pro wrestler Randy (Macho Man) Savage], comes out in the middle of the second inning and says to me, 'Hey, Dave, you got a cold or something?" And I say, no, I'm feeling fine, but why are you asking. And Poffo says back to me, 'Cuz the ball is coming in real slow and it's all covered with some sort of slimy stuff.' That was typical of my career—I was loading the ball up, and even my catcher didn't know it."
After his short visit with the Cardinals, Nelson headed north, looking to catch on with any kind of pro club. He got close a few times but finally found himself waiting on tables and teaching first grade in Ithaca, N.Y. In the fall of 1973 he overheard two guys in a bar talking about a baseball club in Cape Town, South Africa, that was looking for American players. Nellie talked his way onto the team, and in the next five years, Rob Nelson, former Ivy League pitcher and Cardinal for almost a month, became a big name in South African baseball.
As the ace lefthander of the Varsity Old Boys team of Cape Town, Nelson was phenomenal. In case you missed the agate type in 1973, Nelson helped the VOB to the Western Province Baseball Association championship, winning 19 games—and batting .420 as well. "Keep in mind that in my senior year in college, I fanned maybe 22 batters in 66 innings," says Nelson. "But in Cape Town, nobody had ever seen a decent curveball before, much less a lefthanded curve. I racked up 225 strikeouts in 200 innings pitched. I was blowing people away. I had found my niche."
Indeed. He was named to various all-star teams and made Player of the Year in the 1973-74 season (the seasons in South Africa are reversed, with spring training starting in September and the dog days coming around Christmas). Says Nelson, "I remember one season I was supposed to pitch in a big New Year's Day doubleheader, so I had to go home early from a New Year's Eve party so I would be ready the next day."
Lord Nelson, as he was christened by the local media, had to adjust to more than the climate. "This was South Africa in the mid-1970s," he says. "All the ball clubs and leagues were totally segregated. And up until 1976, there was no television in South Africa. So people either listened to the radio for entertainment or they went out. We used to draw as many as 2,000 to 3,000 people, simply because there wasn't much else to do.
"As far as the level of ball was concerned, well, even though South Africans were introduced to baseball in the gold rush of the 1880s, there were only a few players who could play competitive ball in the States. Some, however, were excellent hitters, although their swings had been heavily influenced by cricket. That is, they hit the low pitch extremely well but couldn't touch anything above the waist. And with my tendency to hang an occasional deuce, that was a perfect combination for me."
During his five-year career in South Africa, Nelson heard about open tryouts being held for the Portland (Ore.) Mavericks, an independent minor league team. "I ended up getting cut from Portland two years in a row," he says. Finally, in 1977, Nelson made the club. He pitched one game. Though he got a win in his only appearance, it was not the highlight of the season. Nellie recalls the magic moment: "It was in August of 1977, and Bouton and I were in the bullpen, watching some of our penmates drowning bugs with gobs of tobacco spit. Bouton and I both agreed how disgusting tobacco juice was, and I said, 'Hey, why don't we invent a bubble gum that comes in a tobacco pouch? Kids would love it.'
"A few days later, we went to my kitchen. I took slabs of bubble gum and then cut them down into thin strips, just like chewing tobacco. We put it in a foil pouch and figured we were on our way to becoming millionaires."
Nothing happened right then, but during the off-season Bouton tracked down Nelson and said, "I can't stop thinking about Big League Chew." The two eventually trademarked the name and sold it to Amurol, a subsidiary of Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, and the rest, as they say, is dental history. The gum grosses about $12 to $14 million each year, from which Nelson and Bouton split a royalty.
Meanwhile, Lord Nelson had new continents to conquer. By the early 1980s he was scheduled to pitch for a team in the Netherlands: "But they sent me a contract that was written in Dutch, and when they wouldn't translate it for me, I balked and didn't sign." Talk about your tough negotiators. "So in the fall of 1983, I went back to South Africa, where I was named the head baseball coach at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. I also named myself the team's top pitcher." Wits, as everyone calls it, wound up with a .500 record for a 26-game season, with Nelson sporting the team's best pitching statistics. "I wonder if the NCAA would have a problem with that—me being the head coach and top pitcher, too?" he asks.
By now, though, Nelson had entered his 30's. "I still had the baseball bug," he says. And thanks to Big League Chew, Nellie had the wherewithal to keep his dream alive—on another continent, if need be. The next stop on his magical mystery tour was Sydney and the Ku-ring-gai Club of the New South Wales Baseball League.
"Baseball in Australia and South Africa are very similar, in the sense that there are no baseball fields in either place," Nelson says. "You play on a lot of makeshift fields, soccer fields, with either flat pitching mounds or portable wooden ones. And the bench jockeying in both places is pretty limited; the most you ever hear from these people is something like, 'Oh come now, Mr. Umpire, your glasses must be askew.' Of course it's all done in a clipped British accent. Like I say, it's a bit different."
Since 1985, Nelson has been spending his winters in Australia, pitching and occasionally finding talented Aussies who want to pursue baseball careers in the U.S. "Baseball in Australia is what rugby is here in the States," says Nellie. "That is, it's not that big a sport, but for those who are into it, they're really into it." After the season ends Down Under, Nelson can usually be found back in Portland, where he works as a marketing consultant for JUGS, the manufacturer of pitching and timing machines.
Nelson says, "Jim Bouton once said to me about my life-style, 'Y'know, Nellie, on a week-to-week basis, playing baseball around the world at your age makes no sense at all. But then, when you take a step back and consider the alternatives, your life-style makes all the sense in the world.' "
Bouton's version of that conversation is a bit different: "What I said was 'When you take a step back and consider the alternatives, your life-style makes even less sense.' But considering it's Nellie, it's close enough."
Will the crafty veteran lefthander ever call it quits and hang up his spikes and passport for good?
"I once asked him the same question," says Bouton. "Nellie told me that he'd keep on pitching as long as he could find more foreign countries where the natives couldn't hit a curveball.
"You know something?" says Bouton. "I don't think he was kidding."
Rick Wolff, a former minor league second baseman, works at Macmillan Publishing Co.