Andy Nelson

This article was written by Bob Tholkes

Swede Hollow was an immigrant settlement in Minnesota that squatted for a century in Phalen Creek ravine, south of Seventh Street on St. Paul’s Lower East Side. It has now receded into St. Paul’s often picturesque history, the site occupied by a city park.

It was mostly a region of untold stories. Successive waves of new arrivals, beginning with the Swedes who gave it its name, lived their lives in anonymity, providing laborers for the growing city and managing the immigrants’ inescapable conflict between retaining their heritages and assimilating into their new homeland.

For St. Paul’s governing class, Swede Hollow was a conveniently out-of-the-way place, unwanted by anyone else, where newcomers could be housed cheaply. The city pretended officially that it was not there. Newcomers found a polyglot of wooden dwellings, unhampered in their construction by building or sanitary regulations and undisturbed by any of the usual city services. The ravine had plenty of ground water, if contaminated, and Phalen Creek served as a common sewer. Children climbed the stairs out of the ravine to attend either Lincoln Primary School or a church school. When financially able, the newcomers moved “up the street” and out of the ravine, a graphically physical manifestation of upward mobility.

Ole and Ellen (Elna) Nelson and their four children, Nels, Ingrid, Hattie, and Henry, made the trip from Sweden in the early 1880s, and upon arrival at St. Paul made the short journey to Swede Hollow, as their countrymen had been doing since the 1850s. While Ole worked as a laborer, which at some point cost him the lower part of his right leg (the family remembers him as Peg Leg Nelson), Elna kept house, and two more children were born. Andrew Anthony was the first, on November 30, 1884, and Frank followed in 1891. Nelson’s birth record lists their residence only as “Phallen,” and Mrs. Dorusey as the “Physician or Midwife.” Eventually one or two of the children could work and pay room and board, and the family moved “up the street” in 1893, to 924 Rose Street, and there they stayed.

Professional baseball has since its beginnings after the Civil War supplied one means, small in scope but large in public visibility, for recent arrivals and their children to assimilate and “move up.” Baseball permeated the summers of St. Paul boys at the turn of the 20th century, and Nelson’s East Side neighborhood was no exception. When May rolled around, sponsors would either find a likely group of youths, or vice versa. Teams formed, and the fact was announced in the St. Paul Pioneer Press or the St. Paul Dispatch. Up to age 18, these were age-group teams, and they would contact the captains of other 14- or 16-year-old teams, for example, to schedule games. Boys also would likely have older brothers or fathers playing on adult teams, either independents or members of an industrial league.

This was undoubtedly Nelson’s background when he surfaced in May 1903 as a pitcher for the Parlor Clothing Company, an East Side establishment that fielded an independent team. At 18 he was competing regularly with adults for the first time. Physically, he was ready. A family picture taken at the time shows a strapping fellow of over 6 feet.

Parlor Clothing played other independent teams and made trips to play town teams (Glencoe; Young America; Arlington; Pine City; Hudson, Wisconsin). Nelson was competitive, winning a few and losing a few. The remainder of his amateur career is a blank. Parlor Clothing did not sponsor a team in 1904 and 1905, and Nelson’s baseball experiences in those years are undiscovered. In 1905 he began to be listed in the St. Paul city directory, as boarding with his parents and working for Northern Malleable Iron Company in St. Paul as a coremaker, a strenuous occupation that would have maintained his fitness, assuming he escaped serious injury. The following year, if not before, he commenced semipro ball at some location in North Dakota. The connection in that direction may have been older brother Nels, who had earlier moved to Dickinson, North Dakota.

Andy Nelson returned in April 1907 to pitch for Leeds, North Dakota, of the North Dakota Central League. Newspaper stories extol his curveball and his speed. By the time the club’s season ended on July 19, he certainly had exhibited more stuff than the average Central League team could handle, striking out 21 Lakota batters in a game on July 1. The earliest of the 50 penny postcards that Nelson sent home during his travels (and fortunately retained by the family) depicts a match in progress between Leeds and its Central League rival from Cando. Spectator seating is beyond camera, only players, a bench, and an umpire appearing. The field is apparently a converted patch of prairie, perfectly flat, with not a tree or building in sight.

This limited baseball résumé was sufficient, in those days before farm systems and centralized scouting, to earn Nelson the attention of the big-league Chicago White Sox. In March 1908 owner Charles Comiskey dispatched veteran pitcher Roy Patterson, who was nursing a sore arm, to look the youngster over. Such use of an inactive player was standard at the time, and Comiskey seems to have considered the Upper Midwest his particular scouting ground. He had operated the St. Paul team in the Western League (and in the 1900 American League before transferring it to Chicago in 1901). Players from Wisconsin and Minnesota (Patterson included) dotted his lineups in this period. Patterson either signed Nelson on the spot or recommended that he be signed.

Nelson was assigned to Sioux City, Iowa, to join the White Sox seconds, a collection of hopefuls who had accompanied the regulars to spring training in California, and were now working their way back to Chicago, stopping here and there to play exhibitions, to help meet expenses. A few would be kept on after the start of the regular season in April in case the regulars faltered or injuries occurred, and the rest would be released or loaned to minor-league teams.

What made such a raw recruit worth a tryout? Nelson was big, strong, and left-handed, and major-league teams at the time commonly took young players of potential under their wings to develop. Only a year earlier the Washington Senators had dispatched injured catcher Cliff Blankenship all the way to Idaho to check out one such bush leaguer, and he had returned with Walter Johnson. John McGraw usually had one or more such chicks on the New York Giants. Finally, the White Sox were making only a minimal investment –Nelson was liable to be released without further compensation at any time. At 23, Nelson wasn’t particularly young to be in such a spot, but we don’t know what age he was giving out to the scouts. Shaving a year or two off the actual age would certainly have been in keeping with baseball tradition.

There was indeed a mini-rush for Nelson’s services. According to the Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye, a scout for the local Central Association team had also been sent to St. Paul to corral the new phenom, but arrived a scant two hours after Patterson had struck a deal.

After a brief debut in relief on April 3 in Omaha, Nelson started at Burlington on April 7 and achieved his first headlines, pitching a complete-game, two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts. The Burlington Hawkeye, in addition to bemoaning the lost chance to sign him for their team, declared that he “plainly had ability enough to land in high company.” The Chicago Daily Journal wrote that the “big Swedish southpaw from St. Paul” had “astonished the natives” and described him as “the real goods and a genuine wonder ... a large Scandinavian ... with the speed of Waddell and good control.” Typically for the times, much was made of Nelson’s ethnicity throughout his baseball career.

The White Sox seconds carried on eastward. Nelson pitched again in Decatur, Illinois, on April 11 and reached the big city around the 15th. Chicago made an obvious impression on him. The event worth recording on his postcard home of April 18 was that 18,000 had attended the White Sox opener the previous day. This postcard, like the others, was sent not to his parents but to his sister, Ingrid Johnson, and her husband, Nels, at their apartment above Nels’ saloon at 932 Arcade Street in St. Paul. References in the postcard indicate that Nelson was writing letters as well as sending the penny postcards, which mostly featured pictures of local sights. The postcards indicate that Nelson, despite his background, had been sufficiently educated to be an interesting, articulate writer.

Nelson had shown enough potential, and the White Sox were sufficiently short on healthy pitchers, that he was retained. Early in May he joined the regulars and was signed for the season. He accompanied the team on its first eastern swing – Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and Boston. Postcards came from each new city, He mentions sightseeing. What must a Swede Hollow and East Side boy have thought of big-city hotels, the White House, Coney Island, and Broadway? He wrote that he “played Broadway off the boards,” whatever that meant in 1908. In Washington he visited with the other St. Paul East Sider in the majors at the time, pitcher Hank Gehring of the Nationals. His home newspaper meanwhile had noticed his success, sort of. The St. Paul Dispatch on May 14 notified the public that he was with the White Sox but, instead of extolling his promise as a player, humorously emphasized his ethnicity, to wit:

Nelson ... was taken on the eastern trip with the Sox. ... Nelson is said to have a new Swedish movement of the curved variety, besides more speed than ever before shot out of

Stockholm. Mr. Nelson is a modest youth. Comiskey asked him how he fooled the batsmen.

“Dat is easy,” answered Mr. Nelson. “Aye peetch dat ball so fast dat de catcher skal have

it before de batter is on de yob.” “But what if they are hitting speed?” queried the Old Roman.

“Den,” said Mr. Nelson, “Aye tak two throws at dem, and de two throws togedder skal mak de

speed twice so fast as one.”

In Boston Nelson got into his first game, mopping up in a lopsided 16-5 loss on May 26 at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, in front of American League President Ban Johnson and a crowd of 6,323. His next postcard, on May 30 from Detroit, doesn’t mention the event, but the details are a matter of record. He pitched the seventh and eighth innings. Gavvy Cravath, the future home-run champion, walked to lead off the seventh but was caught stealing. Fielder Jones then made a spectacular running, barehanded catch of Doc Gessler’s line drive to right-center. With two outs, if rather unconvincing ones, under his belt, Nelson struck out Bob Unglaub. In the eighth, Heinie Wagner singled with one out, but Nelson retired the bottom of the order, catcher Ed McFarland and pitcher Fred Burchell, to finish his first assignment unscathed.

From Boston the White Sox headed back to Chicago by way of Detroit. Nelson made his second appearance at home, starting on June 6 at South Side Park against Washington. This event also did not make the postcards. Nelson was a last-minute replacement for veteran lefty Nick Altrock, who was having arm troubles. Seemingly this was an optimal opportunity for Nelson. He would have the support of the home crowd, and the Nationals were a weak-hitting team whose starting lineup had several left-handed hitters.

Nelson was of course nervous. The crowd was friendly (“Salvos of applause greeted Andy Nelson,” the Tribune reported), but there were about 15,000 in the park watching his every move, his career was on the line, and this wasn’t Leeds, North Dakota, or even Burlington, Iowa. Mr. Dryden of the Tribune wrote, “Our southpaw performed like an inmate, pacing up and down his little cell, and the game dragged horribly.” He walked leadoff hitter Clyde Milan. Ollie Pickering bunted safely. Jim Delahanty lined to left and Otis Clymer forced Pickering, but Gabby Street singled in Milan. Nervous or not, Nelson then steadied sufficiently to prevent further damage until the fourth inning. With one out, Dave Altizer walked, stole second, and an out later scored on Jerry Freeman’s single. There were two further runs in the seventh, though tainted. Pickering led off with a single. Nelson then couldn’t field Delahanty’s bunt to the right side, which rolled past him to second baseman George Davis, who picked it up and threw it into right field for a three-base error, Pickering scoring. Nelson caught Clymer’s foul popup, but Street squeezed Delahanty home.

With the White Sox then trailing 4-1, that was it for Nelson. Altrock was brought in to pitch the eighth, and Frank Owen the ninth. The crowd went home happy, since the White Sox got Nelson off the hook, scoring two in the eighth and two in the ninth for the win. Nelson had pitched seven innings and given up four runs, three earned, on three walks and 10 hits (nine singles and a double). An average, or slightly better, result by today’s standards, but plainly unsatisfactory, especially the walks, in 1908, a year when American League batters hit .239 and pitchers had a collective ERA of 2.39.

The Washington Post was bluntly critical of Nelson’s effort, but probably was close to the truth about his state of development: “Nelson, a young man who hails from somewhere in the woods ... is a green left-hander who knows nothing about fielding bunts, and made a mess of several. ... He did not seem to have much speed, and only an ordinary curve ball.”

The White Sox, meanwhile, were getting back some of their injured veteran pitchers, like Roy Patterson and Altrock, and could dispense with Nelson’s services. On a tailender, his results might have earned him more time, but the White Sox intended to be contenders, and would indeed still be in contention on the last day of the tumultuous 1908 American League pennant race. Comiskey had an informal working relationship with the Des Moines (Iowa) Boosters, who were struggling to escape the Western League cellar. Nelson had almost landed in Des Moines in April – the Des Moines Daily News had gone so far as to announce his acquisition – and on June 12 he was sent there. It is not clear whether he was loaned or purchased outright. By the end of the season he certainly was Des Moines property, but in his postcard home on June 17, Nelson wrote that he was “loaned to Des Moines for a couple of months. ... Comiskey wants me back before September.” He reiterated the point in a postcard two days later: “Lost the first game here ... and I want to get back to Chi as soon as I can. Am going to write to Comiskey and tell him ... as you know I am only loaned to this team.” Evidently the big leagues had made a strong impression on Nelson, and he took his demotion hard.

Nelson was belted around in that first game in Des Moines, but this was put down to his being out of condition. He had not pitched regularly all season. It was mid-July before he finally won a game, but he improved thereafter, and when the season ended on September 15 his record was seven wins and eight losses for a last-place team, with two five-hitters and a shutout. With the White Sox in the midst of the American League’s incredible four-team pennant race, however, there would be no end-of-season recall to Chicago. Western League records show Nelson with a stellar batting average of .284, but his fielding woes continued, as he finished last in pitchers’ fielding at .879.

Nelson reported back to Des Moines in April 1909. Comparing his image in an earlier family photo to a Des Moines team photo taken May 1 shows a distinctly huskier individual; perhaps he reported out of shape. The Boosters were determined to field a contender, and had acquired several new pitchers. Despite throwing a no-hitter at a college team on April 13, Nelson didn’t get in a game after the start of the regular season, and was loaned to Fond du Lac (Wisconsin) of the Wisconsin-Illinois League on May 19. Fond du Lac was a large step backward. The few postcards home that summer hint at a lack of enthusiasm; he was critical of the team’s quality. They finished sixth of eight teams. Nelson was a workhorse, third in the league in games pitched with 32, winning 17 and losing 15. His effectiveness waned toward the end of the season, perhaps from pitching too frequently. The Fond du Lac Commonwealth criticized the team’s management for overworking its few reliable starters. The paper assigned Nelson the nickname “Battler,” a takeoff on the popular boxing champion Battling Nelson, because he worked out of a lot of tight situations while pitching, indicating that he was either having control problems or was not bearing down on every hitter. The Commonwealth noted at season’s end that he remained on Des Moines’ reserve list.

Another note in the Commonwealth at season’s end mentioned that the Battler would return to Minneapolis to resume his offseason job as a railroad detective “with the North Western, Great Northern Pacific roads.” This is interesting but not verifiable. The North Western and Great Northern Pacific were separate companies at the time, for one thing, and Nelson did not go straight home after leaving Fond du Lac. As the Commonwealth reported two weeks later, he went to Ishpeming, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to pitch for an independent team. It also published a report that he had been signed by the Philadelphia A’s, apparently only a rumor.

Nelson’s September 21, 1909, postcard from Ishpeming begins, “Suppose you are all wondering where I am,” so he had been out of touch with the family for a while. Around October 1 he was back on the road again, back to St. Paul, according to more postcards, and then west to North Dakota and Montana in November and December, for reasons unknown.

The spring of 1910 saw Nelson resuming his baseball career. Still Des Moines property, he was loaned out for a spring training tryout with Fort Wayne, Indiana, which needed southpaws. He pitched little after arriving on April 20 – a postcard mentions that he was stiff “as-----” from hard training, so he seems to have been behind in his conditioning when he arrived. His first outing was for three innings in an exhibition against Duluth of the Minnesota-Wisconsin League on April 24, and he was touched for two runs. His problems with fielding continued. The Fort Wayne Sentinel was unkind enough to describe an error in detail:

Nelson passed Buzinski in the third and then came in too fast on Kenny’s bunt and it popped over his head. Then he lunged for it, slipped and fell and with his breadbasket on contact with the sloppy field he attempted to make one of those do-or-die heaves and he pegged it into center field in an attempt to catch the runner at second when said runner had passed the station without slowing down and was legging if for third.

After surviving the first few player cutdowns, Nelson was released just before the start of the regular season on May 3. According to the Sentinel, Des Moines would not agree to compensate Fort Wayne if he was recalled by them during the season, so rather than take a chance on being left suddenly short a player, Fort Wayne cut him loose. It probably didn’t help that he was still not taking a regular turn in exhibition matches, and so was probably not in shape to open the season at full effectiveness.

Meanwhile, Wausau (Wisconsin) of the Minnesota-Wisconsin League had released Nelson’s brother Frank, also a pitcher. How Frank had ended up trying out with Wausau is unknown, but it was probably through the same connection that Andy was then signed on to replace him, presumably with no objection from Des Moines. Here Nelson was given a chance to pitch himself into shape, but after losing his first four starts on a team that that was at or near the top of the standings, he was released, on June 16. The Wausau Herald mentioned only that he had shown sufficient stuff but had trouble with his control. There were no further postcards that summer, so perhaps he went home. Unless he caught on with some semipro team that year, this seems to have been the end of Nelson’s baseball career.

Nelson’s whereabouts from this point can be traced, but only for as long as he continued to send postcards. September 1910 found him in Salt Lake City, working his way west with three friends looking for a good job. These postcards suggest that alcohol had become a significant part of his life. He reports that two of his buddies had “recuperated after a couple of days jag and went to Bingham Canyon to work,” and he wrote in October from San Francisco, commending the strong beer to be found there. He headed back to St. Paul in November, stopping in Dickinson, North Dakota, to visit brother Nels, but by November 29 was back in California. He particularly liked Los Angeles, and spent the winter there. His last postcard, dated April 18, 1911, and postmarked in Los Angeles, mentioned that he was heading for Salt Lake City.

St. Paul apparently had little attraction for Nelson thereafter, and his fate, despite the efforts of the members of SABR’s Biographical Research Committee and the manifold increase in the availability of public records through the Internet, remains unknown. His wanderings may have been the result of railroad work. Peter Morris, most indefatigable of the Biographical Research Committee’s diggers, found Nelson’s World War I registration card, dated 1917, on which he listed his employment as brakeman for the Brigham and Garfield Railway Company and his address as RFD Garfield, Salt Lake. He turns up again in the 1925 St. Paul City Directory, living with his brother Henry and listed as a laborer. Father Ole Nelson had died in December 1924, so it is most likely that Andy returned for the funeral and hung around for a while. Descending relatives have no later information on his movements. He was not listed among surviving family members in Frank Nelson’s obituary of December 1941, and the family was unable to locate him in 1948 at the time of his mother’s death.

Hopefully, the story of Andy Nelson, the Swede Hollow boy who reached baseball’s major leagues, will someday be concluded. It is a story as classically American as those of other immigrants’ sons – Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio – whose baseball careers were an avenue to greatness and public adoration instead of, like Nelson’s, a brief escape from obscurity. Certainly none began more humbly.

 

Sources

Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye

Chicago Daily News

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Daily Journal

Des Moines Daily News

Des Moines Daily Capital

Des Moines Register and Leader

Fond du Lac (Wisconsin) Commonwealth

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette

Fort Wayne Sentinel

Leeds (North Dakota) News

Minneapolis Journal

St. Paul Dispatch

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Washington Post

Wausau (Wisconsin) Herald

Sporting Life

Interview with Susan Allyn (great-niece)