#CardCorner: 1973 Topps Dave Nelson
As we move closer and closer toward the holiday season, it’s inevitable to start thinking about the members of the baseball world who have left us this year.
From the ranks of the Hall of Fame, we have lost Willie McCovey, beloved member of the San Francisco Giants and one of the most intimidating hitters of the last 60 years. The year has also been marred by the death of Red Schoendienst, so accomplished as both a player and manager and one of the icons in St. Louis Cardinals history.
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There have been others, too. Bob Bailey, Ed Charles, Tito Francona, Oscar Gamble, Bruce Kison, Wally Moon, Marty Pattin and Rusty Staub are among the many departed of 2018, all leaving behind legacies that recall earlier eras in the game’s history.
Bailey, Charles, Gamble, Kison, and Moon have all been profiled in this space. All of them had memorable careers, and all had at least one intriguing card that deserved further exploration. Another man worthy of being added to the list is a lesser known player, but one who still had an impact, both as a standout basestealer and as one of the game’s highly beloved ambassadors.
The late Dave Nelson, or Davey Nelson as he was often called, was one of the fastest runners of the 1970s. His speed was the strength of his game, ahead of his versatility – the latter trait allowing him to play several infield and outfield positions. His most famous achievement involved his speed and came during a game in 1974, when he stole second base, third base and home plate – all in one inning.
Heading into the 1973 season, Davey Nelson was regarded as one of the game’s most dangerous base stealing threats. He had stolen 51 bases in 1972, despite batting only .226 with a mere .324 on-base percentage. Fittingly, Nelson’s 1973 Topps card shows him stealing one of those bases.
Nelson, wearing the road grays with blue and red trim that the Texas Rangers featured during their first year of existence, is one of three players to make an appearance on the card. The other two are members of the Oakland A’s: Middle infielder Ted Kubiak (No. 11) and left-handed pitcher Dave Hamilton (No. 33). Ironically, both of those players are more prominent on the card than Nelson himself. Hamilton is striking a bit of an odd pose, his back turned from home plate as he wraps his glove around his back. In the meantime, Kubiak has his head down, his eyes focused on Nelson’s right leg.
As hard as the Yankees tried to entice the Rangers, Texas turned down multiple offers for Nelson. Unfortunately, injuries would soon alter his season in a different way. On May 11, Nelson collided with teammate Lenny Randle, resulting in a broken nose. Then came injuries to his ankle and knee in mid-July, as he attempted to turn a double play. The various injuries, including a torn ligament in his ankle, limited him to 121 games and took a toll on his hitting and speed. He batted .236 and stole only 25 bases, his lowest total since 1971.
Nelson reported to Spring Training in 1975 determined to make a full recovery from his ankle injury. He played well in exhibition games, continuing to impress Martin with his grit and toughness. But the pain in his ankle returned early in the season. An examination showed the development of a bone spur on his ankle. Doctor prescribed surgery, which put him on the shelf until the middle of August.
The cascade of injuries resulted in a lost season for Nelson. He played in only 28 games, batting a mere .213. His range in the field was also affected. The poor season, coupled with his advancing age (he was now 31), sealed Nelson’s fate with the Rangers. That winter, they traded him to the Kansas City Royals as part of a package for veteran right-hander Nelson Briles.
In joining the Royals, Nelson knew that his days as an everyday player were over. The Royals already had Frank White and Cookie Rojas at second base, and a young George Brett manning third. Nelson played the role of utility man, filling in at second, first base, and as a DH, all while stealing 15 bases off the bench.
While Nelson saw his playing time cut, he also saw a benefit with the Royals, who won their first division title in 1976. That gave Nelson his first shot at the postseason; he would appear in two games against the Yankees, who defeated the Royals in a dramatically played five-game series.
The 1977 season resulted in an even more reduced role for Nelson. He played in only 27 games, a career low, and stole only one base. The Royals brought Nelson back for Spring Training in 1978, but he couldn’t crack the Royals’ deep and improving roster. On April 1, the Royals gave Nelson his unconditional release. Rather than pursue opportunities in Japan or Mexico, the 33-year-old opted for retirement.
While his baseball skills had declined, Nelson still had something to offer the game. In 1980, he did some coaching at Texas Christian University before returning to the major leagues as a coach with the Chicago White Sox. He later did some work for the Oakland A’s and Montreal Expos, sandwiched around a brief broadcasting tenure with the Chicago Cubs. Then came a stint with the Indians, his original team, first as a coach and then as a broadcaster.
In 2001, Nelson began a long association with the Milwaukee Brewers. He became the team’s first base coach, worked the broadcast booth for a spell, and then moved on to the front office as the director of alumni relations. With his amiable personality, Nelson became a natural as the head of the Brewers’ alumni group, fostering strong relationships with many of the team’s retired players. Nelson was one of those people who could meet a stranger for the first time – and make a friend for life.
As much as Nelson loved baseball, he also cared about folks outside of the sport. He took on a number of charitable causes, including the founding of a boarding house for South African children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. To friends and colleagues, that kind of selfless involvement was typical of Nelson.
Nelson was continuing to work for the Brewers when he noticed some difficulty swallowing in August of 2017. He paid a visit to the doctor, who gave him a grim prognosis: Stage 4 liver cancer that had already spread to his esophagus. Nelson underwent treatment, regained his sense of taste and seemed to be doing well, but then the cancer took hold again. In April of 2018, he lost the battle, passing away at the age of 73.
Nelson’s death stirred reactions across the baseball globe. Perhaps the words of Rangers broadcaster Tom Grieve, a onetime teammate, best described Nelson. “What a great guy,” Grieve told Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. “I've known Dave since I first began playing baseball. My first Major League Spring Training in Pompano Beach, [Fla.], the first person I met was Dave Nelson. He had a red Corvette, and he asked me out to dinner.
“He was one of those people you could say that everybody liked him.”
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame
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