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Book Review: "Swish" Nicholson

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Bill "Swish" Nicholson was an outfielder for the Cubs in the 1940's -- profiled in the top 100 Cubs series on this site as #52 in December 2006 -- and this new biography of him, the first such book, written by SABR member Robert Greenberg, who is a graduate of the same college (Washington College in Nicholson's hometown of Chestertown, Maryland) examines all facets of Nicholson's life.

A good comp for Nicholson in modern-day baseball is Adam Dunn. Now, looking just at Dunn's career numbers so far and Nicholson's, you might not think so. But as Greenberg points out, during the World War II years when rubber became a valuable war asset, baseballs were made with cork centers, called "balata balls", and HR output dropped precipitously; for example, Nicholson led the NL in HR in 1943 with 29, which seems a small number to us today, but no one else in the NL hit more than 18. The same thing happened in 1944, when Nicholson hit 33 HR, his career high; he was the only 30+ homer man in either league that year.

Greenberg notes Nicholson's disappointment at not being named NL MVP either year -- but the Cubs were awful both those years. In 1945, Nicholson suddenly slumped, and there was no explanation at that time (part of the reason may be explained by the Cubs' failure to have an adequate training staff -- Nicholson himself, quoted in the book, saw the difference between what the Cubs had and what the Phillies had after his trade to Philadelphia in 1949). Later, he was diagnosed with diabetes, which explains his sudden loss of productivity and his virtual retirement after the '49 season -- he never played a full season again after '49, though in part-time play in 1950, he hit two key pinch-hit HR that helped spur the Whiz Kid Phillies to the NL pennant. His health prevented him from playing in the 1950 World Series; he did play in the '45 Series for the Cubs, but hit only .214. Nicholson lamented later that he couldn't have done more to help the Cubs in that Series, but the 8 RBI he had were at the time a record for a seven-game World Series.

The book details Nicholson's rise from a Maryland farm -- where the locals noted early on how strong he was -- to being signed by Connie Mack for the Philadelphia A's, for whom he had 12 at-bats in late 1936 at age 21. As Mack did with many players in that era, he wound up selling Nicholson off and never reaped the good years that Nicholson had. Greenberg also gives a good portrait of how the Cubs were beginning to decline even before '45 -- at one time noting that the Cubs played for some time in the early '40s with a 20-man roster because P. K. Wrigley was too cheap to buy new talent from the minor leagues (the Cubs were slow to the "farm system" concept, pioneered by the Cardinals and Dodgers, where you could just recall players that were under your control -- this is one reason St. Louis and Brooklyn won so many pennants in the 1930s and 1940s).

During his career, Nicholson also was involved in a number of incidents that are now etched in Cub and major league lore. On June 23, 1944 he was walked intentionally with the bases loaded late in a game by the NY Giants; the tactic worked as the Giants won. That didn't happen again until May 28, 1998, when the Diamondbacks did the same to Barry Bonds (they also won). Nicholson is also one of only two players (Roberto Clemente the other) to come close to hitting the Wrigley Field scoreboard with a HR -- he hit one that passed just to its right in 1948. And finally, Greenberg describes in detail the incidents leading up to the shooting of Eddie Waitkus by Ruth Ann Steinhagen in 1949; Nicholson, Waitkus and some of his Phillie teammates had all been out after a game between the Phillies and Cubs, on Nicholson's second return to Chicago after being dealt to Philly.

The book is a good read for that history, but I must make a couple of minor quibbles. The publisher, McFarland, is known for its more "scholarly" treatments of popular subjects like Nicholson. It bothered me, then, to see "Ebbets Field" misspelled constantly ("Ebbetts"), to see the name of Cub outfielder Dom Dallessandro spelled with only one "s", and, worst of all, to see the location of Wrigley Field misidentified as "1060 North Addison Street".

Quibbles aside, this is worth reading to learn about the history of a now-nearly forgotten player who still ranks seventh (207) on the all-time Cub HR list and who, in his time, was as popular a player as Derrek Lee is today. And finally, the nickname "Swish"? The book looks at whether he got it for striking out a lot, or whether it's for swinging so hard on his prodigious home runs. You can read and decide for yourself.