Baseball Remembers: Bill Nicholson
Major league baseball during World War II simply wasn’t that good, at least not in comparison to what it was both before and after the war. It also wasn’t good compared to the games being played in the Negro Leagues at the same time. I’ve written about this before.
What I did in that piece, and many others have done before me, is discount some of the accomplishments of individual players from those years. To me, it still makes sense to do that because common sense tells us it was easier to lead a depleted league in home runs than it was to lead one that’s stacked with talents like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenburg.
Still, that seems a bit harsh in some cases. While it’s fair to discount those feats, it wouldn’t be fair to say that all of the players from those years were subpar. Many of them were excellent players, like Lou Boudreau or Hal Newhouser, who excelled either before or after the war, too.
That’s the case with today’s highlighted player, Bill “Swish” Nicholson.
That nickname came from opposing fans, who watched his long practice swings and yelled “swish, swish, swish” at him. It wasn’t complimentary, and didn’t catch on with the fans of Nicholson’s principal team, the Chicago Cubs. There he was known as Big Bill, or simply Nick.
For that time, Nick was a big, strapping guy, 6-feet tall and a solid 205 pounds. He had originally signed a contract in 1936 with the Philadelphia A’s. They had scouted him when he starred in both baseball and football for tiny Washington College in his hometown of Chestertown, Maryland. The A’s were terrible that year and unfairly rushed him to the big leagues, but he only came to bat a dozen times and didn’t get any hits.
He hit well in the minors in 1937, and again in 1938, but Philadelphia was desperate for cash and decided to sell him to the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts late in that season. There, Nicholson was managed by future Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler, who helped him alter his stance. When Nicholson responded by batting .334 with 23 homers, Cuyler put in a good word about him to his former big league team, the Cubs, who gladly bought his contract and promoted him to the big league team in August, 1939.
Nick never played in the minor leagues again. He spent the rest of the season as the Cubs’ regular right fielder, batted .296 and drove in 38 runs in just 58 games. He only hit 5 homers in those games, but also hit 5 triples and 12 doubles, doing more than enough to cement a regular spot in the Cubs’ lineup for the next season.
As a 25-year old in 1940, Nicholson’s power stroke was on display. He hit .297 with 25 homers, drove in 98 runs and made his first All-Star team. His .534 slugging percentage was second in the National League to Johnny Mize, and his .899 OPS was third in the league. While his 67 strikeouts would be a wonderful mark today, that was the 6th-most in the league that year, adding to the derisive “Swish” nickname opposing fans gave him.
His next two seasons were largely carbon copies of his first full year with the Cubs. He made another All-Star team in 1941, and received down-ballot consideration in the MVP voting in each of his first three seasons in Chicago.
Then came the war.
While still in college, Nicholson had applied for a place in the Naval Academy, and his academic and athletic performance put him on track for an appointment. Unfortunately for his hopes of serving in the Navy, he was found to be colorblind and his application was rejected. While this was greatly disappointing to him them, it proved to be a benefit in his baseball career. The condition made him ineligible to serve in the military during the war, so he was one of the few pre-war stars who continued playing in the major leagues during World War II.
In 1943, Nicholson blossomed into one of the best players in baseball. He led the National League in both home runs (29) and RBI (128) while batting .309. The performance led him to finish third in MVP voting that season. In 1944, he was just as good, leading the league in homers (33) and RBI (122) again while also leading in runs (116) and total bases (317). This time he finished second in MVP voting, losing the award to the Cardinals’ Marty Marion by just one point, 190-189.
Nick’s performance dropped in 1945. He was still an All-Star for the fifth and final time in his career, and still drove in 88 runs as the Cubs won their last pennant for the next 71 years, but his power wasn’t the same and his batting average dipped to just .243. Things were even worse in 1946, as he hit just eight home runs and batted .220. It’s not clear what drove the two-year slump, but given the issues with his vision that had already been found and would worsen later in life, it’s likely it was impacting his ability to see the ball.
Now in his early 30s, Nicholson managed to bounce back over the next two years, which would prove to be his final seasons in Chicago. His average still wasn’t great, just .254, but he stayed healthy enough to average 146 games and 22 homers in those seasons.
After the 1948 season, Nick was traded to the Phillies. There he proved to be a steady veteran presence as he helped the young team win a surprising pennant in 1950, but his best playing days were clearly over. In fact, he had a drastic weight loss of 20 pounds during that season, leading to him being diagnosed with diabetes just before the season ended. He sadly had to miss the World Series, and never again got as many as 200 plate appearances in a season. He was released after the 1953 season and retired.
Despite the diabetes and poor vision, Big Bill lived to be 81-years old. He was never offered any coaching or managing jobs despite his reputation for being a good clubhouse presence, so instead did a variety of jobs. Mostly he enjoyed working his farm back in Chestertown, where he passed away in 1996.
It’s true that Bill Nicholson’s best seasons coincided with the war years when most of the top players in baseball were serving in the military. But it’s also true that Nicholson was an All-Star twice before those years, and was still a solid everyday player for a few years after all of those players returned. He didn’t compile his 235 career homers or 948 RBI in just those three seasons when the war robbed the major leagues of its top talent.
That could only be done over a solid, long career that’s worth remembering.
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