"If a big league ball club would put him in the lineup and leave him there, before the season is out they would have a real stem-winder of a first baseman."
Yet where is Rocky Nelson now? Well, he is playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs and leading the International League in batting (.326), home runs (32) and runs batted in (93). Has this brought the big leagues aswarming to his door once more? Well, not exactly.
"I guess," says Manager Al Lopez of the Chicago White Sox, who was Rocky's onetime boss in Cleveland, "that everyone has just about given up on him."
"If he hadn't been up so many times before," said Cincinnati Scout Dutch Dotterer, who happened to be in Toronto watching a game the other day, "the way he is hitting right now there would be 16 major league teams after him with big money. As it is, I guess no one is interested. It's a funny case."
Funny may hardly be the proper word, for Nelson is not in the tradition of other minor league superstars, players like Lou Novikoff and Joe Hauser and Luke Easter, who could never click in the big leagues. Most of these had a weakness at the plate, which major league pitchers spotted right away and were able to capitalize upon, or else they couldn't run or were butchers in the field. Nelson, however, is plagued by no deficiencies such as these. Once considered an excellent first baseman, he remains a highly adequate one. He can run. And certainly he can hit. The pitching one sees in Triple-A baseball is not so consistently good as in the majors, but much of it is in the same class. And big league rosters today are loaded with the names of pitchers like Ford and Bunning and Lary and Friend and Newcombe and Donovan and Burdette who once upon a time, down in the International League and American Association, had a great deal of trouble getting Rocky Nelson out.
"When I was at Rochester in 1953," says Wally Moon of the Cardinals, who came up the next season to win the National League's outstanding rookie award, "he was the best hitter in the league. You couldn't fool him; there wasn't anything or anybody he couldn't hit. And left-handed pitching didn't bother him a bit."
Milt Smith, who was once up with the Redlegs but now plays alongside Rocky in the Toronto infield, likes to point out that the big leagues are full of players that can't carry Rocky's bat. "I know," says Smith. "I played with a lot of them and I know. This guy is a real hitter. He's got that wonderful swing and he's got power. He's sure of himself, too, I can tell you that. He knows he can hit. And he sure isn't scared. You know, when a left-hander is pitchin', some left-hand hitters don't like that sidearm curve. They see it comin' and they get out of there. Not Rocky. He don't budge an inch."
But Nelson's greatest admirer of the moment is Dixie Walker.
"He's a lot more than just a good hitter," says Walker. "He's tough and he plays for you even when he's hurt. He comes through when you need him; he gets the home run or the base hit that wins the game. And he's one of the few hitters in baseball who can adapt to fit the park and the situation.
"You understand, he's not one of those guys like Snider or Mantle who hits those towering drives out there 440 feet. He's really a small man—about 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds or so—and he gets his power from exceptional timing. When he hits the ball hard, it goes 350 or 360 feet. That's about his range. So when we go into a big park with a deep right field or when the wind is blowing a gale from right, he doesn't try to pull the ball over the fence. He lines it to center or he hits to left. He's hit seven home runs this year to left. He has the most amazing bat control I've ever seen."