Obviously, Nelson is what they call, in baseball parlance, an original. In the spring of 1972 he got a tryout with a Cardinals farm team in Sarasota, Fla. To make himself a more attractive prospect, the crafty lefthander "borrowed" the name—and the Social Security number—of Dave Raymond, a friend from back home in Massapequa, NY. Apparently Raymond wasn't much of a ballplayer, but he was 19 years old, a more attractive age, in baseball thinking, than Nelson's age at the time, 23.
"I was throwing just as hard as I possibly could to impress the Cardinals brass, says Nelson, "and, lo and behold. I got signed on May 1 during the rookie league's spring training. It took a while, though, to learn to respond to the name Dave Raymond. Guys would keep calling, 'Dave, Dave, 'and I had to teach myself to turn around."
Alas, he was released on May 23, his career lasting less than the month of May. "In a nutshell, I pitched about five innings during my stint," says Nelson, "and, well, the best you could say about me was that I was ineffective. Let me give you an example. One afternoon, I'm on the mound and I got nothing. So I'm loading the ball up with everything—suntan lotion. Vaseline, you name it. My catcher, Randy Poffo [destined to become pro wrestler Randy (Macho Man) Savage], comes out in the middle of the second inning and says to me, 'Hey, Dave, you got a cold or something?" And I say, no, I'm feeling fine, but why are you asking. And Poffo says back to me, 'Cuz the ball is coming in real slow and it's all covered with some sort of slimy stuff.' That was typical of my career—I was loading the ball up, and even my catcher didn't know it."
After his short visit with the Cardinals, Nelson headed north, looking to catch on with any kind of pro club. He got close a few times but finally found himself waiting on tables and teaching first grade in Ithaca, N.Y. In the fall of 1973 he overheard two guys in a bar talking about a baseball club in Cape Town, South Africa, that was looking for American players. Nellie talked his way onto the team, and in the next five years, Rob Nelson, former Ivy League pitcher and Cardinal for almost a month, became a big name in South African baseball.
As the ace lefthander of the Varsity Old Boys team of Cape Town, Nelson was phenomenal. In case you missed the agate type in 1973, Nelson helped the VOB to the Western Province Baseball Association championship, winning 19 games—and batting .420 as well. "Keep in mind that in my senior year in college, I fanned maybe 22 batters in 66 innings," says Nelson. "But in Cape Town, nobody had ever seen a decent curveball before, much less a lefthanded curve. I racked up 225 strikeouts in 200 innings pitched. I was blowing people away. I had found my niche."
Indeed. He was named to various all-star teams and made Player of the Year in the 1973-74 season (the seasons in South Africa are reversed, with spring training starting in September and the dog days coming around Christmas). Says Nelson, "I remember one season I was supposed to pitch in a big New Year's Day doubleheader, so I had to go home early from a New Year's Eve party so I would be ready the next day."
Lord Nelson, as he was christened by the local media, had to adjust to more than the climate. "This was South Africa in the mid-1970s," he says. "All the ball clubs and leagues were totally segregated. And up until 1976, there was no television in South Africa. So people either listened to the radio for entertainment or they went out. We used to draw as many as 2,000 to 3,000 people, simply because there wasn't much else to do.
"As far as the level of ball was concerned, well, even though South Africans were introduced to baseball in the gold rush of the 1880s, there were only a few players who could play competitive ball in the States. Some, however, were excellent hitters, although their swings had been heavily influenced by cricket. That is, they hit the low pitch extremely well but couldn't touch anything above the waist. And with my tendency to hang an occasional deuce, that was a perfect combination for me."
During his five-year career in South Africa, Nelson heard about open tryouts being held for the Portland (Ore.) Mavericks, an independent minor league team. "I ended up getting cut from Portland two years in a row," he says. Finally, in 1977, Nelson made the club. He pitched one game. Though he got a win in his only appearance, it was not the highlight of the season. Nellie recalls the magic moment: "It was in August of 1977, and Bouton and I were in the bullpen, watching some of our penmates drowning bugs with gobs of tobacco spit. Bouton and I both agreed how disgusting tobacco juice was, and I said, 'Hey, why don't we invent a bubble gum that comes in a tobacco pouch? Kids would love it.'
"A few days later, we went to my kitchen. I took slabs of bubble gum and then cut them down into thin strips, just like chewing tobacco. We put it in a foil pouch and figured we were on our way to becoming millionaires."