Friday, May 22, 2015

Nen's debut homer helped clinch pennant

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too. 

In 1963 Dick Nen had one of the most auspicious debuts in major league history . . . then faded into mediocrity.

Nen's start in pro ball was also auspicious. He was signed out of college at age 21 by the L.A. Dodgers in 1961 and assigned to  Reno in the Class C California League. Playing first base with the Silver Sox, Nen led the league with 34 doubles, 32 home runs, 144 RBIs, 315 total bases and a .625 slugging average.

He was second in the circuit with 102 walks and 121 runs scored. His 177 hits were third in the league and he was fourth with a .351 BA and 25 stolen bases.

Reno won the pennant by 15 games. Surprisingly, Nen did not win the MVP; that went to Reno shortstop Don Williams, who'd led the Cal League with a .363 BA but was otherwise statistically inferior to Nen in most offensive categories.

Nen was advanced all the way to the Pacific Coast League for 1962. At the AAA level he hit a modest .268 with little power for last place Spokane. He remained with the Indians for 1963 and the team nearly went from worst-to-first, winning the PCL North Division by 17 games before losing to Oklahoma City in the playoffs. Nen had upped his BA to .288.

With Los Angeles in a tight pennant race, Nen was called up by the Dodgers on the morning after the PCL season ended. He'd gone 1-for-4 in the Indians' loss to the 89ers.

He flew to St. Louis where he joined the Dodgers at their hotel just in tie to catch the team bus for Busch Stadium. 

Nobody had been hotter than St. Louis in the month of September. The Cards were seven games behind on Aug. 30 after they beat the Phillies to begin a phenomenal run in which they won 19 out of 20 games.

As the teams' final three-game series opened on Sept. 16, Los Angeles had a one-game lead. The Dodgers won the first two games and faced Bob Gibson on Sept.18. 

Gibby had a 1-5 lead as the eighth inning opened with Nen pinch-hitting. He lined out, but the next four Dodgers batters touched Gibson for three singles and a walk, scoring twice. Bobby Shantz came on in relief and was tagged for another run.

The Cardinals went out in order in the eighth. 

Ron Taylor, who had relieved Shantz the previous inning took the mound for the top of the ninth with the Cardinals holding on to a 4-5 lead. After Ken McMullen flied to second base, Nen homered on an 0-1 pitch. 

When first reported in The Sporting News, Harry Caray's call was reported as, "Here comes the pitch . . . " (deadly pause) "Oh my God, it's over the roof!" Caray later said that he never mentioned God in his report.

Nen's home run tied the game 5-5, and the Dodgers went on to win 6-5 in 13 innings. In sweeping St. Louis, the Dodgers took a four-game lead, sending the Cardinals into a tailspin (the lost eight of their final 10 games to finish six out)  and all but mathematically eliminating them from the NL pennant race.

Taking over at first base for Norm Larker, Nen grounded out in the 11th and was intentionally walked in the 13th. 

His dramatic homer was the only hit Nen got in 1963, and his only hit as a Dodger. In six more games, mostly in pinch-hit appearances, he was 0-for-7, ending the season at .125.

Nen was not placed on the Dodgers' World Series roster as Los Angeles swept the Yankees 4-0. 

For his role in clinching the pennant, the players voted him a $1,000 cash award from the World Series winners' share; quite a bump from his reported $7,000 salary.

Nen was returned to the PCL for the 1964 season. He hit .270 for third-place Spokane.

In the off-season, the Dodgers traded Nen to the Washington Senators. He opened the 1965 season back in the PCL, at Hawaii, but was called up in July and became the Senators' more-or-less regular first baseman until just before the 1968 season, when he was sold to the Cubs. Nen had batted .231 in three years with Washington, with a consistent six runs each season.

Back in the National League for '68, Nen pinch-hit for Chicago, occasionally platooning with Ernie Banks at first base. He hit just .181 with two runs in 81 games. At the end of the season he was sold back to the Senators.

Washington sent him to their AAA team at Buffalo for 1969. He spent virtually all of his final three pro seasons at Denver, save for a six-game stint with the Senators in mid-1970.

Nen had spent all or part of nine seasons in the minor leagues between 1961-72, eight of them at the AAA level. In that span he batted .291, averaging just under a dozen dingers per year.

At the major-league level he hit .224 in 367 games over six seasons (1963-70) with 21 home runs.

In its list of the "100 Greatest Home Runs of All Time," ESPN ranked Nen's homer #99.

Nen's baseball card legacy included appearances on a 1964 Topps Dodgers Rookie Stars card, and with the Senators on 1965-68 Topps cards. 

He has a legacy of another sort. His son Robb played in the major leagues 1993-2002 for the Rangers, Marlins and Giants.

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