04/13/12 7:01 PM ET
Ex-Ranger Nelson embodies spirit of Robinson
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
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Forty years ago, the Rangers had an infielder who embodied that spirit. Obviously Nelson wasn't as good as Robinson -- who was? -- but he played the game the same way because that was the way he was taught."One of the nicest compliments I ever received was something Billy Martin, my manager, said in an article," Nelson said. "It was in the Pompano Beach newspaper in Spring Training. He said, 'Dave Nelson reminds me of Jackie Robinson with the way he plays the game ... his pride and determination, the way he runs the bases, he reminds me of Jackie.' That made me feel so good. "I remember my dad telling me about Jackie. He was my inspiration. I was a second baseman and I wanted to play the game like him. Two players I idolized were Jackie Robinson and Bobby Richardson, who was with the Yankees. Bobby Richardson was a second baseman like Jackie. He wasn't as good as Jackie, but he played the game right, gave himself up to get runners over, did all the little things, played defense, did all of those things.
"I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Larry Doby, who was the first black player in the American League and somebody I really got to know when I was a coach with the Indians."Nelson, who now works for the Brewers as a TV analyst and director of alumni relations, grew up in Southern California, played at Cal State Los Angeles and was signed by the Indians in 1964. In his first professional season, he was assigned to Dubuque, Iowa, in the Midwest League. He almost quit that first season until somebody reminded him about Jackie Robinson. "Class A ball, there were four blacks on the team," Nelson said. "We were flying from Tucson to Chicago, and then we took a bus to Dubuque. Well, my manager Walt Novick calls me up to the front and said, 'This is kind of a funny town. They have places for the white players to play and you guys have to stay at the YMCA. There are some restaurants that won't serve you, but on the whole the people are pretty good.' "That was fine with me. I was from Southern California and the YMCA sounded pretty nice. But I got there and this place wasn't fit for anybody to live." But that wasn't the toughest part. This was still 1964 in small-town rural America. "I had people calling me names and they wouldn't serve me," Nelson said. "It got to the point where I was going to go home. I was going to quit. The last straw was when I went to J.C. Penney's to buy some jeans and the security guard followed me all around the store like I was some criminal. "I said, 'That's it, I'm out of here.'" He called his mother and told her that he was coming home. "She said, 'If you want to quit, come on home,'" Nelson said. "But she said, 'Who is your idol?' I said, 'Jackie Robinson.' She said, 'Are you going through what he went through?' I said, 'Sort of, but not like he went through.' "She said, 'If you want to forget all the things he did and walk away, come on home. But you'll find a way to overcome it. You love playing baseball. Why are you going to let somebody destroy your dream like that?' So I didn't. I didn't quit." Instead Nelson has enjoyed a long and successful career in Major League Baseball. He played 10 seasons in the big leagues and has since worked as a coach, baserunning and defensive instructor, and broadcaster for a number of organizations. Kenny Lofton, Scott Podsednik and Rickie Weeks are among the players who have benefited from his baserunning expertise. Nelson played two years with the Indians and then was traded to the Washington Senators for the 1970 season. "A funny thing, when I was with the Senators in 1970, we played an exhibition game in Arlington, Texas, against the Montreal Expos," Nelson said. "I remember I had a collision at home plate with John Bateman. He had to go to the hospital to have his appendix taken out. "So I went to visit him in Arlington and we were talking and I said, 'What a lousy ballpark.' This was at a time when nobody was talking about moving to Texas. I said, 'I'm glad we're not playing here.' Well, two years later we were playing in Arlington." Nelson was the Rangers' third baseman in that inaugural season. Second base was his natural position, but manager Ted Williams didn't like him there. He wanted Nelson to play third base. Then Williams stepped down after the 1972 season and Whitey Herzog was hired as manager. "I was out of place at third, I was like a duck in the desert," Nelson said. "Then Whitey called me in the offseason and said, 'Davey, you're my second baseman. The job is yours unless somebody takes it from you.' I said, 'Nobody will take it from me.'" They didn't, and in 1973, Nelson became the first Rangers player to play in an All-Star Game even if it was only for a couple of innings on defense. "I was proud of that, being picked to the All-Star team by Dick Williams, the manager, because I had worked my tail off," Nelson said. "I felt good at second base, that's where I belonged." Nelson spent four years in Texas before finishing up his playing career with the Royals in 1975-76. He ranks fifth in club history with 125 stolen bases with a high of 51 in 1972. "A good player a great teammate," Grieve said. "Just a great guy to have around, one of the leaders in the clubhouse. If you have a problem, he was a guy you could go to and talk about it. He could play: good defense, great speed and he had a little power." Baseball has been Nelson's life but, like his pioneering idol, there are things of social consequence that are important to him as well. For the past seven years he has served on the board of directors for Open Arms for Children, a non-profit organization that provides homes for orphaned children affected by the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. Not only does he direct fundraising activities, he also makes an annual offseason trip to South Africa to meet face-to-face with the children. "The kids call me Uncle Davey," Nelson said. "They just warm my heart. We do what we can and I have a lot of friends who have become involved because they are really inspired by what we do." His idol, Jackie Robinson, would be proud.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.