No. 65: Kid Nichols

It’s always fun to play the Player A/Player B game. Here are the first 10 seasons of two pitchers, both right-handed, born about 18 months apart. They started their careers the same year.

Player A: 267-151, 3.05 ERA, 1,125 Ks, 768 walks, 28 shutouts, 1.242 WHIP, 139 ERA+.
Player B: 297-151, 2.97 ERA, 1,484 Ks, 1,001 walks, 36 shutouts, 1.234 WHIP, 146 ERA+.

Both were obviously extraordinary pitchers. But, if you look closely, maybe Player B was just a little bit better. More wins (back when wins has a little more meaning since pitchers completed just about every game they started) More strikeouts. More shutouts. Better ERA, Slightly lower WHIP.

Player B is Kid Nichols.
Player A is Cy Young.

Cy Young conceded that Nichols was the better pitcher those early few years. Of course, Cy Young’s greatness continued intact on for another decade, which is how he won 511 games and why there’s a pretty famous award named for him. Kid Nichols’s career would nose downward after he turned 30, and even though he would end up with 361 victories and was better than Cy Young the first decade of their careers, most baseball fans have never heard of him.

* * *

There’s a decent chance you know almost nothing about Kid Nichols — until a few years ago, I knew almost nothing — so let’s just list off a dozen Kid Nichols facts.

1. Charles Nichols was born in Wisconsin, the son of a butcher. His family moved to Kansas City when he was young and he lived there more or less the rest of his life.

2. He was called Kid in his first year of organized baseball, when he was so slight and young-looking that he was routinely mistaken for the bat boy.

4. He began pitching for Boston in the National League in 1890, the same year Cy Young debuted with the Cleveland Spiders. The 1890s were different times for pitchers, obviously. The mound was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches in 1893 — that was the same year that the pitching box was eliminated and replaced with what we now call the rubber. Good pitchers routinely started between 40 and 50 games a year.

Still, even so, Nichols won 30 games or more seven times, an unapproachable Major League record. Cy Young won 30 five times. That record, like Cy Young’s 511 lifetime victories, will never be broken unless the rules of the game change.

4. Nichols was not known known as one of the harder throwers of his day. He was certainly not in the company of Amos Rusie or Cy Young or the famed Jouett Meekin, who threw so hard and with such purpose (he believed that a pitcher should begin every at-bat by throwing two pitches near a player’s head) that many believe he’s the main reason the mound was moved back to 60 feet 6 inches.

Still, Kid Nichols must have had some kind of fastball because he basically threw nothing else. Contemporary accounts talked about how uninspiring his curveball was and he rarely threw it. Nichols, like Mariano Rivera, was basically a one-pitch pitcher. Unlike Rivera’s cutter which broke left hard and late, it was said that Nichols’ fastball sort of hopped as it approached the plate to it.

5. In the later part of his career, Nichols befriended a young Kansas City fan named Charles Stengel — and Ol’ Casey would always say that Nichols was one of the great influences of his life.

6. Nichols was a fantastic bowler and would win a bowling championship in Kansas City when he was 63 years old.

7. His wife Jennie, for a time, held the women’s record for duckpin bowling.

8. Kid Nichols and Hall of Famer Joe Tinker opened a large theater in Kansas City together and would bring vaudeville shows to town. I particularly like one mention they had in The Moving Picture World where Tinker was referred to as erstwhile manager of the Cincinnati team while Nichols, “exploits on the diamond are well known to the fans of the older generation.” The older generation. This was in 1913. Already he was being forgotten.

9. Nichols received a U.S. patent for an electronic scoreboard he invented — the scoreboard would show a game in progress in almost real time, using lights to represent base runners. He would have the display going during the World Series in Kansas City and was said to draw as many as four or five thousand fans.

10. Cy Young was a great admirer of his. “Kid Nichols forgot more baseball than 90% of us will ever know,” he said.

11. Nichols received almost no Hall of Fame consideration in the early years. Bill James explained it this way: NIchols’ greatness ended almost PRECISELY when baseball exploded into the American imagination. His last 30-win season was just before the turn over the century, he was essentially done with his career before the American League existed, so there was no World Series for him (he did pitch brilliantly in 1892 the championship series when his Boston Beaneaters breezed by Young’s Cleveland Spiders). When the media coverage of baseball exploded, Kid Nichols was home and retired.

Nichols never even got three percent of the BBWAA vote — this even though the famed sportswriter Grantland Rice was a was a huge supporter and would, now and again, make his pitch for Nichols in print or on the radio.

12. Ty Cobb, of all people, basically brought Nichols back into the public conversation. Cobb did not face Nichols’ best — their careers barely overlapped — but in the 1940s Cobb would rant to anyone who would listen about Nichols greatness.

“You’re a bit too young to remember,” Cobb told one reporter in 1948 — this was a pitch he repeated often, “but I knew a pitcher who was a real pitcher. His name was Kid Nichols. He was with the Boston Nationals early in the century.”

And then, as proof, he would pull out Kid Nichols statistics that he carried around with him. Yeah, he walked around with Kid Nichols’ stats. This was a committed man.

“How can they possibly keep Kid Nichols out of the Hall of Fame?” he asked.*

*Cobb also had a funny little gripe that’s worth repeating here about how pitchers were becoming too brittle. “Let me tell you, those were the days … Pitchers didn’t have sore arms, chipped bones, and all that stuff.” This was 1948. Already pitchers were going soft.

The next year, 1949, Nichols was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee.

45 thoughts on “No. 65: Kid Nichols

  1. bl

    The Post that saves everyone else time

    How dare you rank this player so low or so high!
    WAR
    So much better than player x who I presume you’ve ranked much higher
    So much worse than player x who I assume hasn’t made your list
    Morris! Garvey!
    (If you don’t like it why do you read)
    (Park effects, stories!)
    I have ranked so and so in this spot.
    My rankings are perfect!
    Your rankings should match mine exactly
    EXACTLY!
    blah blah blah blah
    yadda, yadda, yadda
    (stop posting your opinion)
    (adjustments for player quality)
    Negro Leaguers shouldn’t be ranked
    The Japanese play baseball?
    PEDs, PEDs, PEDs!
    (Amphetamines!)
    More Home Runs is all that matter
    (more walks is all that matters)
    Strikeouts
    (teams with bad defenses)
    RBI, RBI, RBI, FEARED!
    (Teh Fear!)
    (Stop capitalizing)
    This list is biased!
    This list is not consistent with other lists
    STATS
    STATS
    STATS
    (Stories)
    (Fun)
    (Publish a book)
    Grammar error!
    typo!
    Uninformed!
    (thanks for writing so much!)
    This player was the worst, doesn’t belong in the top 200!
    Look at my list! Use MY LIST!!
    Jack Morris!

    Reply
  2. Craig from Az

    Now that’s funny!

    I had heard of Kid Nichols, but that is about it. I love the old-tyme baseball team names – the Beaneaters vs the Spiders. Bring back the Beaneaters!

    Reply
  3. nationalkids

    Here is a little bit for someone to study. Are Cy Young and Kid Nichols basically the only two pitchers who survived the 1893 change? There may be more, but not many. Most significant pitchers either have their entire career before the change or after. Ony Nichols and Young, that I can think of, bridged the change.

    Reply
    1. PhilM

      I think you’re right. Tim Keefe successfully weathered all the previous major changes (1881, 1887, 1889) but he didn’t last past 1893.

      Reply
      1. denopac

        A very interesting point. Gus Weyhing won 177 games before 1893 and 87 after, so I guess he counts. Weyhing is the career HBP leader with 277 (Chick Fraser is a distant second with 219).

        Reply
        1. denopac

          Some others:

          Bill Hutchinson (138 wins before, 44 after)
          Amos Rusie (139, 107)
          Ed Stein (46, 63)
          Jack Stivetts (107, 96)

          Reply
    2. Ian

      Amos Rusie made the HOF and was good both before and after. Gus Weyhing was much better before the change but still managed to hang onto into the 1900s. Frank Dwyer seemed to handle it ok.

      Reply
    3. johnq11

      Amos Rusie and Frank Dwyer actually got “better” after the change but you’re right in that the change killed many a career.

      Kid Gleason (Black Sox manager) was a top pitcher before 1893 and was basically forced to switch to 2b.

      I guess the two biggest victims of the switch were John Clarkson and Tony Mullane.

      The switch probably cost Tony Mullane a place in the HOF.

      Reply
  4. PhilM

    For last summer’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute baseball class (I team-teach one every summer), I focused on the art of pitching, and Kid Nichols was one of my “baker’s dozen” top 13. Not many attendees had heard of him either, and I’d like to add to Joe’s list:

    Ninth-most wins in MLB history and that total likely would have been higher if not for the fact that he spent two years dominating the minors when the Boston Beaneaters let him go to the Kansas City Blue Stocking of the Western League in an effort to save money. Was 47-19 in 1902-03 (ages 32-33) for KC Blue Stockings, then went 21-13 upon his return in 1904. It’s likely he would have surpassed 400 wins had he been able to remain in the Majors.

    Shameless plug: the whole three-hour class is on YouTube for the bored and/or masochistic. . . .

    Reply
  5. Mean Dean

    Kid Nichols. See? Nichols. See? Nichols. See? Nichols.

    You can always remember his name. Just think of Joey Five Cents!

    Reply
  6. Chad Meisgeier

    Okay, BL has got us covered (but I would concede my list is inferior to Joe’s).

    For No. 65, I would put Ryne Sandberg.

    Reply
  7. EnzoHernandez11

    What “bl” seems not to realize is that arguments like this are part of the fun of being a baseball fan. In truth, it’s inherently arbitrary to rank players in order from 1 to 100. But it’s fun, and it’s a good argument starter. Really, you’ve got the pantheon (Ruth, Williams, Johnson, Seaver, Musial, Mays, Aaron, Bonds*), the near pantheon (Brett, Carlton, Lajoie, Spahn, Rickey, Yaz, Yogi), and then maybe 50 or so all-time greats who could be ranked pretty much in any order you choose depending on your attitudes toward 1) the improvements in the quality of the game over the years; 2) your assessment of the value of starting pitching vs. everyday play; 3) the extent to which you take stock in certain modern statistics like WAR; 4) what you think of PEDs or what your definition of a PED is; or 5) whether you think we have any idea how to assess defensive performance. Here we are comparing a 19th Century pitcher (Nichols) to a mid-century catcher (Campanella) to modern players like Gwynn and Blyleven. Let’s face it: we really could shuffle the deck and put #100 through #50 in just about any order and rank them accordingly. But where’s the fun in that?

    Reply
    1. Chris M

      I can think of at least 10 guys off the top of my head I’d put in the “near pantheon” over pretty much any of the guys you mentioned

      Reply
      1. EnzoHernandez11

        @ChrisM: Sorry, I didn’t mean for either my pantheon or near-pantheon to be a complete list. Obviously, DiMaggio, Mantle, Morgan,, Alexander, etc., would also qualify for the pantheon.

        Reply
  8. Carl

    Hope others who were not familiar w Jouett Meekin (as I was not – and I consider myself a Tier 3/borderline 4 fan from one of Joe’s prior posts) were inspired to look him up, Rather fascinating career. In 1894 pitched 418 innings, finishing 41 of 49 starts and going 33 – 9. Seems to have adjusted well to the new distance.

    Reply
  9. Steve

    Kid Nichols also authored the greatest “in my day” article of all time, in a 1948 Baseball Digest. He groused about the usual, how modern pitchers are coddled, everybody in his day pitched both ends of a double header and nobody dared complain of a sore arm. They also had to occasionally work the ticket booth. He then stepped it up a notch by bitching about the curveball, saying a change of speed and location is all a real pitcher needs.

    The title of the article is actually “Pitchers Are Sissies Now.” All by itself it merited Nichols’s HOF status.

    Reply
  10. johnq11

    It is kind of surprising considering how great Nichols was and then how relatively forgotten he is even to big time baseball fans.

    I guess playing for the “Boston Beaneaters” is part of the problem.

    But I think the main problem is the Atlanta Braves franchise in that they basically don’t acknowledge that the franchise existed in Boston from 1876-1952. First as the Red Caps from 1876-1882. Then as the Beaneaters from 1883-1906. Then the Doves from 1907-1910. then the Rustlers in 1911. Then the Braves from 1912-1935. Then the Bees from 1936-1940. Then back to the Boston Braves from 1941-1952.

    Maybe it’s all the name changes that confuse people.

    It’s a shame because the Beaneaters of the 1890′s were a great team.

    If you go by career WAR in the Braves franchise, Nichols is 2nd only to Hank Aaron yet his name isn’t listed on their retired number wall the way the Tigers honor Ty Cobb or the Giants the way they honor Christy Mathewson.

    Vic Willis is another Beaneater HOF and he’s also not acknowledged by the Braves.

    You could also include John Clarkson among HOF beaneaters not acknowledged by the Braves.

    Reply
  11. bl

    Enzo, I do indeed understand that the arguments are a great part of the fun. If I didn’t I wouldn’t spend so much time reading the comments section. My post was meant as a loving, funny homage to us all. And a reminder that sometimes these arguments don’t need to be taken so seriously. I am happy so many people liked it.

    Reply
    1. EnzoHernandez11

      Fair enough, I will take it in that spirit then. I, too, try not to take it all too seriously. Except when it involves JackMorris. Grrrrrr… :)

      Reply
  12. HabeasDorkus

    Fun fact. Kid Nichols pitched against Old Hoss Radbourn once, in July of 1891. Nichols blanked the Reds and the Beaneaters won 6-0. Radbourn pitched just 7 more games after that.

    Reply
  13. Harry Balczak

    Kid Nichols was also one of the founding trustees of the Loose Park rose garden in Kansas City, Imagine my surprise when reading the plaques honoring the ( mostly ) women who helped found this wonderful resource, I see Kid Nichols listed there!

    Reply
  14. Cliff Blau

    There was no mound in 1893. The pitching distance in 1892 was 55.5 feet from the middle of the plate, and was increased to 60.5 feet from the back of the plate in 1893.

    Reply
  15. Victor

    Joe – any chance that you’ll have a post at the end of this series that explains your process? I’d love to know how you went about coming up with the rankings…

    also – that Cobb link is great…

    Reply
  16. Herb Smith

    BL, I loved your summary of things.

    But I still have to say this, at the risk of repeating what many have said: this is the coolest thing that Joe Poz has ever done on his blog. Which is saying something, because it’s a great blog, perhaps the best on the internet. And I’m REALLY partial to stories about his daughters…those musings are priceless.

    But this 100 to 1 countdown is the gift that keeps on giving. I am truly looking forward to reading about Josh Gibson and Number 7 and Reginald Martinez. Just a delight. Thank you Posnanski.

    Reply
  17. tombando

    Well if you are gonna pick someone outta the Pud Galvin/Mickey Welch/ Tim Keefe grabbag, Nichols is as good as any, plus a bit more ‘modern’….Waiting to see how high in his top 64 Darrell Evans and Bobby Grich are.

    Reply

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