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.
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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.