Washington College Alumnus Writes Biography of Washington College Baseball Legend 'Swish' Nicholson
Chestertown, MD — He was baseball's top slugger during the World War II era. Revered by Chicago Cubs fans, he spent 10 years on Chi-town's North Side, where he would claim National League home-run and RBI titles twice, earn spots on five National League All-Star teams, and play a pivotal role on the pennant-winning club of 1945.
Baseball aficionados in general, and Cubs fans in particular, have long awaited a biography of legendary Bill "Swish" Nicholson. So, too, have Eastern Shoremen and Washington College alumni—for Nicholson was one of their own. Now, another Washington College alumnus, Robert A. Greenberg, has filled the void in the baseball literature with "Swish" Nicholson: A Biography of Wartime Baseball's Leading Slugger, recently published by McFarland & Company.
They nicknamed him "Swish" because of his big, powerful swing. Born in Chestertown in 1914, he played baseball on champion Washington College teams in the 1930s and went on to a Major League career that included stints with the Philadelphia Athletics (1936), the Chicago Cubs (1939-1948) and the Philadelphia Phillies (1949-1953).
A left-handed batter and right-handed outfielder, Nicholson amassed some noteworthy career highlights: a five-time All Star (1940-1941, 1943-45), a two-time National League home-run leader (1943-1944), a two-time National League RBI leader (1943-1944), and a National League leader in total runs (1944).
In a 1944 game, fearing Swish's mighty swing in a clutch moment, a pitcher intentionally walked Nicholson with the bases loaded, thus garnering the formidable slugger another interesting stat: Nicholson is one of only four players in Major League history to have received what's known as "the Supreme Compliment," an intentional walk with bases loaded; with him on that rarefied list are Nap Lajoie (1901), Mel Ott (1929) and Barry Bonds (1998).
"To suggest that Bill Nicholson was popular with National League spectators, foreign and domestic, would be an understatement," writes Greenberg. "Every city to which the Cubs traveled had its legion of fans eager to cheer or good-naturedly jeer him.
"Nicholson was the strong, silent type, good-looking, and modest, besides. Former Cubs teammate Len Merullo remembered: 'Bill had a great sense of humor, even though he was very quiet. He had a dry humor. Everybody loved him.'"
It's not surprising, then, that when the Cubs traded Nicholson to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1949, it came amid dissenting cries of distraught Cubs fans. Nicholson's numbers had been dropping through the late 1940s due to deteriorating eyesight. On the Phillies, he assumed the role of elder statesman to the 1950 "Whiz Kids," helping them to the National League title with a couple of dramatic pinch-hit homers.
But diabetes was wracking the constitution of the erstwhile powerhouse. His eroding health forced him out of the game in 1953. He returned to the Eastern Shore and the farming life from which he had sprung. "How good he would have been, had he remained healthy, will never be known," Greenberg notes. "What he accomplished in his brief run at the top was, however, pretty heady stuff for a farmer from Chestertown."
In his final years, Nicholson was able to savor some recognition for his glory days. In 1990 he was inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame. In 1992, four years before William Beck Nicholson passed away at the age of 81, a life-sized bronze statue of him was erected with fanfare in Chestertown. It captures Swish in his signature pose: just having completed a great titanic swing of the bat, feet already in running motion, eyes gazing upward at the ball he's just sent soaring out of the park.
"Swish" Nicholson: A Biography of Wartime Baseball's Leading Slugger is available through your local bookstore and on amazon.com.
January 10, 2008