Heroic athletes/coaches

HEROIC ATHLETES/COACHES: Rob Nelson and the Big League Chew Story

Every so often I hear a story that is so remarkable that I feel obliged to share it. And in this case, Rob Nelson – aka “Nellie” – happens to be an old teammate of mine from the college summer leagues.

In short, Nellie was a soft-tossing left-handed pitcher out of Cornell who, despite his distinct lack of velocity, was good enough to go 6-2 in his senior year at Cornell, good enough to be named to the All-Ivy team. But when no pro scouts called that spring, Nellie packed up his curve ball and pinpoint control and started to make the rounds of spring training sites to get signed.

Amazingly, the St. Louis Cardinals took a chance on Nellie and signed him. Unfortunately, when it became clear to the Cardinals that Nellie would have a hard time breaking a pane of glass with his best fastball, he was released. Total time as a pro? About three weeks.

Undaunted, Nellie spread his wings to find other opportunities to pursue baseball. He heard about tryouts for a team in South Africa – who knew that they even  played baseball in South Africa in the late 1970s? But Nellie went to Cape Town and did well (in truth, very few South African baseball players had ever seen a lefty pitcher, much less a lefty with a really good curve ball).

From there, Nellie heard about open tryouts for the Portland Mavericks in the Northwest League. An independent team (e.g. a team with no major league affiliation), the Mavs were the brainchild of Bing Russell, once a well-known TV star, and his son Kurt (now a movie star). The Mavs were a motley crew, a team made up of former pro players who had been released, guys who were talented but never got signed, and so on. Nellie fit right in. And so did Jim Bouton who once won 20 games for the New York Yankees but now, at age 38, was attempting to make a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher.

Nellie and Bouton were sitting in the Portland bullpen one night watching their teammates make a terrible mess by chewing wads of tobacco and then spitting streams of brown juice on the floor. Both Bouton and Nelson thought it was disgusting, and it was Nelson who came up with the idea of shredding bubblegum and putting it into aluminum foil pouches and selling it to kids. Bouton thought it was a brilliant idea and felt he could sell it.

Sure enough, the Wrigley gum company bought the concept, and with that steady income, Nellie returned to more pitching. But now he set his sights on Australia, and indeed he pitched several seasons there. In sum, he spent much of his 20s, 30s, and 40s simply being a globetrotting pitcher while he earned residuals on his invention of Big League Chew.

What an amazing way to live one’s life! All it took was the courage to chase one’s dream, and of course, to be creative. Rob Nelson did both, and in the end, he’s never let his (bubblegum) bubble burst.