Nelson Greene: A Brooklyn Robin
Back when I had my old website blog, I featured “guest author” stories every so often. This, to me, was a unique opportunity to not only become friends with like-minded baseball history fans, but also introduce me (and you) to players and eras that we might not have been familiar with. Since the “guest” did all their own research and writing, all I had to do was work up the illustration to accompany the story, thus giving me a nice break.
Since I unveiled my new website two years ago, I haven’t had a “guest author.” It wasn’t because I hadn’t extended the invitation – I did. There were several authors/researchers/historians who expressed an interest, but in the end never came through with the goods. I have a feeling it is because I do not provide any guidelines for a “guest story.” I would never extend the invitation to an author if I was not already familiar with their work, and felt comfortable that whatever and whomever they decided to feature would fit with what I started at The Infinite Baseball Card Set. Unfortunately, unlimited creative license is very daunting to some.
Last month when I was working on my 1921 Baltimore Orioles series and the subsequent card set, I made the acquaintance of Chip Greene. I immediately knew the name because he is one of the more prolific authors involved with SABR’s Biography Project and I had read Chip’s excellent biography of Jack Bentley on their website. His is the only biography of Bentley that I know of, and was a great jumping off point for my Bentley research when I started years ago. So, through the 1921 O’s series, I got to talking with Chip, and it turns out he had a family connection to Jack Bentley. Once I heard the story, I knew it had to be the first installment of the re-born Guest Author Series of The Infinite Baseball Card Set.
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Nelson Greene: A Brooklyn Robin
By Nelson “Chip” Greene
Without the pitching performance of 22-year old Nelson George Greene, it’s hard to imagine that the 1923 Virginia League baseball season would have turned out the way that it did. As the star southpaw for the Class B Richmond Colts, that season, Greene provided what would become the best results of his professional career, contributing a 19-11 record to a team that finished just .001 percentage points behind the league’s disputed champions, the Wilson (North Carolina) Bugs. Yet, if the travails of a lopsided season (in 122 official games, Wilson finished 70-52, .5737; while Richmond, in 124 official games, finished 71-53, .5725) proved disappointing for the Colts, it nonetheless brought personal reward to the young pitcher: By year’s end, Greene was a major-leaguer.
That was undoubtedly a change from his original career plan. When Nelson graduated in 1918 from Lebanon High School, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he was a schoolboy star, he enrolled in the Engineering program at Lehigh University. The younger Nelson also joined the school’s baseball team. Yet, by 1920, playing under the name “Lefty” Nelson, in order to protect his college eligibility, Greene was the ace of the Durham Bulls starting rotation, in the Class D Piedmont League. A 19-9 record that year put an engineering career on hold for the foreseeable future.
Over the next two seasons, Nelson took the mound for Durham, again; Richmond (a first, brief stint, in 1921); and the Danville (Virginia) Tobacconists. All of which prepared him for the Colts’ 1923 season. By then, Nelson was a legitimate prospect, a status proven against some of the best hitters in the business. For when big-league squads like the Yankees, Giants and Robins (as the Dodgers were more commonly called in the early 1920s) came through Richmond to play exhibition games, Greene got the opportunity to face major league hitters. Particularly impressed with the southpaw’s potential were the Robins’ scouts, who recommended Nelson’s signing to the big club. That September, Nelson Greene joined the Brooklyn Robins.
He wasn’t destined to last long at that level, however. If a “cup of coffee” in major league baseball parlance refers to the briefest of trials for a player, appearing in a single game, or “there” and quickly gone, then Nelson gulped about two weeks’ worth of the drink. Over parts of the 1924 and ’25 seasons, Robins’ manager Wilbert Robinson called on the rookie 15 times, usually in a mop-up role, but always with the expectation that he would hopefully one day realize his potential. On one particular outing, though, Nelson filled one of his position’s most glamorous roles, that of a starter.
It took place June 3, 1924, as part of a Tuesday afternoon doubleheader at New York’s Polo Grounds, home of the Giants. Nineteen twenty-four was to be a fabulous if not legendary season for the Robins-Giants rivalry; the Giants would eventually claim the pennant by just 1 ½ games, so the opportunities throughout the season for a rookie to start a game would be few and far between. On this day, however, early in the season, Robinson was in need of a starter for game two, and he called on Nelson to make just his second career appearance (he had debuted, in relief, on April 28). Opposing Greene for the Giants was another lefthander, a veteran named Jack Bentley. In a performance during which, the New York Times reported the next day, Nelson “was not so bad,” displaying “nerve, control and a nice curve,” Greene surrendered three runs in three innings, including a home run to a future Hall of Famer, Giants’ shortstop Travis Jackson. Robinson pinch-hit for Nelson in the fourth, and Greene was the eventual loser in a 3-2 decision won by Bentley, who threw a complete game. If Nelson’s major league career had a highlight, perhaps that was it.
There wasn’t much more to Nelson’s major league career. In 1925, he pitched eleven games for Robinson, but the Robins’ manager had seen enough; he sold Greene to the minor leagues, and Nelson never returned to the big leagues. He stuck around for several years in the minors with a number of teams, then retired with a worn out arm following the 1931 season. Eventually, he joined the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and in May 1947, went to Berlin as Construction Chief of the Berlin Military Post, where he supervised construction of the runways which saved millions of Germans during the Berlin Airlift. For that, “in recognition of his exceptionally meritorious service,” Nelson was awarded the Army Commendation Medal by United States Military Governor, General Lucius Clay.
But that story is, as they say, for another day.
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During my college years, I gathered the box scores for the 15 games in which my grandfather appeared for the Robins, so for a very long time I knew all about his lone major league start. Nelson passed away in 1983, and in 1988, newly married, my wife and I bought a home in Gaithersburg, MD. Each day on my way to work, I passed through the little town of Sandy Spring, located just 15 miles from my home and the central attraction of which is the Sandy Spring Museum, which chronicles the town’s history.
One day while visiting my mother, who lived in the town adjoining Sandy Spring, she asked me if I had ever visited the museum. Confirming to her that I had passed it every day for years but never gone in and knew nothing about it, Mom told me about the fabulous baseball exhibit housed there. Some old ballplayer, she told me, lived for years on a farm in Sandy Spring, and was honored in the museum. Upon the ballplayer’s death, his widow had donated to the town the land upon which the museum was built, and a bronze bust of the player’s head was prominently displayed in the Museum’s courtyard. Among the artifacts on display was the ballplayer’s complete uniform from his playing days, circa around 1924.
It’s a fabulous place. The uniform is that of the New York Giants; the museum’s address is Bentley Road.
The ballplayer was Jack Bentley.
I bet Nelson would have loved the tour.
Nelson “Chip” Greene, a healthcare project manager, is an avid baseball historian. A member of the Society for American Baseball Research for over fifteen years, he has been a frequent contributor to SABR’s Biography Project, and his work can be found in SABR books and on-line. A lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan, Chip is the grandson of former Brooklyn Dodger Nelson Greene. He lives with his wife in Waynesboro, PA.