J. D. Thorne

Madison WI Native Charles A. “Kid” Nichols

When I go to see the Wisconsin Athletes immortalized in bronze on display on the east outside wall of the U.S. Cellular Arena at 4th  Avenue and Kilbourn Street across from the Major Goolsby tavern and restaurant, there are many honored whose exploits for me are all but lost to the mists of time.  One such Wisconsin athlete is Madison, Wisconsin born Charles A. “Kid” Nichols.

He received his nickname at age 17 from his first professional team in Kansas City when upon joining the minor league club in Kansas City in 1887 the older players either mistook him for the batboy or at least thought he looked more like a batboy than he did a professional ballplayer.  But he won his first game pitching a 7 to 6 victory, and went on to make 29 more starts finishing the season with 18 wins.   By age 20 he had made it to the major leagues.

Plugged extensively by Ty Cobb, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1949.  He earned his bronze plaque in the very first class of athletes in the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in 1951.

Standing just 5 foot 10 ½ inches tall with playing weight estimated to be only 135 pounds in his younger days, “Kid” Nichols possessed an iron will (for example, he did not drink alcohol unlike almost every other player of his day) to go along with a smooth delivery, rubber arm, excellent control,  and good movement on his fastball.  This may account in part for the 5,056 and 1/3 innings he pitched in the big leagues over a fifteen year career that started in 1890, the 11th highest of all time.  A workhouse on the mound, in his first five seasons he threw 424, 425, 453, 425, and 407 innings each season.  If a pitcher today throws 250 innings it is considered exceptional.  In six of the following seven seasons after his first five he still threw for at least 300 innings a season.

In his rookie year he led the Boston Beaneaters (forerunner to the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves) to a pennant winning 27 victories.  His career high was 35 victories in 1892.  He went on to win 30 games in a season a major league record seven times!  He led the league in victories three consecutive seasons from 1896 – 1898.  The Beaneaters won the pennant 5 times in his first 8 years.  In 1898 he earned the top annual salary allowed by the league, $2,400.

Although he never threw a no hit game, he came close on several occasions.  He threw 48 shutouts and had 11 complete game 1 – 0 victories.  The Kid compiled ten consecutive seasons winning at least 20 games per season, although he was quoted as saying, “In my day, the 1890’s, if you won only twenty games the Club owner would say at contract time, “You didn’t do so good this year, so we’re going to cut your salary next season.”

Kid Nichols at 30 years, nine months and 23 days old is the youngest hurler to make it to 300 victories, a rate even faster than the immortal Cy Young.  It remains the record yet today.  He finished his career in 1905 with 360 wins and 208 losses.  His overall win total places him 7th on the all-time list and 4th in overall number of complete games.

But the most remarkable statistic of all may be his career record of finishing an amazing 533 of his starts out of the 562 games he started, or throwing a complete game 95% of the time!    Holy “quality starts” Batman!  In today’s major league game if a pitcher finishes a game he started 10% of the time he would probably lead his team in complete games.  I believe the Brewers went over 260 consecutive games without one at all over the last two seasons.

Baseball statistical guru Bill James developed a formula for determining the effect that a player had on individual pennant races throughout his career.  He was not surprised by the first two in the rankings.  James wrote, “There were six pennant races that clearly would have ended differently if Babe Ruth had been merely a good player, and Mickey Mantle also had a decisive impact on six.  However, while you might have guessed numbers one and two, the number three man was a pitcher who had a decisive impact on the pennant races of 1891, 1892, 1895, 1897 and 1898, Kid Nichols.  Nichols won [at least 30 games in all those seasons – for teams that won pennants by relatively thin margins.”

Kid Nichols said looking back on his major league career, “I take pride in two things:  My election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the fact that I was never removed from a game for a relief hurler.

What if the Brewers could find a pitcher as good as Kid Nichols?