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Dave Nicholson, 1939-2023

The author of one of baseball’s most storied homers, and a slugging centerpiece of the winningest stretch in White Sox history, has passed away at 84

Sadly, another member of those terrific White Sox teams of the mid-1960’s has passed away: Outfielder Dave Nicholson died Saturday, February 25, at the age of 84.

Nicholson came to the White Sox in that huge deal with the Orioles on Jan. 14, 1963. The Sox got Nicholson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Ron Hansen and Pete Ward for Luis Aparicio and Al Smith.

The deal completely transformed a club that was getting older and more removed from its “Go-Go” days of the 1950’s.

Nicholson had incredible raw power and strength, but always had trouble harnessing it. At a time when players simply didn’t strike out that often, “Big Nick” was prone to doing so. He had 175 strikeouts in 1963 to lead the league, and followed that up by striking out 126 more times in 1964.

But when he connected, the baseball went a very long way. That ’63 season, Dave slugged 22 home runs, walked 63 times and drove in 70 runs for a White Sox team that won 94 games.

He also blasted what may have been the longest home run in Major League Baseball history.

On May 6, in fifth inning of the first game of a doubleheader versus the A’s, Nicholson blasted a shot off of future Sox pitcher Moe Drabowsky that went over the roof and was found across the street, in Armour Square.

Some Sox fans claimed they heard the ball hit the top of the roof, but White Sox officials said when they found the ball it had no signs of tar, nor was it scuffed. Longtime Chicago baseball reporter Jerome Holtzman was at the game, and claimed he saw the ball bounce back up after hitting the roof and then go back out of sight.

The actual distance of Nicholson’s mammoth blast in 1963 remains debated to this day.
Chicago White Sox

Nicholson’s shot went over the roof around the 375 foot sign in left-center field. It was found 135 feet from the base of the wall. Plus, you have to add in the elevation needed to get the ball over the roof, approximately 70 feet.

Hitting a ball onto the roof or over it required a ground-to-ground distance of at least 474 feet. Unofficial estimates place the drive as traveling 573 feet, eclipsing Mickey Mantle’s shot at Griffith Stadium in Washington in 1956 that flew an unofficial 565 feet.

For the night, Dave would hammer three home runs and drive in five runs in the twin bill as the Sox swept both games, 6-4 and 11-4.

So how strong was Nicholson? Teammate Jim Landis confirmed a story I had heard that after a particularly frustrating game for Dave, he went into the showers and twisted the knobs for the hot and cold faucets so tight that no other player could get them loose to clean up after the game. The Sox had to call in plumbers for repairs.

Dave was involved in another odd episode in that same 1963 season, in Baltimore.

On May 19, 13 days after Nicholson’s titanic home run, White Sox starter Ray Herbert’s consecutive scoreless inning streak ended controversially in Memorial Stadium. Herbert, a 20-game winner in 1962 (and who passed away this past December), had thrown 38 straight scoreless innings when he faced Baltimore’s Johnny Orsino in the third inning. Orsino then hit what appeared to be a home run to left field ... or did he?

Both manager Al Lopez and left fielder Nicholson argued that the ball Orsino hit passed between the top of the wall and an iron railing mounted on top of it to help keep fans from falling over on to the field of play. By going through the gap, the hit should have been ruled a ground-rule double. They lost the argument and Herbert lost his scoreless streak, but the Sox won the game, 4-3, in 10 innings, to get a doubleheader split.

In 1964 Nicholson started to see his playing time reduced, and he hit only 13 home runs with 52 walks and 39 RBI. In 1965 his playing time was cut even more, only seeing action in 54 games, with two home runs and 12 runs driven in. He was traded to Houston that offseason.

Landis summed up Nicholson perfectly when I asked him about his former teammate.

“Dave fought it too hard,” he said. “He was a young kid who had high expectations, and he just couldn’t handle it. He had tremendous power. I was in awe when he hit that one over the roof.”

The White Sox from 1963 through 1965 won a total of 287 games — the best three-season stretch in franchise history. Nicholson, despite his limitations, played a part in that success.

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