The Shlabotnik Non-Stars: Dave Nelson, 2B
In honor of Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player in the comic strip Peanuts. Every off day, we honor a Senators/Rangers Non-Star- a long-time regular whose jersey would never rank highest in sales.
OK, so technically Dave Nelson isn’t really a Non-Star, since he did make the American League All-Star team in 1973. But considering the Rangers were 57-105 that year, someone still had to make the team (actually Jim Spencer also was a Rangers All-Star in ’73. Amazing that such a bad team could get two players on the All-Star squad.)
Even though he played his high school ball in San Mateo, California, Nelson’s popularity among the few Rangers fans at the time was probably due in part to being a native of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, just a couple hours from the Metroplex.
Nelson was signed out of high school as a free agent by the Cleveland Indians in 1964, the year before MLB instituted a draft. Working his way through the Indians system, he made his major league debut with the Tribe in 1968.
Following the ’69 season, Nelson was traded to the Washington Senators, along with Ron Law and Horacio Pina for Dennis Higgins and Barry Moore. Who, you say? Exactly. This was a trade that definitely worked out in the Rangers favor.
In ’71, the Senators had a revolving door at third base, and Nelson, despite only 84 games there, was the most regular of all the third sackers. His first season, during the Senators’ last season in DC, resulted in a .280 BA with 5 HR, 33 RBI and 17 steals.
When the Senators moved to Texas, Nelson made the move to second base, where he thrived for three seasons as a regular. Well, maybe thrived isn’t such a good word. Fact is, the Rangers’ inaugural season in Arlington saw them compile a record of 54-100 and, while Nelson appeared in 145 games, he was a contributing factor to that poor record, hitting a meager .226. On the bright side, he was a threat to steal when he was on base, finishing second in the AL with 51 steals. Sadly, he also finished first in the AL by being caught stealing 17 times. And defensively? At second base, Nelson committed 19 errors for a meager .945 percentage.
Nelson’s watershed year was 1973. While the Rangers were only marginally better that year at 57-105, Nelson had a year that got him named to the AL All-Star squad. Playing in 142 games, Nelson’s average went from .226 to .286 with 71 runs, 7 HR (his career high), 48 RBI and 43 steals (3rd in the AL). Most significantly, Nelson’s errors at second dropped from 19 to 11, bringing his fielding percentage to a respectable .984. While it only represented 1% of the vote, Nelson even garnered 33 votes in the AL MVP voting in ’73.
The last year for Nelson as a Rangers regular was 1974, which showed that 1973 was apparently an apparition. The Rangers actually had their first winning season in Texas that year at 84-76, but Nelson regressed back towards his numbers of 1972. In 121 games, the batting average plummeted from .286 down to .236 and, though his runs and RBI totals were about the same, Nelson’s steals dropped from 43 to 25. Defensively, Nelson also took two steps back, committing 20 errors for a .969 fielding percentage.
Following the 1975 season, when he appeared in only 28 games, the Rangers dealt Nelson to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for pitcher Nelson Briles- Nelson for Nelson, pretty cool! Dave Nelson ended his major league career with the Royals in 1977, compiling a career .244 average with 20 HR, 211 RBI and 187 steals.
Instead of one “best day” at the plate, I’d have to give Dave three different “best days.” The best RBI day was April 17th, 1973 against the White Sox, when he went 3-5 with a double, two HR, two runs scored and 5 RBI. He also had two four hit games in his Ranger career: May 6th, 1973 against the Tigers, when he was 4-4 with a double, a walk, a stolen base and two runs scored; and Cinco de Mayo in 1974 against the Red Sox, when he was 4-5 with a homer, two runs scored and 2 RBI.
Next Off Day: Third Base