Baseball has always had its share of eccentrics. Mark Fidrych talked to the ball. Moises Alou urinated on his hands to get a better grip on his bat. Then there was Turk Wendell, about whom the Chicago Tribune wrote:
Consider this a partial list:
He doesn’t wear socks on the field. He waves at the center-fielder before each inning. He brushes his teeth between innings. He makes three crosses with a finger in the mound dirt before he pitches. When the inning is done, he sprints from the mound, leaps sideways over the foul line and spits out what appears to be four pounds of black licorice.
And he eats the same dinner at the same restaurant chain the night before every start: French onion soup. Peel-and-eat shrimp. Broccoli bites. Salad. Garlic sticks. Four-cheese lasagna. And something called `Death by Chocolate’ for dessert.
“I eat it all in about 15 minutes,” he said. “I say, `Bring it out all at once.’ “
The Only Nolan may have topped them all.
Edward Sylvester Nolan was born on November 7, 1857. Of this much we can be fairly certain. But baseball’s prehistory is more mysterious and less well documented than ancient Rome, and so historians dispute whether he was born in Paterson, New Jersey, or in Canada. If he was from Canada, then he has a place in Canadian baseball history: as the Canadian Baseball Network wrote in 2011, he’s one of only two Canadian pitchers ever to strike out 15 men in a game, along with Erik Bedard.
He was certainly raised in New Jersey, and he died there in 1913 at the age of 55, as his New York Times obituary lyrically explains, “after being ill but one day.” He died a sergeant in the Paterson police department. He had been a cop for 15 years, apparently making the decision to join the police department after the failure of the short-lived Players League, which emerged for a single season in 1890 from something called The Brotherhood, essentially a forerunner of the modern Players Association.
No one quite knows how he got his nickname, either. One possibility is that it was a relatively common nickname for stars of the time. One of the stars of the Players League was the Hall of Famer King Kelly, who was a teammate of Nolan’s on a club in Paterson in 1873, when Kelly was 15. Kelly was so beloved that he apparently acquired the nickname “The Only Kelly.” (As it happens, baseball players were not the only ones called “The Only.” In a late-19th-century sign of the times, there was a well-known contemporary stage performer called “The Only Leon,” who performed in blackface and drag.)
However, the logic behind Kelly’s nickname doesn’t really apply to Nolan. As Kelly’s SABR biographer notes, King Kelly’s nickname was “a cherished sobriquet because of the large number of Irish immigrants in the US at the time.” (In the late 19th century, one study found that “Roughly one-third of players were Irish.”) However, The Only Nolan was the only major leaguer named “Nolan,” first or last name, until the debut of Nolan Ryan in 1966. In fact, the writer Eric Rolfe Greenberg believed that to be the source of the nickname, as a character writes in the epilogue to his 1993 baseball novel The Celebrant: “Nolan is a common enough name, and it was coincidence that from his own time to McGraw’s and beyond he was the only Nolan to play on a major league roster; from that coincidence his nickname derived.”
(In fact, The Only Nolan is so far removed from Nolan Ryan that it actually requires more than Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to go between them. According to The Oracle of Baseball at baseball-reference, they are separated by seven steps. To connect them, you have to go through the 1878 Indianapolis Blues, the 1887 Chicago White Stockings, the 1903 Chicago White Sox, the 1924 Washington Senators, the 1939 Senators, the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, and finally the 1966 New York Mets.)
But the best explanation I have ever seen for his nickname by far is this one, in which a commenter on an internet forum quotes a book called “The Ball Clubs” by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella to explain that Nolan was known as “The Only” because of his unusual employment demands. I have been unable to find a copy of the book to verify the quote, but I love this quote too much not to reprint it:
Nolan, a curious character who would play only for inferior teams, only for a high salary, and only if he were the sole pitcher, had once summarily left a club when he had been required to share a mound duty. The hurler was again suspended on August 17 when it was discovered that he had fabriacted a telegram from a fictitious brother named Bill requesting a visit. Nolan had spent his day off not with a sick brother, but with what the Indianapolis Journal called, ‘a beautiful habitue of an avenue assingation house, who has ruined more men in this city than she can count on the jeweled fingers on both her hands.’
A writer in Delaware’s “Out & About” Magazine elaborated:
The problem was that Nolan himself had proven as baffling as his curveballs. A drinker, carouser, and as his nickname suggested, something of an egomaniac, Nolan had been suspended and blacklisted by baseball employers time and again. In 1881, Nolan had excused himself from a game with Cleveland to attend a funeral. A it turned out, he’d just gone drinking. After a year’s suspension, Nolan re-entered the majors in 1883 with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. One night in New York, Nolan was fined $10 for an undisclosed transgression. He then went on a drinking spree and charged the expenses to the team.
For that, Nolan was fined $100, suspended and blacklisted for the balance of the season.
Considered virtually unemployable by Major League teams, in the spring of ’84 Nolan was at home in Paterson, N.J., managing a saloon, when Simmons recruited him just prior to opening day.
It’s understandable that his quirks are better-remembered than his playing career, because his stats are woefully hard to come by. Retrosheet and Fangraphs only have stats for 79 of his games over five seasons, and it is difficult for me to tell now whether those are all the games he ever pitched or whether some of the data has simply been lost. (He also apparently umpired two games.) He clearly missed time for his various infractions. As David Nemec and Scott Flatow write, he was “blacklisted” twice in the early years, first in 1878 for lying to his team’s owner, and then again in 1881 for suspicions of being involved with gamblers.
His stats in the games he played appear fairly unimpressive: a 23-52 record, a 2.98 ERA (121 ERA- and 107 FIP-), a 1.26 WHIP. But in his day, he was clearly very respected. As Bill James and Rob Neyer note in their Guide to Pitchers, contemporary newspaper accounts described him thusly:
Nolan, known as ‘The Only,’ looked to Boston like simply a swift underhand thrower like Devlin, McCormick and many others. But their speed as compared with that of Nolan’s was ‘like the velocity o fa ball from an old smooth bore would compare with a ball from a Winchester rifle.’ Nolan was ‘also a clever master of the lateral curve, both inward and outward and, on the whole, fairly deserves his sobriquet of ‘The Terror.'”
Happy birthday, The Only Nolan!
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.