Obituary: Nellie King / Former Pirates pitcher, broadcaster
Former Pirates pitcher Nellie King attends the team's last game at Three Rivers Stadium in 2000.
Nellie King as a pitcher with the Pirates, circa 1954.
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On the radio, Nellie King learned that the key to broadcasting sports events was to get through the microphone and into the listener's living room. As a Pirates' pitcher, he made his way into the hearts of fans and teammates with his sense of humor.
"We were about to come home from Philadelphia when Dale Long was in the midst of hitting eight home runs in eight games in 1956, and Nellie lay down in front of the team bus. He said, 'This bus isn't going anywhere until Dale gets on,' " former teammate ElRoy Face recalled with a chuckle.
"We were both in the minors in New Orleans in 1954 when all the lights went out during the game. I went out to the mound and played my guitar, another guy played the wash tub and Nellie sang to entertain the fans and keep them from leaving," Mr. Face added. "He was a great guy. You don't find them any better."
Nelson Joseph "Nellie" King, who served as sports information director and broadcaster at Duquesne University after pitching in the big leagues and sharing the Pirates' broadcast booth with Bob Prince, died early Wednesday at the age of 82 surrounded by his three daughters in the Family Hospice Center in Mt. Lebanon. In recent years, he had fought a protracted battle with colon cancer, complicated by pneumonia. He was a longtime resident of Mt. Lebanon but in recent years lived in an assisted living facility in Upper St. Clair.
As a folk historian, the tall and lanky Mr. King didn't mind laughing at himself. In his 2009 autobiography "Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog: The Thirty Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster," he wrote about the laugh he got when an opponent poked fun at his 6-foot-6, 180-pound physique.
"What do you do in the off season -- clean the insides of rainspouts?" the player asked as he sulked on the bench, hitless.
Mr. King was born March 15, 1928, in the anthracite coal town of Shenandoah, Pa. His father died during the Great Depression, and Mr. King earned his high school diploma from the Milton Hershey School, which was established for orphans and those from single-parent households.
Having dreamed of becoming a major league pitcher, Mr. King earned $100 a month at the entry level in the minor leagues. Despite being released outright on two occasions, he compiled an 86-60 record with a 2.80 ERA, winning 15 or more games in a season four times in his minor-league career.
He made his major league debut in 1954, striking out future Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer Duke Snider the first time he took the mound. Used primarily as a reliever, Mr. King was 7-5 in three seasons with the Pirates before an arm injury cut short his career. Among his teammates were Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski.
After working for radio stations in Latrobe, Kittanning and Greensburg, mostly covering high school sports, Mr. King rejoined the Pirates as an announcer. When Don Hoak left the broadcast booth in 1967 to become a coach, Mr. King teamed with Mr. Prince and Jim Woods.
Mr. King's days behind the microphone coincided with some of the best days of the franchise. In addition to winning five division titles, the Pirates were World Series champions in 1971, with Mr. King calling the action on radio and TV. He described his nine years of partnering with Mr. Prince, who died in 1985, as like a roller-coaster ride at Kennywood Park -- "all ups and downs, but never dull."
Mr. King's contract was not renewed when Mr. Prince was let go in 1975. When Pirates general manager Joe Brown broke the news to him, Mr. King said he was told, "Sometimes water splashes over onto other people."
Steve Blass, who also made the transition from pitching mound to broadcast booth, called Mr. King "as classy a gentleman as you will ever find in the game of baseball. He had the best interview technique I was ever around. He could get the heart of what a player was feeling and not just get the stats.
"We'll never have enough Nellie Kings in the game of baseball," Mr. Blass added. "I'll miss his humor and his good nature. He will not be forgotten."
In the final year of Three Rivers Stadium in 2000, Mr. King was brought back for a curtain call behind the microphone.
In a career than included stints with KDKA, WWSW and WTAE, Mr. King was sports information director at Duquesne University until his retirement in 1992. In addition to other duties, he also coached Duquesne's men's golf team for almost two decades.
For 24 seasons, he did color commentary for the Dukes' men's basketball team alongside play-by-play announcer Ray Goss, who said that any notion that Mr. King was just a fill-in were quickly dispelled.
"He worked so hard at his craft, at being both a public relations man and a radio man. And for that I admired him. I always admired the way he dug in and worked hard to learn new things," said Mr. Goss. "Just like some of the old-time ballplayers, he was a regular guy. There were no airs about Nellie. You'd walk up and talk to him and he was just like every other guy."
Mr. King's autobiography is a breezy narrative that speaks of baseball in a different era. On his blog, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called it a story of the "triumph of perseverance."
"I had spoken to Nellie last Saturday and for what we both knew to be goodbye; the conversation was upbeat and philosophical and there were even some laughs. And though I was the one getting up and going back into the world and not he, the reassurances and the encouragement came from him to me," Mr. Olbermann wrote. "Farewell, Nellie, and -- I know it's an odd word at a time like this -- congratulations."
It was Mr. King's dream come true to have the book published, according to Sally O'Leary, long-time public relations official with the Pirates.
"We lost a real friend," she said. "He certainly fought the good fight. He told his girls last week that he couldn't fight anymore and asked them to arrange for hospice care," she said. "He got his final wish and is at peace."
Mr. King, who was a big supporter of the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, is survived by his wife, Bernadette, and three daughters, Laurie, Leslie and Amy. The late Danny Murtaugh, former Pirates manager, was godfather to his oldest daughter.
Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Laughlin Funeral Home, 222 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.
Funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon.
First Published August 12, 2010 12:00 am