Matthew Taylor: 1950s bonus baby Nelson never hit it big

He was buried in his Orioles jersey and his obituary read, “He especially loved having a beer or two while watching baseball on TV.” Robert “Tex” Nelson is a guy who’s worth getting to know more about.

I first learned about Nelson, who played for the Orioles from 1955 through 1957, thanks to my wife. She sent me a profile of former O’s public relations director and current director of Orioles alumni Bill Stetka that ran in The Baltimore Sun last month. I give her flowers, she sends me Orioles articles; that’s how we show each other love.

Stetka provided Nelson’s family with the O’s jersey to fulfill the former player’s burial wishes in the summer of 2011. Using Nelson’s obituary, a couple of newspaper articles (here’s one and here’s another) written after his passing and John Eisenberg’s oral history of the Orioles, I was able to piece together more of his story.

Nelson came to Baltimore at 18, fresh out of Adamson High School with a bonus, depending on the source, between $40,000 and $50,000. O’s manager/general manager Paul Richards was doling out a generous $250,000 budget for bonuses and contracts in those days of baseball’s bonus babies.

Years away from an amateur draft and even further away from free agency, baseball worked to ensure some level of parity, and avoid the hording of young talent, by requiring that teams keep players who singed a bonus of more than $4,000 on the big league roster for at least two seasons. Richards signed five bonus babies in 1955, including Nelson, the much-hyped product of Dallas.

Nelson was known as “The Babe Ruth of Texas.” Lefty O’Doul reportedly compared him favorably to Ted Williams. But the nickname that stuck was the one that teammate Brooks Robinson gave him based on geography: Tex.

After watching Nelson play in high school, Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean said, “Son, I ain’t never seen a baseball hit that hard or that far.” However, Nelson never hit a home run in 139 career major league plate appearances.

Nelson recorded his first hit off Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller during a pinch-hit appearance for Gus Triandos on June 23, 1955; he struck out in his first big league plate appearance the day before. Nelson batted .194 in 25 games his rookie season. His career was a small sample size: three years, 79 games, and a .205/.295/.254 slash line.

He played five additional seasons in the minors and had a career-high 29 home runs in 1959 while playing for three different teams and in 1960 for the Class B Orioles affiliate, the Tri-City Braves.

Wayne Causey, another Orioles bonus baby signed out of high school, rented an apartment with Nelson in Baltimore. He explained: “Nelson had a beautiful swing, and he was strong, but he just never could put it together. He’d hit a 450-footer every once in a while, but not too often.”

Nelson’s status as a bonus baby made the challenge of playing in the major leagues even greater. Bonus babies were truly thrown to the fire, in many cases right out of high school, and faced resentment from some veteran teammates.

Jim Pyburn, a third bonus baby from the Orioles’ class of 1955, explained the dilemma.

“The rule had its good and bad aspects. The good was you realized your dream of making the major leagues right away. ... But (the rule) penalized the players. I never did understand it. They were worried about what the teams were doing, but the players suffered. I should have started out at A ball. I did OK, but I wasn’t ready for the big leagues,” Pyburn said.

If Nelson was ever bitter about the rule, it doesn’t show up as part of his story. I’m guessing you don’t ask to get buried in a team’s jersey if you didn’t appreciate the experience.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. Follow him on Twitter: @RoarFrom34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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