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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 14 2009

Ericksmoen: One of the best athletes in 1920s, ’30s from North Dakota

One of the best all-around athletes in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s was born and raised in North Dakota.

As a professional boxer, Lynn Nelson “had 21 fights and scored 21 early knockouts.” As a major league pitcher, he led his team in victories one season, and, as a batter, he led the American League in pinch hits during another season.

Nelson was born Feb. 24, 1905, on a farm south of Sheldon in Ransom County, to George E. and Elizabeth (Bartholomay) Nelson. A couple of years later, the family moved to a farm north of Maddock in Benson County, before settling in Leonard in Cass County, where George Nelson owned and operated a restaurant.

Lynn attended elementary and high school in Leonard. In the mid-1920s, the Nelsons moved to Casselton. During the summer of 1924, Lynn tried out for the city’s semipro baseball team and soon became their star pitcher and hitter. In August, he received a tryout with the Minneapolis Millers of the International League. Failing to receive a contract, he returned to Cass County to live with his parents, who had moved to Fargo.

Steve Gorman, owner of the Grand Recreation Parlor in downtown Fargo, gave Nelson a job at his establishment. One of the regulars was Billy Petrolle, better known as the “Fargo Express.” Petrolle was the same age as Nelson and had already had two major fights at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Because he was strong and had quick reflexes, Nelson thought he could do well in the boxing ring. Jack Hurley was Petrolle’s manager and trainer and realized he had a diamond in the rough. One problem was that Nelson had signed to play baseball with the Fargo-Moorhead Twins independent team, and his manager would not approve. Hurley’s solution was to have Nelson wear a mask and be billed as the “Masked Marvel.”

After a standout season in 1925 with the Twins, Nelson signed a contract in 1926 to pitch minor league baseball for the Burlington, Iowa, team in the Mississippi Valley League. He finished with a 12-9 record, and pitched one game for the Kansas City Blues in the American Association. Nelson returned to Fargo and continued to work at the parlor and fight in the ring during the off-season.

In 1927, Nelson signed to pitch for the Lincoln, Neb., team in the Western League. Lincoln finished last, but Nelson fashioned a respectable 13-15 record. He again finished the season at Kansas City, recording a 1-0 record in six games.

Nelson now found himself at a crossroads. As a boxer, he had 21 early knockouts in 21 bouts. Hurley, his manager, said, “He could have been one of the greatest middle-weights ever,” and gave Nelson an ultimatum: “You gotta decide, baseball or boxing.” Choosing baseball was made easier because Nelson fell in love with Ann Mae Galvin of Kansas City, where he decided to live.

In 1928, Nelson played the entire season with the Blues, going 7-8. In 1929, Nelson was 15-6 for a Blues team that ranked as one of the top 100 minor league teams of all time, finishing 111-56. His 2.98 earned run average was the third best in the league. At the end of the season, the Chicago Cubs offered two of their players to acquire Nelson.

Cubs manager Joe McCarthy used Nelson primarily in relief. With four games left in the 1930 season, McCarthy was fired and replaced by Rogers Hornsby. Nelson apparently did not fit into Hornsby’s plans and was released before the start of the 1931 season.

He signed with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. The coach and part-time catcher was Truck Hannah of Larimore, N.D. Nelson was used strictly in relief and began to concentrate on his hitting. He had five doubles and three home runs, hitting .250 in 64 trips to the plate.

Nelson played with Seattle in the PCL in 1932, compiling a 22-17 record. Charlie Grimm replaced Hornsby as the Cubs’ manager late in 1932, and Nelson was drafted by the Cubs on Sept. 27. In 1933, he was 5-5 with a 3.21 ERA. He got off to a terrible start in 1934, and on May 14 was sold to Atlanta in the Southern Association. Nelson split the 1935 season between Atlanta and Memphis. In 1936, he spent the entire season with Memphis.

Connie Mack, the owner/manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, traded four of his players to Memphis to acquire Nelson. Although Nelson was only 4-9 in 1937, he won several games as a pinch hitter. He had 38 pinch hits to lead the league and batted .354.

In 1938, Nelson became a starting pitcher, going

10-11. Once again, he had a good batting average as a pinch hitter, but all of his hits were singles. Nelson holds the major league record for most singles in a season (31) without an extra base hit.

In 1939, Nelson was Mack’s best pitcher. He had the top ERA and led the team in victories with 10. For reasons I was not able to determine, Mack placed Nelson on waivers at the end of the season. He was claimed by the Detroit Tigers.

After a slow start with the Tigers in 1940, Nelson was sold to Buffalo in the International League on July 3. One of the star pitchers for Buffalo that year was Floyd Stromme from Cooperstown, N.D.

Nelson remained in the International League through the 1943 season and then retired. He returned to Kansas City, the hometown of his wife. He died on Feb. 15, 1955.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net