Bill Nixon talks to Valley Lions Club about growing as the son of major league baseball player

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

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VALLEY — Bill Nixon talked about his experience in growing up as the son of a major league baseball player at the Monday evening meeting of the Valley Lions Club. Nixon is well known locally as the artistic director of the New Horizon Community Theatre in downtown West Point.  His dad, Willard Nixon, was a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s. He was known as “the Yankee Killer” for his success against the New York Yankees and was good friends with one of the all-time baseball greats, Red Sox teammate Ted Williams.

Bill Nixon loves to talk about his dad, who died in 2000, and has lots of framed photos and signed memorabilia he likes to show people. He had some signed baseballs, bats and rare baseball cards to show at the Monday meeting.

Willard Nixon was born in Taylorsville, Georgia, a small town between Cartersville and Rome, in 1928. Before and after baseball, he spent much of his life in Lindale, a suburb of Rome. He found he had a gift for hitting and throwing a baseball while in high school. He turned down an offer to sign with a major league team to pitch two years for Auburn, where he was one of the best pitchers in the Southeasten Conference. 

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In his first SEC game in 1948, he struck out 21 Ole Miss Rebels, and in his second game against an SEC opponent struck out 18 Tennessee Vols.

He got a $10,000 bonus when he signed with the Red Sox and made it to the majors in 1950, the year Bill was born.

He got called up for his first major league of that year. He made his first appearance in relief in a game, in of all places, Yankee Stadium. With the Yankess and the Red Sox having one of the all-time great rivalries, there was a packed house that day. Willard was a 22-year-old rookie and was nervous about being in that kind of spotlight.

Despite new friend Ted Williams coming over to put his arm around him and telling him he would do fine, Willard was in a spot that was hard to deal with. After all, the Yankees were the dominant team in baseball at the time.

“Dad was kind of scared,” Bill Nixon said. “He walked the first batter on four pitches, and that brought up Joe DiMaggio.”

DiMaggio was one of the all-time great baseball players. He was even married to Marilyn Monroe for a time.

This was a test of real manhood, and young Willard gave it his best shot. The first two pitches were fastballs on the outside corner, putting the great Yankee Clipper in an 0-2 hole.

They were such good pitches that DiMaggio tipped his cap to him. He wanted to do it a third time, but catcher Birdie Tibbetts signaled for him to try a curve. He did that but DiMaggio was waiting for it and promptly smacked it deep over the center field fence for a two-run homer. The ball was hit so hard that Joe’s younger brother, Dom DiMaggio, didn’t turn around to chase it to the fence. He knew it was gone.

Nicknamed “the Professor” because he wore glasses, Dom DiMaggio played his entire major league career with the Red Sox.

Little did he know it at the time, but Willard would play his entire career with the same team.

Boston lost the game that day, but they’d win the next six games Willard Nixon started against them. This led to him getting his long-time nickname.

“One Yankee my dad hated pitching to was Yogi Berra,” Bill said. “He said if you ever got two strikes on him you just couldn’t finish him off. Yogi was one of the best ball ball hitters of all time. My dad said if you threw it outside the opposite batter’s box he’d find a way to hit it.”

In an eight-year career with the Red Sox, Nixon had an overall record of 69-72 and compiled an ERA of 4.39. Given the fact the Red Sox were not a championship caliber team in the 1950s, those were not bad numbers for a starting pitcher with hitter friendly Fenway Park being his home stadium.

Nixon was one of the best-hitting pitchers of his era. One year he won the coveted black bat, an award to the league’s best-hitting pitcher that season. He hit .293 that year, an unheard of batting average for a pitcher. That Louisville Slugger bat is one of Bill Nixon’s prized possessions.

He also has a number of other autographed bats and balls plus a treasure trove of 1950s baseball cards. Other prized possessions include a photo of his dad with teammate Ted Williams and one with radio/TV announcer Dizzy Dean. There’s also a framed photo of young Bill with his dad at a father/son game. Both were in baseball uniforms.

“My dad had so many collectibles when he retired,” Bill said. “He had some 55-gallon drums filled with autographed balls, bats and gloves, and he had so many autographed baseball cards. The Rome area is in tornado alley, and one day a tornado came through Lindale, destroying his outdoor shop where he kept all that.”

Teammate Ted Williams always got tons and tons of requests for autographs. He honored many of those requests but asked Willard to sign some of the items for him. 

“He found out that my dad was good at imitating his signature,” Nixon said. “There’s no telling how many highly prized Ted Williams items out there today were actually signed by my dad.”

Nixon said that Ted Williams’ friendship meant a lot to his dad. Even so, the one called Teddy Ballgame upstaged Nixon’s greatest game.

It was a gem of a pitcher’s duel between the Red Sox and Yankees. Starting pitchers Nixon and Don Larsen carried a shutout into the 11th inning. Nixon would be the winning pitcher that day. He started the game-wining rally by reaching first base on an error. He was then removed from the game for a pinch runner. The next two batters reached base, bringing up Ted Williams.

Williams had gone hitless for the game, causing some of the Boston faithful to boo him every time he made an out. He’d respond by spitting in their direction. 

The fans were looking for Williams to come though in the clutch with a game-winning hit. He didn’t get a hit that time up either, but his walk did drive across the game-winning run. Some fans groaned anyway, causing him to spit one more time.

“We couldn’t wait to see the Boston paper the next day,” Nixon said. “The headline on the sports page read ‘Williams went hitless but not spitless.’”

Larsen gained fame that decade for being the only pitcher (then and now) to have pitched a perfect game in World Series play.

Bill Nixon would be upstaged by his dad when he pitched the best game of his high school career at the Darlington School in Rome.

“The Rome paper mentioned that I had pitched a complete-game shutout in one sentence and then went on to write four paragraphs about my dad’s pitching career,” Nixon said lightheartedly.

In more recent times, Nixon has visited with many major league players from the 1950s at autograph shows. 

“I always ask them if they remember my dad,” he said. “It always made me feel good when they’d tell me what a good competitor he was. I can remember taking my son to an autograph show at Gayfer’s in Auburn. There was a big crowd there because Mickey Mantle was signing that day. We had to wait in line a long time before getting to the front. When it was our time for my son’s autograph, I asked Mickey if he could remember Willard Nixon and that I was his son. He lit up when he talked about what a good player my dad was. He went on and on about what a good pitcher and hitter he was. That made me feel really good coming from such a great player like Mickey Mantle.”

It didn’t help Bill’s son that much, though. “He asked Mantle if he would sign him a second autograph for his sister,” Nixon said. “He told him no, that the rules were one per person.”

That got a round of laughter from the Lions Club members.

Nixon said he can remember his dad being really happy about is 1958 contract. The Red Sox paid him $17,000 that year. That was pretty good money back then.

In those days, even the best players had to work other jobs in the off season to make a living.

When his playing days were over, Willard Nixon scouted players for the Red Sox. One of the players he signed was Buster Milner from the Valley.

He worked for a time for WestPoint Pepperell’s Lindale Mill.

Bill Nixon’s earliest memories are of the family living in Sarasota, Florida during spring training. That’s where the Red Sox worked out of the upcoming season.

It’s also the place where the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus was based. 

“We got to see a a lot of shows,” he said. “They were great. My dad got to ride their famous pink elephant during the filming of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ He fell off when the big elephant reared up, injuring his pitching arm. I kidded hm for years after that that it’s never good to see pink elephants.”

The fall from the elephant may have been a factor in ending his baseball career. It led to him having some bursitis in that arm, something that’s never good for a baseball pitcher.