BOB NIEMAN – Most Valuable Oriole 1956
For the second straight year, in 1956, the Most Valuable Oriole award went to a player that didn’t even start the season in the organization.
Bob Nieman was 29-years-old when the 1956 season began, a former Texas League batting champ, and a .284 hitter with some pop in five major league seasons. He was best known as the only man in baseball history to hit homer in each of his first two major league at bats, which he remained for nearly half-a-century until a second player duplicated the feat.
A burly, 5’11”, 195-pound right-handed hitter, Nieman was rather slow, and he got labeled a weak defender while bouncing around to four organizations in his first eight professional seasons. In 1955, he had the best slugging percentage of any White Sox player with more than 250 at bats, but still spent about half his time sitting on the Chicago bench. Prior to spring training in 1956, White Sox manager Marty Marion vowed it wouldn’t happen again. “I didn’t play Bob Nieman enough last season,” Marion told a reporter. “He’ll play right-field a lot more than he did.”
When the season got underway, however, Nieman again split time with Jungle Jim Rivera. Though he batted .300 with a couple of home runs, Nieman only got to bat forty times in Chicago’s first twenty-five games.
The White Sox were a game under .500, and desperate for pitching on May 21, when they swung an unpopular deal in the Windy City for Baltimore right-hander Jim Wilson. Chicago also received 1955 Most Valuable Oriole Dave Philley in the deal, but they had to fork over Nieman, pitchers Mike Fornieles & Connie Johnson, and future Hall of Famer George Kell to get them. Kell was the key to the deal for Baltimore, but “Nieman figures to add to our attack too”, said Orioles manager Paul Richards.
As fate would have it, the Orioles first game after the trade was in Chicago. Nieman wore number 4, played left-field, batted cleanup, and collected two hits. When the O’s returned to Baltimore for a long homestand, he added a four-hit game in a win over the Yankees, including one of the longest home runs ever hit at Memorial Stadium at the time.
Within the next week, Nieman singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth against Boston in game one of a Memorial Day doubleheader, and drove in all three runs in Connie Johnson’s 3-2 triumph over the White Sox.
When the Tigers came to town on June 11, Nieman cleared the new centerfield fence at Memorial Stadium with a 450-foot drive into the hedge in front of the hill behind it. In his first twenty games with the Orioles, he batted .362 with 3 homers and 18 runs batted in. “Nieman hits that long ball,” remarked Richards. “And he’s helped materially on the attack.” Later, Richards added, “If Nieman gets his pitch, you can be sure he’ll take a healthy rip at it.”
For the first time, the modern Orioles had a legitimate cleanup hitter, and Nieman’s presence seemed to take pressure off slugging catcher Gus Triandos as well. Triandos averaged 24 homers in the seasons he and Nieman were teammates, but never topped 17 when the “Big Neem” wasn’t around.
In mid-June, Nieman began wearing his glasses in day games, perhaps attempting to carry over the success he was having with his spectacles on under the lights. He batted .352 in night games in 1956, one of the top figures in the American League. Nieman’s .297 average under the sun wasn’t too shabby either.
“I wouldn’t trade him for any left-fielder in the league,” said Richards, who was immediately accused of forgetting about a member of the Red Sox named Ted Williams. Richards insisted that he meant what he said though, when age and financial considerations were factored in.
The Baltimore skipper was even pleasantly surprised by Nieman’s defense. “Besides his fine hitting, Bob is proving a heck of a good outfielder, which few people seem to realize or appreciate,” said Richards. “Nobody plays left-field in our big ballpark as well as Nieman.”
For those who knocked Nieman for his lack of footspeed, he even circled the bases at Yankee Stadium for a inside-the-park home run off Whitey Ford in August. There seemed to be no end to his talents, for when the Orioles traded away backup catcher Hal Smith later that month, Nieman stepped right in and replaced him at the pension meeting as Baltimore’s player representative. The only person who didn’t seem to appreciate Nieman’s all-around effort was umpire Ed Runge, who ejected him -along with Richards- for protesting a call on August 19.
The Orioles were the lowest scoring team in the American League though, and what Richards called his “patchwork quilt” pitching staff wasn’t nearly enough to lift them higher than sixth place. Through it all, Nieman kept hitting.
In twenty games up to and including a Labor Day doubleheader against the Yankees in Baltimore, he batted .405 to raise his average to .333, fourth best in the American League. He extended his hitting streak to eighteen with hits in his final at bat in both ends of the twinbill, but injured himself in the matinee swinging at a pitch from Yankees right-hander Johnny Kucks. “I felt something snap in the small of my back, and although I played the second game, my legs felt numb,” Nieman said.
He tried heat treatments and a back brace, and managed to extend the streak to a club record (at the time) 20 games, but Tom Brewer of the Red Sox stopped him on September 8.
Just over two weeks later, Nieman learned that he beat Triandos in the balloting for Most Valuable Oriole honors, and at season’s end, he finished seventh in the voting for American League MVP. Nieman hit .322 in 114 games with the Orioles, with 12 homers, 64 RBI and walked 86 times. Overall, he ranked third in the AL in on-base percentage, and fifth in hitting.
Nieman liked Baltimore so much that he stayed in the city over the winter, even replacing broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell as host of The Sports Circle when Harwell resigned to pursue other interests.
Nieman remained with the Orioles through 1959 -batting .303 in 466 games- before getting traded to the Cardinals prior to the 1960 season. After drawing a walk in his only appearance in the 1962 World Series with the Giants, Nieman played a year in Japan before moving into a long career as a scout with a handful of organizations. He passed away in 1985 at the age of 58.
By MALCOLM ALLEN