The One Who Got Away: Nick Etten

This one is a bit different than previous articles in this series. Nick Etten did go on to have a strong run during the war years with the New York Yankees, but that was a long time after the Pittsburgh Pirates gave up on him. His overall big league value amounted to just 15.7 WAR, a solid number for a big league career, one that a large majority of players never reach. The reason I decided to feature him here is the hype that surrounded his signing AND the fact that he eventually reached those high hopes, even if it took a long time and watered down competition helped him out.

Etten was a rookie in pro ball in 1933, playing for Davenport of the Mississippi Valley League, and he was tearing up the league at 19 years old. He finished with a .357 average and 53 extra-base hits in 114 games. The Pirates purchased his contract on August 20, 1933 for a sum between $2,000 and $3,500. The actual total was called over $2,000, but less than the initial asking price of $3,500. Pirates scout Carleton Molesworth followed Davenport around for a week before completing the deal. He called Etten as the best prospect in the league and said he was the perfect type of baseball player, who did everything well except run. That was okay for the Pirates because they planned to use him at first base, where speed wouldn’t be an issue. Davenport had him in the outfield, though he played semi-pro first base. Etten was due to join the Pirates at the end of the season, though Molesworth did temper the hype a bit by saying that he would need to be farmed out still for a season or two.

If you know Pirates history or just read the history stuff here religiously, you already know that Etten never played for the Pirates. However, he was on the active roster for a time, joining the Pirates on September 19th and staying around for the last 13 days of the season. That date was significant for him. His first day as a Major League player was also his 20th birthday. The next day he was in the local papers in his new uniform.

On September 22nd, the Pirates left for a road trip to end the season and Etten was required to sign a contract for the remainder of the season, which manager George Gibson said was necessary because he planned to get Etten into some games. Obviously that didn’t happen.

The Pirates planned to give him a chance to win the first base job in Spring Training in 1934. That’s because the outfield included three future Hall of Famers, Freddie Lindstrom and the Waner brothers, leaving Etten little chance to make the roster in that role. The team left for camp on March 5th and the plan was to give Etten the first base job on the Yanigan team, while Gus Suhr, the incumbent first baseman, played for the Regulars. The Pirates played a lot of “Pirates vs Pirates” games in Spring Training during their early years. The expected starters played for the Regulars, while younger players and some bench options played for the Yanigans. If a player did well from the Yanigans, it was a big deal if he shifted to the Regulars.

Etten was suffering from a sore arm during the early parts of camp and we began to hear more and more that he was likely going to end up with Little Rock of the Southern Association. As of March 18th, the good news out of camp was that Etten was the only player nursing an injury and he was still playing through it, so the team was healthy. Four days later, the local papers talked about how well his bat looked during spring, but his minor league assignment seemed certain by this point. On March 31st, the Little Rock move was made official and the parting report said that manager George Gibson believed that Etten would turn into a great player.

The updates were sporadic during the 1934 season. Etten made the local papers in early May for a four-hit game. Another article in the summer mentioned that he was playing outfield more often. An early August update said that he was playing well, then two days later the Pittsburgh Press mentioned that he had a .290 batting average. Nothing earth-shattering, but local fans had reminders about their future star. However, things changed drastically on August 22nd, in a Pittsburgh Press article that was the main reason for this article. The first sentence of a main story in the sports section read, “Two years from now you are going to be reading a lot about Nick Etten”.  It was a quote from Pirates scout Carleton Molesworth. He went on to say much more, as shown in this press clipping below:

Molesworth really was certain that Etten would become a star (that’s quite a statement at the end), so the question that needs to be answered now is, why didn’t he ever play for the Pirates?

It started on November 21st, when the Pirates decided to option Etten to Birmingham of the Southern Association. That meant that he wouldn’t be attending Spring Training to compete for a job. He did not do well in limited time with Birmingham, batting .247 with 12 extra-base hits in 47 games before being transferred to Elmira of the New York-Penn League, where he batted .284 in 67 games, with 19 extra-base hits. The Elmira manager was Emmett McCann, who managed Little Rock the year before, so he knew Etten well.

The Pirates retained Etten for the 1936 season by recalling him late in 1935. However, the tune changed for Molesworth, who now suggested that the Pirates put Etten’s strong arm on the mound to see what he can do. Molesworth still called him the best looking prospect he has ever picked up, while also noting that he has been slow to develop.

On January 22, 1936, the Pirates once again optioned Etten before Spring Training, this time sending him to Wilkes-Barre of the NYPL. He started off slow due to muscle soreness in Spring Training, but after he hit .360 in seven games, the Pirates recalled him on May 6th, only to send him go to Savannah of the South Atlantic League for the rest of the season. He was voted the top prospect by the fans and received All-Star recognition for the season. Etten hit .328 with 49 extra-base hits in 124 games for Savannah, yet he didn’t rejoin the Pirates in September. In fact, on December 18th it was announced that he was released outright to Savannah in a cash sale, ending his time with the Pirates.

So he went from a well sought after rookie in 1933, to a can’t miss prospect in 1934, to a top prospect in another league in 1936. All of that and the Pirates had no use for him for the 1937 season. Etten got his first shot at the majors with the Philadelphia A’s in September of 1938, where he hit .259 in 22 games. The next year he batted .252 with three homers, 29 RBIs and 16 walks in 43 games for the A’s. He spent the 1940 season in the minors, then came back with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1941 and proved Carleton Molesworth right. Etten was slow to develop and would make it in the majors one day. He batted .311 with 14 homers and 79 RBIs for the Phillies, receiving mild MVP support in the process. He didn’t do as well in 1942, then got shipped off to the Yankees, where he etched his name in the record books.

In 1943, Etten batted .271 with 35 doubles, 14 homers, 107 RBIs and 76 walks. He finished seventh in the American League MVP voting. That was followed by him leading the league with 22 homers and 97 walks in 1944. He batted .293 and drove in 91 runs. The next year he was an All-Star, though the game wasn’t played due to wartime travel restrictions. Etten led the AL with 111 RBIs, while hitting .285 with 18 homers and 90 walks. For the fourth time in five years, he received some MVP support. His success was a short burst, as he ended up hitting just .232 in 1946, then was out of the majors after 14 games during the 1947 season.

Etten made it as a star player, getting his All-Star nod, some MVP support, as well as a home run title, an RBI crown, and he drew he share of walks, with 480 free passes in 937 big league games, compared to 199 strikeouts. The Pirates had him on the active roster at one point and really talked him up at other times, but they never gave him a chance. His 15.7 WAR from 1941-45 could have helped them out during that stretch, but they would have needed to keep him in the majors starting in 1937, and he apparently wasn’t ready at that point. He still went on to do big things in the majors after leaving Pittsburgh, making him The One Who Got Away.