By Stephen Hanks,
Published on March 29, 1987 in New York Daily News Sunday Magazine
Author’s Note: Additional text added that had been edited out of the original manuscript for space considerations.
Nick Testa is a baseball immortal? Never heard of him? Well, his name is etched firmly in the Bible of the National Pastime — MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia — with the Ruths and the Aarons and the Berras and the Seavers, which only means that he will live forever.
Testa’s stats are listed between those of second baseman Al Tesch, who played eight games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1915, and Dick Tettelbach, an outfielder for 29 games with the New York Yankees and Washington Senators from 1965–67. In April 1958, Nick Testa, then a 30-year-old journeyman catcher, played his first and last major league game for the San Francisco Giants. Career line in the Baseball Encyclopedia? Games Played: 1. Everything Else: 0.
Nick Testa began his professional baseball career in 1946 at the age of 17 with the Class D Newburgh (New York) Hummingbirds. As a 5-foot-8-inch right-handed hitter, he was one inch taller than another Italian catcher named Yogi Berra. After playing in eight different minor league cities over the next 11 years (batting over .300 just once), Nick made his major league debut as a pinch runner in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game in which the Giants were behind 6–2 to the St. Louis Cardinals. San Francisco made it 6–4 that inning and Testa stayed in the game behind the plate. In the top of the ninth, he was charged with an error when he muffed a wind-blown popup and the Cardinals were now up by two runs. In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants rallied to tie the game and Nick was two batters away from his first major league at-bat when Darryl Spencer’s two-run homer sealed the victory.
The next day, Giants manager Bill Rigney told Testa he was being cut but Nick agreed to stay with the big club the rest of the season as a bullpen coach. The next season, he was back in the minor leagues. For good.
In 1960, SPORT Magazine profiled Testa in a feature called “Portrait of a Baseball Failure.” It was a story about a career minor-leaguer; a short Italian kid from the Bronx, whose devotion to the game was so total that he would happily play in any league that would have him.
“I’ve loved baseball since I was a kid, and I love it as much now as I ever did,” Testa told the magazine. “How long can I keep playing? As long as Satchel Paige, maybe. Indefinitely. Forever. As long as they’ll let me.”
In 1963, Nick was catching for the Reno Silver Sox, a Class-A minor-league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s a league where newly signed pros from 17–20 played. This is what the local Nevada State Journal wrote about Testa’s presence on the team, under the headline: “Old Pro Nick Testa Sparks Silver Sox Improvement”:
“Another big reason for the team’s improved play is the addition to the club of a scholarly ‘old-pro’ by the name of Nick Testa. Whether it be Class ‘A’ or major league team, in the cellar or in first place, a team with Testa on the roster suddenly shows new life . . . Testa is in his 18th year of organized ball and his enthusiasm for the game makes it hard to believe he is 34 years old. Those who have witnessed his hustle at Moana Stadium claim he acts and moves like an 18-year-old rookie; except when he has a bat in his hands or unleashes a rifle shot throw to second base — then you know he’s been around.”
Twenty-four years later, about to turn 59 in June and never married, Nick Testa still loves and plays the game as hard as a rookie in his first training camp. For the past eight years, until just a few weeks ago, he spent his weekdays pitching and catching batting practice for both the New York Mets and New York Yankees. When the Mets became World Champions last year, they earned nearly $70,000 per man, and some of the players were generous enough to toss some of it Testa’s way — found money to a baseball lifer who would happily have paid them for his job.
Testa, of course, has seen every baseball drill devised by man. His minor-league career took him to every tank town in the country, and he has played professionally in Japan, Mexico, Italy, Colombia, Nicaragua, Canada, England, and Holland. (“I was a star in Holland for two weeks,” he reveals, laughing.) During the 1970s, he taught Physical Education at Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx and served two different stints as the school’s baseball coach, where he would exhort his players with lines like “If it don’t hurt, you’re not doing it right!”
Nick was my coach between 1976–78 when I was a pitcher at Lehman. He endeared himself to me forever when the afternoon after a morning rain, he poured gasoline along the wet baselines and around home plate, dropped a lit match, and then raked the areas after the fires died down. When I asked Nick in amazement why he was setting our baseball field on fire instead of postponing, he uttered a phrase that I’ll never forget. “You gotta love the game,” he insisted, “Babe Ruth did.”
Until this year, he spent his springs and summers cavorting around Westchester ballfields, one season catching in an Over-30 hardball league on a team with former Yankees’ pitcher Jim Bouton (author of the classic “Ball Four”) and a bunch of kids young enough to be his grandsons. In 1979, at age 52, Nick batted .420 for a Westchester sandlot league team that won the championship. His 82-year-old mother would come to some of the games.
You’d think a man who’s been breathing baseball for half a century would long to be right at the heart of things, would not be satisfied traveling along the game’s outskirts. “It doesn’t bother me,” he shrugs, and there’s no trace of bitterness in the leathery face. “I’ve been able to stay active in the game I love. I’m healthy. I’m doing fine.”
Last month, after spending years resisting blandishments to move out of the Bronx, he finally accepted his dream job offer and moved to Florida, where longtime friend Al Goldis (once a minor-league roommate of Pete Rose) is director of scouting for the Chicago White Sox. Testa is now an instructor for the team’s minor-league prospects.
“It’s terrific,” he says. “I’m working with the kids in spring training, then I’ll stay on in Sarasota all summer to work with the Rookie League team.” These are players aged 17–20, who often marvel at Nick’s physical condition. “Some of kids say to me, ‘Nick, I wish I’m in the shape you’re in when I’m that age’ and I tell them ‘Why you can’t you be in my kind of shape now.’” Learning baseball from Nick Testa is the best break some of these kids will ever get.
Nick Testa a baseball failure? If he isn’t one of the game’s great successes, then Satchel Paige was over the hill at 18. Hey, you gotta love the game.
Postscript: Two years after this piece was published, the film Field of Dreams was released. Why is that significant? Because one of the main characters in the film was Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, based on an actual player, who like Nick Testa, appeared in one major league game without getting an at-bat. [In all of Major League Baseball history there are only about 70 non-pitchers who played in a game without getting to the plate.]
In 2001, Nick was inducted into the Herbert H. Lehman College Athletics Hall of Fame. Later that year, before Game Three of the 2001 World Series, when Nick was still a batting practice pitcher for the Yankees, he was asked to prepare President George W. Bush for his “first pitch.” Testa caught the President’s warm-ups in the Yankee Stadium tunnels before Bush went to the mound. Naturally, the President’s pitch in front of a sellout crowd only a month after 9/11 was a perfect strike.
Nick may never have batted in a Major League game, but as a batting practice coach for the Yankees, he was a part of five World Championship teams, and he also won a World Series with the New York Mets in 1986 as their batting practice pitcher.
Nick Testa died on November 16, 2018 at the age of 90 and is buried at New St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.