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Still pitching peanuts at Dodger Stadium

In an otherwise horrible season for the Dodgers, Ronnie Nelsen is having a pretty good year.

He can throw either right-handed or left-handed with equally good arm strength, and he’s an inspiration to teammates and fans. Just shy of 80, Nelsen has been a Dodgers vendor for 53 years, focusing mainly on peanuts. And he hasn’t missed a home game in nine years.

Kathy Paris, a fan in Section 39, was Nelsen’s first sale of the night at a Dodgers-Mets game last week. She and her friend Brenda Barnett said it’s an inspiration to see a guy his age working such a physically tough job. Nearby, a fan named Anita Morland had this to say:

“God bless him. He goes up and down the stairs like he’s a young man.”

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A slight exaggeration, perhaps. Sure, Nelsen charges around like a bull, even during blazing hot day games, when a band of sweat forms along the shoulder strap of a vending sack filled with as many as 25 bags of peanuts.

But there’s enough of a lurch to his step as he descends the concrete stairs, slightly hunched, that you pray he won’t take a tumble. There’s determination in his ice blue eyes, though.

“I look at life this way,” said Nelsen. “I’m doing this for my health, I’m burning weight off and I’m seeing people and enjoying life.”

Nelsen, who lives alone in Valley Village, grew up in Washington state. He said he had seizures as a kid, later suffered a head injury in a fall and moved to Los Angeles in his 20s for an adult education program. He pumped gas at a filling station and also worked as a security guard and restaurant busboy.

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Then came his big break.

“I went to a meeting at the union office in December of 1957,” said Nelsen, who was a member of the restaurant and hotel workers union. “They said a baseball team was coming to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, if anybody wanted to be a vendor.”

He raised his hand, and for as long as Vin Scully has been calling games in the announcer’s booth, Nelsen has been serving Dodger fans. Today, Nelsen is one of four vendors who started in 1958 when the Dodgers played at the Coliseum. The others are Roger Owens, Leo Ramsey and Mort Rose, all of whom made the move to Dodger Stadium with Nelsen in 1962.

Nelsen hasn’t had the same exposure as Owens, who’s known for his acrobatic peanut tosses and has been on the “The Tonight Show.” But as Owens said at the Mets game, Nelsen is an original, and he’s known by fellow vendors as “Ronnie Baby” and “Ronnie Hollywood.”

“Baby” because he acts like he’ll live forever, and “Hollywood” because of his knack for accidentally getting his picture in the sports pages.

“You see this?” Nelsen said, pulling a framed clipping out of a bag he brought from home for his interview with me. In the photo, torn from the L.A. Times, two Dodgers are at home plate, celebrating a run, and the handsome young vendor looking on from the stands is Ronnie Hollywood.

Before each game, the vendors, employed by Levy Restaurants under a contract with the Dodgers, assemble in the upper reaches of the stadium for what they call the lineup. In order of seniority, they choose what they want to sell — peanuts, ice cream, soda, etc. — and what part of the stadium they want to work in. Nelsen usually picks peanuts, which are light and popular, and he favors the nut-buying acres between home plate and left field.

After choosing his usual assignment on the night I visited last week, Nelsen descended five flights of stairs like he was running to fight a fire. The faster you get your peanuts from the storage bins, the faster you can start selling them. Nelsen, who sells between three and seven boxes each game, said this has been a challenging year because of the well-documented woes of the Dodgers’ owners and the drop-off in attendance.

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But he stacked six boxes on a cart, stashed all but one of them in a locked service area, and charged into the crowd yelling, “Peanuts!”

Nelsen made the first sale in less than two minutes, and had peddled 10 bags by the time the game began. The vendors really hustle because they’re paid based on sales. Nelsen generally makes about $100 a game, which is nice to have in his pocket on top of a Social Security check.

For many years, Nelsen worked night games, then went straight to a graveyard shift somewhere as a security guard or gas station attendant. Now it’s just the vending job, and when there’s no ballgame, Nelsen likes to cruise the Valley in his Mazda, listening to his Johnnie Ray CDs, or maybe the Ames Brothers or Tommy Dorsey.

If he’s up for a treat, he’ll pull into Denny’s or Norms for ice cream or a piece of pie. He and another vendor, Dave Rafel, enjoy “2 For Tuesdays” at Lancers in Burbank, where two people can eat for the price of a single $14.99 dinner.

“You can pick barbecued ribs, liver and onions, meatloaf or red snapper,” said Nelsen.

On game days, Ronnie Baby can’t wait to get to work, and he sneaks glimpses of the game when he can. Nelsen says Dodgers greats Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale treated him well, autographing baseballs for him. And he likes it when fans tell him he looks young for 80, or that they remember seeing him at ballgames back when they were kids.

“If I can,” said Nelsen, “I’ll keep doing this till I’m 90.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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