Thursday, August 4, 2011
87. Joe Nuxhall: A portrait of The Old Left-hander as a young man
Although it has absolutely nothing to do with this story, today is my birthday. I thought you'd like to know. Yeah, well, anyway...
In 1995, on a whim, I accepted a job offer and moved from Baltimore to Cincinnati, Ohio. I didn't know much about the city or its people at the time, in fact the first thing that came to mind when I thought of "Cincinnati" was that the first professional baseball team in history still called the city home. So I moved to Cincinnati.
What I found there both surprised and amazed me. The people were so friendly and open. I had never traveled much - to be honest, I had never even left the east coast. To have strangers strike up a conversation with you on the street was, well, perplexing. It honestly took me a good 3 months before I relaxed, knowing that the friendliness I encountered on the street was not a ruse to steal my wallet or part of some complex hustle. And boy did that city love their Reds! Until the 1990's, the first pitch of every baseball season was thrown in Cincinnati. Only after the game had begun there could the rest of the major leagues begin their season. I liked that privilege pro baseball conceded to Cincinnati in acknowledgement of their place as home to the first professional team. And the people of Cincinnati appreciated as well. I soon found that Opening Day in Cincinnati wasn't something to sniff at. Those people made a heck of an event out of it! There was a huge parade that started from the city's Findley Market and wound through downtown to the river where the ballpark stood waiting. This wasn't any old parade, mind you, but a parade made up of the folks. Every obscure social group marched, some serious but a large amount humorous. The lawn mower drill team comes to mind (if you've never experienced them, you have no idea what you are missing). Card Clubs marched. Restaurant staffs rode make-shift floats. Anyone who owned a vintage car joined in. Little Leaguers and beer league softball teams suited up in their finest and took up their place in the parade. It seemed like the whole darn city of Cincinnati was marching down Race Street! All the surrounding area's school bands march and although I'm not one for parades at all, I never missed one while living there. It's things like that that really make you feel part of the community.
Which brings me to Joe Nuxhall. To most outside the Cincinnati area, Joe was a footnote to baseball history - the youngest player ever in the major leagues. But to everyone within the signal range of the mighty WLW radio station, Joe Nuxhall, along with partner Marty Brennaman, WAS the Cincinnati Reds. Joe and Marty's enlightened banter behind the mikes really added something special to that storied franchise. Players came and went, but those two guys lent a voice to millions of Reds fans and through years of good teams and bad, gave them something to carry their heads high about. Win or lose, Cincinnati was home to the best team in radio broadcasting.
To this day I still chuckle inside when I remember Marty making fun of Joe's horrible sweater collection. Joe and Bill Cosby must have bumped into each other while frequenting the same twisted sweater emporium. And man, sometimes I'll break out in full laughter thinking about the time Joe, eyeing Marty's trademark perfectly coiffed hair, called him a "poofy-haired fancy-boy" right in the middle of a game! Jabs aside, the combination created the best play-by-play I'd ever heard. Through their voices, you knew exactly what was happening down on the field. To me that's the true sign of a great broadcaster, and Cincinnati was blessed to have not one, but two men who possessed that skill. I remember that for me, like millions of others in the Cincinnati area, whether driving home in their car or sitting with friends in the back yard, the game was not yet over until Joe concluded his post-game show, signaling its end with his trademark phrase: "this is the Old Lefthander, rounding third and headed for home - Goodnight everyone."
So anyway, the whole point of this is to introduce you to a much younger Joe Nuxhall. It's Saturday, June 10th, 1944 and the 15 year-old lefty is facing the mighty St. Louis Cardinals at Crosley Field. How the heck did this kid, just barely in his teens, find himself in this situation?
In the summer of 1943 the Cincinnati Reds, like every team in professional baseball, was hurting for talent. The draft snatched up every able-bodied man in the country. As soon as a scout would get a prospect's signature on a contract, Uncle Sam would come along and call him for his team. Ballclubs sent their scouts all over the country trying to scrape up every draft-exempt player who could hold a bat and had a head to hang a cap on. One sunny Saturday in the summer of 1943, Reds scout Eddie Ries took the trip 20 miles north of Cincinnati to Hamilton, Ohio to look at a local semi-pro pitcher named Orville "Ox" Nuxhall. The 35 year-old Ox told the desperate scout that with 5 kids and a wife to feed, he had no interest in beginning a career in professional baseball - but - his 14 year-old boy "Sonny" did. It wasn't the first time Ries heard about the boy. A friend of his, Hib Iske, was a coach up here in these parts and had been jawwing about this kid for weeks. But still, a 14 year-old? Eddie Ries hopped in his car and headed back to town.
Little did Eddie Ries know, this "kid" wasn't your average teenager. Sonny was a strapping 6' - 3" tall and a healthy 195 lbs. A bit wild, he none-the-less possessed a smoking fastball that averaged around 85 mph. And to make it a little sweeter, this giant of a boy was a lefty. He'd thrown more than a dozen no-hit games for his Knothole League team before he was 13. On Sundays Sonny and his father Ox played on the same local Muni-league adult team, sharing the the pitching duties. No, this wasn't your average teenager.
Every August the Reds held open tryouts to scoop up what ever the scouts missed. With the war taking such a toll on the organization's man-power, this free look at local talent was even more pertinent to the ballclub. Hib Iske loaded up his car with some of his home-grown talent including his star, Sonny Nuxhall. After 15 minutes of pitching batting practice, Sonny impressed Reds manager Bill McKechnie enough to send him on to the next tryout level, a game with the other hopefuls that passed the first cut. The giant teen wiffed 2 or 3 batters before Eddie Ries approached him with the words every kid dreams of hearing: "How'd you like to be a professional ballplayer?"
Although Sonny, Ox and the Reds organization were all on board with signing the kid, it was agreed to wait until that winter's high school basketball season ended. To sign a professional baseball contract would render the teen ineligible for high school sports. It was decided to just let Sonny suit up with the team and pitch batting practice whenever the Reds were home. No contract was needed for that and he could play basketball for Wilson Junior High that winter with a clear conscious. When the season concluded in January 1945, Joseph Henry Nuxhall became property of the Cincinnati Reds. The most unusual facet of the contract was Ox's clause that his boy not be sent into the team's farm system. Due to his age, Ox wanted his son close by and it was agreed that he'd stay with the big club, suiting up on weekends until school ended and pitch batting practice. Once he was out, he'd join the team as a full-fledged Cincinnati Red.
Saturday, June 10th, 1944.
Billy Southworth brought his National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals into Crosley Field. On their way to yet another pennant, the Cards had by far the best team in baseball. Although they continuously lost players to the draft, the vast farm system Branch Rickey set up continued to pump fresh talent into their club. Boasting all-stars like Stan Musial, Walker Cooper, Marty Marion and Whitey Kurowski, St. Louis was on their way to posting an amazing 105-49 league record.
3,510 fans showed up for the game. Bill Lohrman started for the Reds but he faltered in the 2nd, giving up 5 hits before he was yanked. Ed Heusser was rushed in and the Cards jumped him for 4 more hits without retiring anyone. 6 runs had scored before McKechnie threw Buck Faucett in there to turn off the bleeding. He got them out of the inning but Faucett continued to leak runs, giving up one in the 4th, one in the 5th, one in the 6th, one in the 7th and 2 more in the eighth making it 12-0 as the Reds entered the top of the 9th. Cincinnati's bats were useless that day against ace Mort Cooper who had given up only 5 hits. With no chance of pulling off a win that day against the defending National League Champs, Bill McKechnie had his teenage phenom pitch the 9th inning.
Nuxhall said later he was scared and shaking as he took the mound. He had no idea who he was pitching to. The first batter he faced that inning was weak-hitting infielder George Fallon. He worked the count to 3 and 2 and grounded out to shortstop Ed Miller. One away. Pitcher Mort Cooper came up next. Working the count full again, Nuxhall walked him. Man on first, one out. Though Sonny didn't know it, the top of the Cardinals' order was up next.
Lead off hitter Augie Bergamo again worked the rookie to a full count. He swung at the next pitch and popped it up for the second out. One more to go.
These guys were making him work for it, but Sonny was getting them out. This wasn't so bad, was it?
Deb Garms, aging former National League batting champ emerged from the Cards dugout next. Still wild, Nuxhall again pitched the count full before walking him. 2 guys on, but 2 away. Nuxhall looked in at the next batter.
"Gee, that looks an awful lot like Stan Musial..."
Unfortunately for Sonny, it was Stan Musial and he smashed a single that scored Cooper. First baseman Ray Sanders came up next and walked on 4 strait balls. Bases loaded. Slugger Walker Cooper, Mort's younger brother came to bat. After 4 pitches he walked, scoring Garms. Bases still loaded. 2 out. Sonny got 2 strikes past Danny Litwhiler. One more strike would end this all with a respectable 2 earned runs. But the wildness came back and he threw 4 strait balls, pushing Musial home. Bases still full of Cardinals. 2nd sacker Emil Verban came up next and fought the rookie to yet another full count before he found a good one and grooved a single that scored Cooper and Sanders. McKechnie called time and took the kid out.
Reds announcer Waite Hoyt, himself a former schoolboy hurler at 16 when he debuted with the New York Giants, thought the kid looked nervous. That must have been the understatement of the season. He got rocked for 5 runs, but his much more experienced stablemates had given up 13. It wasn't a great debut, but it wasn't that bad, was it? He'd got his butt kicked by the best team in baseball. The guys he faced would go one to win the World Series that year.
For young Sonny, that was his last appearance in the majors for 8 long years. Nuxhall toiled in the Reds farm system perfecting his craft until he finally suited up in a Reds jersey again in 1952. This time Sonny stayed, pitching for his hometown team for 15 of the 16 years spent in the majors. The mainstay of the Reds staff and a real fan favorite, "Nuxy" as he became known, still holds the team record for most wins by a lefty. He also was one of the first ex-players to sit behind the microphone when he retired in the spring of 1967, going directly from the clubhouse to the broadcast booth. Teaming up with Marty Brennaman in 1974, the duo known as "Marty and Joe" spent 30 years calling the Reds games. After suffering ill health for a while, the old lefthander finally rounded third and crossed home plate on November 15, 2007.
I still remember where I was when I heard Joe died. I had moved away by then and was living far away in Hollywood. Sitting in an Italian cafe on Hollywood Boulevard I read a sterile wire service account in the newspaper. The phrase "poofy-haired fancy-boy" came to mind and I laughed out loud. Then I crossed myself and said a prayer for the Old Lefthander.
Out here in California, I still listen to the ballgames on the radio. The ocean breeze that blows into my yard where I'm sitting is a nice compliment to Vin Scully's voice calling the Dodger game. But Vin Scully is no Marty and Joe.
Marty Brennaman still calls 'em back in Cincinnati and hopefully will for a long, long time. God, I miss that. I miss Cincinnati. I miss going to opening day with Todd and Marc. I miss the silly parade and the warm summer nights listening to the Reds with Christian and Vic. I miss debating last nights Reds lineup with Christa and throwing the ball around with Charlie. I miss it so much that I am going back to Cincinnati.
The end of August, I'm going home for good.