The Old Left-Hander

The game is about to enter the ninth inning. The home team is down 13-0, and the manager decides that the situation is sufficiently low-pressure to give the kid a shot on the mound. Turns out he’s wrong: while the rookie southpaw manages to get two of the first three batters out, things soon quickly unravel. All told, the new guy gives up a couple of hits, issues five walks, flings a wild pitch, and five more St. Louis Cardinals, including Stan Musial, cross the plate. The second hit, a two-RBI single, is finally enough for Cincinnati skipper Bill McKechnie to trudge out to pull young Joe Nuxhall, who’s seven weeks away from his sixteenth birthday.

Seventy-five years ago today, Nuxhall established the record for the youngest player ever to appear in a Major League Baseball game. The Reds gave the Cincy native a shot out of desperation due to an overall shortage in available talent (lots of players were of course off fighting in WWII), but that one chance was all he got in 1944, and for quite a while after. After finishing high school and laboring in the Reds’ minor league system for several seasons, Nuxhall re-emerged with the team in 1952. He wound up with a decent career, winning 135 games—almost all with Cincinnati. “Nuxy” retired at the end of the 1966 season and immediately moved to the radio broadcasting booth.

That’s how I knew Joe Nuxhall—as the color man on WLW, first with Al Michaels (71-73) and then with Marty Brennaman for the next thirty-one seasons.  Joe was an unapologetic fan for the home team—I loved to hear him in the background, imploring well-hit balls to “get out of here!”—but he wasn’t remotely overbearing or unbearable. He did play-by-play for the third, fourth, and seventh innings (as well as any even-numbered extra innings) and conducted an interview with “The Star of the Game” after each contest. His interview style was almost maximally low-key: he virtually never asked questions of the Star, instead making statements about pivotal moments in the game and letting the player simply react. After wrapping up the interview, he’d sign off with his signature line, “This is the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home. Good night, everyone.” Nuxhall appeared to be a genuinely nice guy, beloved by seemingly everyone in the area.

Over the years, the Reds came to make a bit of a deal about the anniversary of Nuxhall’s debut whenever they were home on June 10. The four of us attended the tilt between the Reds and les Expos forty years ago today, but that’s too long ago for me to know what, if anything, happened in this regard. It feels like I was there on a June 10 some number of years later where I do specifically recall them briefly honoring Joe, but unlike the 1979 game, there’s no ticket stub evidence to support that claim.

But June 10, 2006 is still fresh in my mind. The first game my son ever saw in person, and the last one for my parents. Cubs, just like my first game (more about that one next year). Cool, cloudy Saturday night; even though the folks were in their mid-seventies, we managed to get there well before game time. I’d forgotten all about the significance of the date until the announcer made mention of it. It was well-known that Nuxhall was suffering from cancer, but he was doing well enough to show up at the park every so often and even spend time in the booth. So naturally he was there that evening; he did a lap around the ballpark in a convertible before the game to appropriately appreciative applause from the crowd.

A couple of years earlier, a local sportswriter had written Nuxhall’s biography, with proceeds going to Joe’s foundation. We were told over the PA that Joe would be available during the early part of the game to autograph copies of the book. Dad (who was just three years younger than Joe) heard, and likely saw, Nuxhall play back in the 50s and then listened to him on the radio for decades; he couldn’t resist. We got up from our seats down the third-base line and walked around the concourse to an area almost behind home plate. My father bought three copies of Joe: Rounding Third and Heading for Home—one for each grandchild—and briefly exchanged pleasantries with Nuxhall. These two old left-handers then shook hands. I’m grateful that Martha tagged along with her camera. The photo, originally given to Dad, now sits on a bookshelf in our basement.

Richard Harris and Joe Nuxhall

The Reds wound up losing that night, 4-2. Nuxhall died about eighteen months later; I don’t know if he was present on June 10, 2007, when the Reds hosted the Indians on a Sunday afternoon. I do know that we had lucked into somewhat of a special moment.

Note: I first wrote about Dad’s encounter with Nuxhall in a Facebook post on what would have been my father’s 84th birthday anniversary, almost four years ago.

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