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Saturday, November 23, 2019

The 15-Year-Old Major Leaguer: Joe Nuxhall Discusses His Precocious MLB Debut

World War II impacted every aspect of life imaginable in the United States during the 1940s. As the conflict raged globally, adjustments were made everywhere, including in Major League Baseball, which had to get creative to field an entertaining product. This included one game where a 15-year-old boy named Joe Nuxhall, took to the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Joe Nuxhall was born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio. By the time he entered high school he was the size of a grown man and pitched on a local semi-pro team with his father Orville, who was also a talented hurler. The young left-hander threw hard, but often didn’t know where the ball was going—a typical fault of someone that age.

In 1944, the Cincinnati Reds, like other teams in baseball were struggling with their operation. Many major leaguers were serving in the armed forces and attendance was way down, as people tightened their belts in relation to the war effort. Anything new, different or with the potential to provide a spark of talent was under consideration.

Seeking pitching talent, the Reds sniffed around Orville, thinking he could possibly be an asset. However, he rejected their overtures because of the five children he had at home with his wife. His son Joe was another matter, even though he was just 14 at the time.
After the next year’s basketball season was over, Joe signed a contract with the Reds in February of 1944, receiving a bonus of $500. Although the team intended to wait until the school year was over to have him do anything with the team, their war-depleted roster dictated thinking outside of the box and they were able to obtain permission for the young southpaw to be in uniform with them as of Opening Day.

It was common at the time for teams to sign young talent and have them with the team to gain experience, even if it didn’t come by playing in actual games. Of course, the major difference this time was such rookies were typically fresh out of high school; not out of middle school.

On June 10th, 1944 the Reds were being shellacked by the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in Cincinnati when the team decided to see what their boy wonder could do. Trailing 13-0 in the ninth inning, the schoolboy, a little over a month shy of his 16th birthday, came on to face a star-studded lineup headlined by future Hall of Famer Stan Musial.

Predictably, Nuxhall was wild. Perhaps it was his typical control issues, and very likely a healthy dose of nerves mixed in. Regardless, he lasted just 2/3 of an inning, walking five batters and giving up two base hits (including a single to Musial) a wild pitch and five runs before being pulled. The Reds lost the game 18-0.

Nuxhall was done in the big leagues for the time being. He pitched an additional game in the low minors in 1944 but was similarly routed. He pitched in the minors in 1945, but “retired” in 1946 so he could finish high school.

After graduation, Nuxhall returned to baseball to pitch in the minor leagues, still affiliated with the Reds. He made steady progress, but by that time the enlisted players had returned from the war and making a team required real polished talent.

Finally, in 1952, Nuxhall made his triumphant return to the Reds. He was now 23 and had refined his craft significantly since the last time he was in the majors. He went on to enjoy a 16-year big-league career spending all but 42 games with the Reds before retiring as a player after the 1966 season.

Nuxhall finished with career totals of a 135-117 record with a 3.90 ERA in 526 games. He was a two-time All Star and went on to spend nearly 40 years as a beloved radio announcer with the Reds, passing away in 2007 at the age of 79. He was inducted in the team’s Hall of Fame and has a statue outside their current stadium—quite the journey from when he was just a boy.

 On May 30, 1960 Sports Illustrated published an article by Roger Williams titled “Joe’s Bad Dream.” In it, Nuxhall spoke at length about his debut. Below, I will post some of his comments with some of my thoughts in italics.

On being noticed for the first time by Cincinnati scouts: “I had terrific control that day. The catcher just stuck up his glove and I hit it. Nobody could have been more surprised than I was. Mr. McKechnie [Bill McKechnie, the Cincinnati manager] and his coaches stood around watching me. My fast ball kept going right on target, so I threw a couple of knucklers. 'Son,' said Mr. McKechnie, 'cut that stuff out. Stick with the fast ball."

Pitching in front of the skipper, who was a future Hall of Famer, must have been surreal. The team was interested in his raw talent, but Nuxhall was obviously trying to act like a “real” big leaguer by flashing the exaggerated arsenal.

What did Nuxhall do with $5 pocket money he was given on his first road trip with the team?: "I went to a penny arcade and spent the whole five bucks swinging at pitches from Iron Mike."

The irony is great that the young pitcher spent his entire allowance on taking batting practice from a pitching machine. However, it may have been a solid investment, as he hit a combined .198 with 15 home runs during his career—excellent numbers for a hurler.

What did he think about his tryout with the Reds?: "What an occasion that was. I had a crazy patchwork uniform on. And since I didn't have any baseball spikes, I wore my dress shoes. They gave me a $500 bonus and a major league contract and, by golly, I was a big league ballplayer."

Being able to impress the scouts despite wearing dress shoes and a uniform he was likely ashamed of is a testament to his raw talent. In subsequent years, his appreciation for uniforms and equipment must have been significant.

What life was like when he first joined the Reds at 15: "No one worked with me too much. I'd go to the field on Saturday and pitch a little batting practice. My control was terrible and sometimes I'd be lucky to get one out of 10 over the plate. After batting practice, I'd sit on the bench and watch the game. I must have been a sight, too. I had dug up an old pair of baseball shoes that turned up so much at the toe that the front spike never touched the ground. And I used a beat-up Johnny Vander Meer glove. I had to take it off real gently, like a girl pulling off a kid glove, or all the stuffing would come out."

It must have been a lonely experience for him. Many of the players were trying to hold on to jobs they knew they were in danger of losing when soldiers eventually came back from the war. That would not have led to many of them taking on a mentoring role. Additionally, it would not have been easy for either Nuxhall or his teammates to really relate to each other given they were not from the same peer group.

What did he remember from his first game with the Reds?: "This was the fifth or sixth big league game I'd ever seen, and I was just sitting there like a spectator. All of a sudden Mr. McKechnie said, 'Joe, warm up.' I had no idea he meant me until he motioned me to the bullpen. I grabbed my glove and started out of the dugout—and tripped on the top step. I fell flat on my face. Everybody roared, I guess. I didn't hear a thing.

"Al Lakeman warmed me up in the bullpen and I sent him up the terrace three or four times chasing my wild pitches. I was shaking like an airplane engine on a palm tree.

"We went down without scoring in the eighth and I walked out to pitch the last inning. I don't remember about the warmup pitches—I must have been floating on a cloud. Joe Just, the catcher, didn't use any signs, because all I could throw was a fastball.

"Somehow, I got the first guy out, and I got the third man too. I don't recall who they were, but somebody grounded to Eddie Miller and somebody else popped one up." The somebodies were Second Baseman George Fallon, who grounded to Shortstop Miller, and Center Fielder Augie Bergamo, who popped out. Between the outs, Nuxhall walked Pitcher Mort Cooper and sent him lumbering to second when he threw a wild pitch to Bergamo. Then he went to a 3-2 count on Debs Garms, the third baseman, and walked him, putting men on first and second with two outs.

"Just about then, I started to realize where I was. I came down off that cloud fast and started shaking all over again. Golly, a couple of days before I'd been pitching to 13-year-olds!"
The game had 3,510 fans in attendance. Although very modest by major league standards, it must have been a wild experience for Nuxhall, who up until the point had pitched in front of a smattering of attendees at his youth and semi-pro games.

Did he remember facing Musial?: "I doubt if Musial remembers it, but I can just imagine what he was thinking: 'O.K., get that damned thing over the plate so I can get outta here.' He must have been real anxious to go, the way he hit me. I can still see that ball zooming by. He really shillelaghed it."

Musial was coming off having won the 1943 National League batting title and was already one of the best hitters in baseball, despite being just 24 himself. Giving up just a single may have been a minor victory.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) on topics of baseball that are available on Amazon.

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