It was a pleasant June afternoon in 1944, but Cincinnati was having a distinctly unpleasant time. The Reds, only 4½ games out of first place, were being trampled by the St. Louis Cardinals. At the end of eight innings, the Reds had no runs, while the Cards had scored 13. In from the bullpen, to open the ninth inning, came Cincinnati's fourth pitcher of the day-tall, strapping Joseph Henry Nuxhall.
While the fans searched their score-cards, Joe Nuxhall went to work—in a manner of speaking. Before the inning ended, St. Louis had scored five more runs on two hits, five walks and a wild pitch. Another pitcher was summoned, and Joe Nuxhall, aged 15, a farm boy who had just completed the ninth grade, stumbled back to the dugout.
By the book, it was hardly an impressive debut: two-thirds of an inning, five runs, earned run average 45.00. But Joe Nuxhall—walks, wild pitch and all—had entered baseball's hallowed records: he had become the youngest pitcher ever to appear in a major league game.
"If I'd got my third out," says Nuxhall, "I might be a 15-year man now." As it was, he was sent down to Birmingham where, after getting the necessary working papers, he surpassed his Cincinnati performance by yielding five walks and six runs in one inning. He topped it off by flinging his glove into the stands.
Now an eight-year major leaguer and twice an All-Star selection, Joe Nuxhall recalls that June day in Cincinnati with amusement and disbelief. It was wartime, and ball clubs were hard pressed to find young talent. In the summer of 1943, the Reds held a tryout for local boys at Crosley Field. Several youngsters from Joe's sand-lot team, all 16 or 17, went to the try-out and he tagged along. Nuxhall caught everyone's eye. "I had terrific control that day," he says. "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.' "
The Reds wanted him to sign right away. But young Joe Nuxhall wasn't ready to be tied down. He wanted to pitch for his high school team the following season. The club, however, did take him on a road trip to St. Louis that summer and gave him $5 pocket money. "And what'd I do with it?" Joe recalls. "I went to a penny arcade and spent the whole five bucks swinging at pitches from Iron Mike."
When the 1944 Hamilton high school baseball season ended, Joseph Henry Nuxhall was ready to sign a Cincinnati contract. "What an occasion that was," he recalls. "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."
Joe began working out with the Reds when they were playing at home. "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."
On the day of his unexpected debut—Saturday, June 10, 1944—Joe sat in the dugout, stunned silent by the beating being administered to his heroes by the pennant-bound Cardinals. "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 fast ball.
"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," he now remembers, "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 next Cardinal batter was not a 13-year-old. He was Stan Musial and he had won the batting championship the year before. "I doubt if Musial remembers it," says Nuxhall, "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."
HIGH-FLYING FAST BALLS
With two men on base and Cooper home with the 14th Cardinal run, Nuxhall blew sky high. "My pitches started going all over the place. They knew I was throwing nothing but fast balls, but nobody was ready to stand in there. They didn't know where the ball was going and neither did I."
Nuxhall walked First Baseman Ray Sanders, filling the bases. Joe Just trotted out to the mound to settle down his pitcher. "Boy, that was as useless as anything. I didn't even hear what he was saying." Nuxhall walked Walker Cooper, the catcher, forcing in Garms. He walked Left Fielder Danny Litwhiler, forcing in Musial. The score was now 16-0. Pinch Hitter Emil Verban found a pitch he could reach and singled to left field. Two runs scored and Nuxhall came out.
"I was really shell shocked," he recalls. "Kind of numb. Nobody in the dugout said anything, but Mr. McKechnie came over to me, slapped me on the back and said 'Nice going, son.' After the game I was called up to see Mr. Giles [Warren Giles, then the Cincinnati general manager]. He was very nice to me. 'Go down and get some experience, son' he said, and the next thing I knew I was on a train for Birmingham."
BABY-FACED Joe Nuxhall warms up in high school uniform before joining Reds.