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Mudville: June 18, 2024 8:45 am PDT

A Young Man’s Game

How desperate were the major leagues to find replacements for those who were in the armed services during World War II?

On August 3, 1944, the Brooklyn Dodgers had Tommy Brown, 16 years and 241 days old, start a game.

But he wasn’t the youngest player to debut that year.

On June 10, with the Cincinnati Reds trailing the St. Louis Cardinals 13-0 in the bottom of the eighth, manager Bill McKechnie must have thought there wasn’t much to lose, so he sent Joe Nuxhall, aged 15 years and 316 days, out to pitch.

(On December 16, 2020, when Major League Baseball declared certain Negro Leagues as indeed Major, Hall of Famer Roy Campanella became the youngest Major Leaguer ever to play when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1937 a few months younger than Nuxhall.)

“I was only 15, after all. I had just finished high school,” Nuxhall told author Alan Schwarz in Once Upon a Game: Baseball’s Greatest Memories. Only 3,510 fans were on hand to witness the historic debut.

A 6’2” left-hander (he later grew an inch), he was so nervous he tripped heading up the dugout steps, according to a SABR biography by Ryan Borgemenke.

The Reds got clearance under the child labor laws to sign Nuxhall to a contract. “Probably two weeks prior to that, I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old,” Nuxhall said. “All of the sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial and the likes,” Nuxhall told Borgemenke.

The Reds were scouting his father, who played in a Sunday league, but were impressed with his son who could throw very hard, even though he was only 14.

On February 18, 1944, Nuxhall signed with the Reds for $175 per month along with a $500 signing bonus. Still living at home with his parents, he bought them a new carpet with his new baseball money. (There are reports Nuxhall received a bonus of $14,000; a newspaper account of a minor league game he pitched in referred to him as “high priced.”)

On February 28, the Cincinnati Post published a series of Nuxhall at his home. A caption read, “These pictures show how he trains. Above: firing the furnace.” Also shown were pictures of Nuxhall being served dinner by his mother and Joe with his father, both wearing baseball gloves.”

A headline above the photos stated, “Diamond Dream Comes True”.

In his debut, he first faced shortstop George Fallon, who grounded out to the Reds shortstop. The next batter, pitcher Mort Cooper, who already had two hits, walked. Center fielder Augie Beragamo popped up to shortstop. Two away. With third baseman Debs Garms at the plate, Nuxhall threw a wild pitch allowing Cooper to reach second base. Garms then walked. Next, Stan Musial singled to right field, loading the bases. First baseman Ray Sanders walked and Mort Cooper scored. Then catcher Walker Cooper walked, scoring Garms with Musial taking third. Left fielder Danny Litwhiler walked and Musial scored. Second baseman Emil Verban singled to left field, driving in Whitely Cooper and Sanders, making the score 18 to 0.

“Then McKechnie came out to lead me away,” said Nuxhall.

Nuxhall’s line read .2 innings pitched, five earned runs, two hits and five walks with no strikeouts. His ERA was 67.50.

In the next day’s Cincinnati Enquirer, the paper published a short story on the front page of its sports section. It read, “McKechnie took the ‘blanket’ off Joe Nuxhall, the 15-year-old Hamilton High School pitcher. Joe worked two-thirds of the ninth inning and gave up five runs on five passes, two singles and a wild pitch. The husky portsider won’t celebrate his sixteenth birthday until June 30. If you are still interested he is the youngest pitcher ever to work in the majors.”

(Original Caption) Joseph Nuxhall, fifteen year old Hamilton High School boy who officially joins the Cincinnati Reds on June 8th, as a picher, is shown here (right) with the Reds' manager, Bill Mckechnie. Nuxhall, 6ft 3 is the youngest player to ever perform with a major league club.

The June 11 St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s headline on its story for the game was “Both Lohrman and Huesser Routed in Six-Run Second Inning and 15-year Recruit is Chased in Ninth….”

The New York Daily News published a wire service article on the contest, and in the story’s first graph was “the youngest pitcher to ever break into a major league box score — Joe Nuxhall, 15.”

On June 13, the Reds’ beat writer for the Enquirer, Lou Smith, wrote, “McKechnie is pretty well convinced he can’t count on Joe Nuxhall, the 15-year-old Hamilton High School hurler…”

Looking back on it many years later, Nuxhall told the Pittsburgh Press that inning was  “a very scary situation.”

According to Borgemenke’s profile, after his rocky June 10 debut, Nuxhall was assigned to the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. He pitched only one more inning that summer, and it was a similar experience. He walked five and allowed six earned runs.

(In addition to Nuxhall and Brown, three other 16-year-olds made their major league debuts during WWII: Roger Mckee was 16 years and 11 months old when he debuted for the Philadelphia Phillies on August 18, 1943. Carl Scheib was 16 years old and eight months old when he appeared in a game on September 6, 1943, for the Philadelphia Athletics, and Putsy Caballero was 16 years and eight months old when he debuted for the Phillies on September 14, 1944. The age factor also went the other way:  Horace Lisenbee was 46 and had been out of the majors since 1936 came back to pitch for the Reds in 1945. He appeared in 31 games with three starts, with a record of 1-3 and an ERA of 5.49.)

“The following season, the 16-year-old Nuxhall improved considerably. He posted a 3.21 ERA over 23 games, pitching for both the Syracuse Chiefs and Lima (OH) Reds. Despite his young age, he struck out an impressive 41 batters in his first 27 innings at Lima,” wrote Borgemenke.

(Original Caption) Florida: Joe Nuxhall of Cincinnati Reds during spring training. April 1964.

In a July 17, 1945 game against the Zanesfield (OH) Dodgers (a minor league affiliate of Brooklyn), the local newspaper, the Zanesville (OH) Times-Reporter, stated, “the much publicized Nuxhall…. whiffed fourteen batters.”

On July 29, he might have pitched the best game of his career in a game against the Newark (OH) Moundsmen, an affiliate of the St. Louis Browns.

“The sensational Nuxhall just missed entering baseball’s hall of fame in the opener. The young southpaw allowed only one hit in a tense 10-inning mound duel with Left Jack Wilson, as he finally eked out a 1-0 triumph,” the Newark Advocate and American Tribune stated.

About a month later, the Times-Leader headlined a story, “Nuxhall Bests Dodger Ace as Lima Reds Win.”

The game account began, “Lima Reds, with their high-priced Joe Nuxhall throwing three-hit ball, put the dampers on the Zanesville Dodgers in the third game of the current series here tonight, winning 6-1.”

According to Borgemenke’s SABR profile, “After the 1945 season, Nuxhall voluntarily retired from baseball and returned to Hamilton High School for his diploma. Under high school athletic rules, he was still considered an amateur in sports other than baseball. He was a well-rounded athlete, earning all-state honors in football and basketball as a senior in 1946. Nuxhall also returned to professional baseball in 1947, playing in the Reds farm system.”

Nuxhall spent the next five seasons in the Reds minor league system but made it back to Cincinnati in 1952.  For the next three seasons, he alternated between starting and relieving.

He pitched primarily out of the bullpen during the next three seasons, but in 1955 was used mainly as a starter. He made 33 starts, went 17-12 with an ERA of 3.47 while pitching 257 innings. Nuxhall also saved three games (he made 17 relief appearances) and led the National League in shutouts with five.

He followed up with four good seasons, but in 1960 he slipped, going 1-8 with a 4.42 ERA. He started only six games in 1960, to go along with 32 relief appearances.

After the season, Nuxhall requested a trade (he had not been pitching well and was booed by hometown fans).

Joe Nuxhall has just thrown a warm up pitch at the Polo Grounds in 1953. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

On January 25, 1961 the Reds traded him to the Kansas City Athletics for John Briggs and John Tsitouris. He didn’t fare that well in the American League, going 5-8 with a 5.34 ERA. The Athletics released him on December 4, 1961 when he was 32 years old.

Before the 1962 season, Nuxhall signed with the Baltimore Orioles, who two games into the season sold him to the California Angels. In five games pitching 5.1 innings with the Angels, Nuxhall had an ERA of 10.13 and they released him in May. In June, he signed with the Reds AAA affiliate in San Diego in the Pacific Coast League.

In Borgemenke’s SABR profile, Nuxhall said early in his career he was advised “master your temper and you’ll master your pitches.” .

“Going to San Diego was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he later said. “I regained my confidence and learned to control my temper. Before I went there, I was scared to throw a fastball inside to a right-handed hitter… In San Diego it hit me. I realized I had never won a game by getting mad.” He added, “I still get mad. I just don’t let it take over my thoughts and pitching anymore.”

With San Diego, Nuxhall went 9-2 and was called up to the Reds. He finished the season going 5-0 for Cincinnati.

The city was always special to Nuxhall, said his broadcasting partner Marty Brennaman, because it helped him return to the majors.

“I think one of the biggest reasons why he loved it there so much; one, obviously you gotta be a fool not to like it, whether even though it was not in the major leagues. Um, but he just always had a certain affection for the city of San Diego and, enjoyed playing there.

“Obviously even more so because at the time it was a AAA farm club of the Reds and some of the guys I think that played there eventually surfaced at the big league level in the Reds uniform when Joe had become a broadcaster. It was a place that he really liked a whole lot as opposed to some of the other places that he played in,” said Brennaman, who partnered in the radio booth with Nuxhall for more than 30 years.

The following year, he went 15-8 making 29 starts. He also made six relief appearances and earned two saves. In the next two seasons, he went 20-12, with half of his appearances pitching out of the bullpen. In April of 1967, he retired at the age of 37, 22 years after his major league debut. By that time, he had the nickname “The Ol’ Left-Hander”.

After Nuxhall retired, he became a radio broadcaster, calling basketball games for the Miami University (of Ohio). After one season, the Reds hired him to be on its announcer team.

Tom Tsuchiya's Joe Nuxhall statue stands outside Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 21, 2017.(Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Despite his lack of experience, he knew the game, especially pitching.  “I think it’s wonderful the way ex-pitchers like Waite Hoyt and Nuxhall can translate a pitch on radio in terms of their own experience,” Cincinnati Post sports editor Pat Harmon wrote in 1969. “I’m doubly impressed when a guy like Nuxhall tells me the pitcher just threw a certain kind of pitch and where it crossed the plate.”

Nuxhall had been calling Reds games for several years when he was partnered with a rookie, Marty Brennaman.

“I did three years of (announcing) AAA baseball and then I came to the Reds in 74. but I found out very quickly that his folksy approach to the game was what he was all about,” said Brennaman. “And he did not try to put on airs. He did not try to be someone that he wasn’t. You hear people say, ‘well, you sound just like you do on the air’ when they run into you at a grocery store or service station, and Joe was exactly the same person on and off the air – that was one of the major reasons why he was so popular because what you see is what you get.

“He never fashioned himself as a quote, professional broadcaster, end quote because he wasn’t that and he knew he wasn’t that,” added Brennaman, who received the 2000 Ford C. Frick Award given to broadcasters (the Ford C. Frick Award is presented annually during Hall of Fame Weekend. Each award recipient [not to be confused with an inductee] is recognized in the “Scribes & Mikemen” exhibit in the Library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

“But he knew the game of baseball. He was one of the two greatest storytellers I’ve ever been around, the other being Vin Scully. I think in some cases it took a while for people to get used to him, and his approach, but once they (would have) killed for him. That’s how popular he was.”

Tom Avril, a friend of mine who grew up in Cincinnati listening to Nuxhall call Reds games, said, “Joe was never flashy. He delivered his thoughtful observations in that unmistakable, deep-bass voice with the deliberate cadence of southern Ohio. He was firmly among the old school of less-is-more broadcasters, never letting his voice getting in the way of the natural sound of the game.”

On July 19, 2003, a bronze statue of Nuxhall throwing a pitch was unveiled at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, home of the Reds.

Nuxhall died on November 15, 2007, in Fairfield, OH at the age of 79.

It’s been decades since Nuxhall became the youngest player to appear in the majors. Unless a team does use a player younger than Nuxhall for a publicity stunt, his record will never be broken.

About his first time in the majors, Nuxhall said, “What really sticks out in my mind,” Nuxhall said in Schwarz’s book, “even to this day….is what would have happened if I had gotten the third out of the inning with just the one walk. Would they have given me another shot? Would my confidence have been built up and would I have stuck with the team? Would I have spent my teenage years as a major league pitcher? It’s hard to imagine, but if anyone knows it was possible, it’s me.”

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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