Joe Nuxhall made baseball history 75 years ago, pitching for the Reds at age 15 in an 18-0 loss to the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals on June 10, 1944. It was four days after D-Day when Nuxhall took the mound at Crosley Field, and it wasn't pretty.
The young lefthander from Hamilton's Wilson Middle School gave up five runs on two hits, five walks, and a wild pitch in two-thirds of an inning.
For the rest of his life, people asked Nux about his big league debut. Former Reds publicity assistant Joe Kelley talked to me about stepping into the elevator with Nux at San Diego's old Jack Murphy Stadium in the early 1990s, when the elevator operator recognized the name on Joe's credential.
"Joe Nuxhall? Aren't you the youngest player ever to appear in a Major League game?"
"Yes, I am," Nuxhall said.
"Did they score any runs off you when you pitched in that game?
"As many as they wanted that day," Nuxhall said with a hearty laugh.
Nuxhall started the ninth inning with a ground out, a walk, and pop up to the shortstop. So far, so good. Then he realized this was not just another Saturday afternoon in Hamilton. A wild pitch and another walk, and he was facing future Hall of Famer Stan Musial, hitting .365. The 1943 National League Most Valuable Player and batting champ hit a rocket to right. The wheels fell off. Nux couldn't get the third out. The next four batters reached on three walks and a hit.
The next day, 15-year-old Hamilton Joe was sent to the Reds' Double-A farm team in Birmingham, Ala. In his debut for the Birmingham Barons against the Little Rock Travelers, "it was the same result, basically," Nuxhall once explained. He gave up six runs on one hit, five walks and a wild pitch in two-thirds of an inning. "After that I didn't pitch any more," he said.
The Reds took a chance on the teenager while pitchers Johnny Vander Meer, Ewell Blackwell, Joe Beggs and other players were fighting World War II. He was scouted in late summer of 1943, and signed in February 1944. My favorite account of his debut is from WCET-TV's Joe Nuxhall: My Life, Baseball and Beyond, a series of interviews with sportscaster Dennis Janson in 2005:
"As I described it many times, I would go down to the ball park on weekends. This particular weekend, we were playing the Cardinals. And as you recall, the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns wound up in the World Series that year, in 1944. So I'm sitting on the bench and watching the game, and I'm admiring the way the Cardinals are hitting the baseball, line drives everywhere. And this was really a treat to be sitting that close to all the action.
"It was the ninth inning, and all of the sudden I hear this voice and say 'Joe!' And I said, 'He can't be talking to me.' We had a couple of Joes on the ball club. And he says 'Joe!' a little louder. And I looked, and he said, 'Go warm up!'
"And I said, 'Whoops, things aren't quite as interesting now.' I gotta go warm up. There are three steps out of the dugout at Crosley Field, and now I'm nervous -- but not near as bad as I'm going to be -- and I made the first two steps and tripped over the third one. And it was a dusty day, and I landed flat on my face, as flat as you could. I got up and I'm dusty all over, and I'm cleaning myself off… Anyway, I go down and warm up… and I'm wilder than a March hare, as they say. About every other pitch, I missed the catcher…
"Now I'm in the ballgame. And I'm nervous. Like I've said, probably two weeks prior to that I'm pitching to 12-, 13-, 14-year old kids at Wilson Junior High School, and now here are the St. Louis Cardinals, who will be world champions. So the first batter up, I went 3 and 2 on him, and he grounded to short. The second batter, I'm 0-2 and I ended up walking him. The next batter, I'm 3 and 2, and he ends up popping up to shortstop.
"Now I've got two outs and a man on first. And the fourth batter, I'm 0 and 2 on him, and then I realize exactly where in the world I am. This is the St. Louis Cardinals and Crosley Field, and from that point on I walk him, and then Stan (Musial) comes up, and I'll never forget it-- Let me see, it was 13 to nothing -- and I'm throwing balls all over the place, and this is the ninth inning. So Musial, you know that (closed) stance he has-- and you'd think he'd be worried about this kid. 'He might drill me! I’m going to get back out of the batter's box and get out of harm's way,' you might say. But the first pitch I threw, he hit a screaming meanie, as we used to say, to right field, an absolute bullet. And from that point I walked three more, gave up one more hit, and a wild pitch, and that was it….
"That was a Saturday. On Sunday, Mr. Giles, he was the boss man (general manger) then, he said, 'Were going to send you to Birmingham, Ala.' That was Sunday, and on Monday night I was on a train to Birmingham, Ala. At that time, that (the Birmingham Barons) was the Reds Double-A farm team in the Southern Association. And a new phase started, I guess you could say. I was going to being away (from home) for the summer time basically, and that part was tough to grasp.… After I thought about it, I figured this was what was going to have to be done anyway.
"And now the day came for the game against the Little Rock Travelers, and there's a pretty good crowd at the stadium. And I start a ball game, and I think I walked the first guy. The next guy I struck out, I believe. But anyway, it was the same result, basically. I gave up five more runs (actually six runs), walked five more, threw a wild pitch, and gave up one base hit, and I got my first strikeout as a professional ball player. That was in two-thirds of an inning. After that I didn't pitch any more."
"I got homesick," he said on WCET-TV. "I told a falsehood that I’m still not proud of, but I was homesick and I wanted to go home. I told (the manager) my mother was ill and I needed to go home. I think I came home in the middle of August. I think there were two more weeks, I believe, left in the season. So that’s the story of my first year."
In his first year of professional baseball, the young lefthander pitched 1-2/3 innings and gave up 11 earned runs on three hits, 10 walks and two wild pitches. He pitched seven years in the minors before returning to the Reds in 1952. He pitched through 1966, then joined Reds radio in 1967. He died in 2007, at age 79.