Fifty years ago, a stocky kid made history with a terrifying major league debut.
Joe Nuxhall was 15 years old when he came in to pitch the final inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. No one had ever played in the National or American League at such a young age; no one has since.
No wonder his knees wobbled. Can you imagine being 15 years old and pitching to Stan Musial?
It was June 10, 1944. Four days after D-Day. Newspaper headlines scream that U.S. planes have sunk four Japanese destroyers. The war seeps into every corner of American life, including the national pastime.
Baseball teams are scavenging to fill draft-depleted rosters. Taking up the slack are a lot of has-beens and never-weres, players coming out of retirement and others coming out of semi-pro leagues.
One has just come from junior high.
Joe Nuxhall has finished school for the summer and become a part-time major leaguer. He dresses for some of Cincinnati's home games--they're called the Redlegs during the war--and sits on the bench as a reserve pitcher.
What a lark just to be here!
"I'm in awe," he said. "I can't think of anything else I would have been."
How did he get here? The war opened the door for him, and luck pushed him through it.
The Redlegs had scouted his dad a year earlier. Orville Nuxhall was a right-handed pitcher in a Sunday league in nearby Hamilton, Ohio. Joe pitched for the team, too.
"They were just looking for people who had ability," Nuxhall said. "My dad could throw hard. They were really scouting him. Almost by accident, they found me."
The Redlegs liked Joe. Left-handed pitcher. Threw an 85 m.p.h. fastball. Big for his age--6-foot-3, 190 pounds or so. Local kid. Good publicity. Need players. Why not?
Nuxhall's parents wouldn't let him sign in 1943. A year later, they agreed. As soon as school let out, he could have this incredible dream.
He didn't have a razor or a breaking pitch, but Joe Nuxhall was going to be a major leaguer.
"I'm still playing for a junior high school team and all of a sudden, that one day here I am," he said.
He was just a glorified spectator, but that was fine with him. Besides, it was safer in the dugout, especially the way the Cardinals were hitting this sultry Saturday afternoon.
They were the best team of '44, headed for their third straight World Series. They showed it by rolling to a 13-0 lead through eight innings. A bunch of wartime backups was closing it out for the Cardinals.
Manager Bill McKechnie decided it was a good situation to see what the kid could do. Nuxhall had no inkling it was coming.
"I was kind of in awe of these guys, the way they were hitting line drives," Nuxhall said. "I was just sitting there watching the Cardinals beat up on the Reds when, geez, all of a sudden McKechnie yells at me to warm up."
He reacted like a teen-ager asked to do the impossible in front of thousands of people. He got up, got scared and fell on his face--first literally, than figuratively.
Nuxhall grabbed his glove and headed for the bullpen in a panic. As he reached the top step of the dugout, his borrowed cleats--he had to use a friend's pair because he had none--caught awkwardly.
Down he went in front of 3,510 fans.
"I was scared to death," he said. "I got all shook up and tripped over the top step and fell flat on my face in the dirt. It was embarrassing."
He got up, dusted off and tried to get his fastball--average by major league standards--cranked up to full speed in the bullpen. The eighth inning ended. It was show time.
"I remember warming up, but I can't remember walking from the bullpen to the mound," Nuxhall said. "I guess I was scared out of my wits.
"Probably two weeks prior to that, I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old. All of a sudden, I look up and there's Stan Musial and the likes. It was a scary situation."
Stunningly, it started all right. He got leadoff batter George (Flash) Fallon to ground out. He walked the pitcher, Mort Cooper, but got Augie Bergamo to pop out.
Wait a minute! Kids don't do this to big leaguers!
"That must have been when I realized where I was at," Nuxhall said.
He was trying to concentrate on the next batter, Debs Garms, when he glanced at the on-deck hitter. There was Musial, the defending NL batting champion, getting ready.
Nuxhall knew he had to get out Garms, a former batting champion. He couldn't. Nuxhall was so weak-kneed at this point that he completely lost his control and walked him.
"By that time I was all over the place. It wasn't two inches outside, it was high and inside, high and outside, bouncing pitches," Nuxhall said. "When he walked up there, I guess he thought I was a needle threader. My first pitch he just lined to right. Hit it hard."
It was only a single, but it made Nuxhall feel like a boy among men. He walked three more, threw a wild pitch and gave up another hit--five runs in all--before McKechnie visited the mound.
"I believe he said, 'Joe, that's enough,"' Nuxhall said.
That thought had occurred to a few others.
"Those people that were at Crosley Field that afternoon probably said, 'Well, that's the last we'll see of that kid,' " Nuxhall said.
Only for a while. A few days later, the Redlegs shipped him to the minors. Eight years later, he was back with the Reds. This time, he had a nasty slider and a lot of confidence to go with the fastball.
Nuxhall did better in later confrontations with Musial, although the seven-time batting champion ruined one more of his milestone moments. On opening day in 1956, Musial hit a two-out, two-run homer off Nuxhall for a 4-2 win. It was Nuxhall's only opening day start.
Nuxhall stayed in the majors through 1966, going 135-117 with a 3.90 career ERA. He was voted into the Reds' Hall of Fame and has been a Reds radio announcer for the past 28 years.
And he's the only one who can boast that he got to face Stan Musial as a 15-year-old.
"When you think of all the individuals that played at the major league level and you're the youngest in the history of the game and in the Guinness Book of Records, it does make you in awe of it," Nuxhall said. "The only thing is I just wish it would have been a better performance.
"What the heck, I was a 15-year-old kid. I guess the one thing, when I look back, is I wish I'd have gotten the third out without any runs being scored. That would have made it a heck of a lot better."