It was a pleasant June afternoon in 1944, but Cincinnati was having a distinctly unpleasant time. The Reds, only 4� 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.