To collectors he is a face on a bubblegum card. To trivia buffs he is the answer to a question. And to millions of listeners via an eight-state radio network, he is the voice of the Cincinnati Reds, hometown boy who made good, the Old Lefthander. Joe Nuxhall, who became the youngest player in the history of major league baseball in 1944, when he was 15, is alive and well and living in Fairfield, Ohio. That is, when the Reds are at home.
The Baseball Encyclopedia says Nuxhall retired in 1966 after 16 years as a pitcher, all but one with the Reds, with a lifetime 135-117 record and a 3.90 ERA. But the fact is that Nuxhall has no intention of retiring. "What would he do?" says former Reds Manager Sparky Anderson. "He's a baseball player."
That was always the case. At 37, after his third comeback, Nuxhall was still diving headfirst into bases—and he was a pitcher. The next year, when he officially quit pitching major league baseball, Nuxhall—like some 50 other players unable, or unwilling, to give up the game—turned to broadcasting. But unlike the others, he remained an active member of the team. Each game day he suits up, takes the field and pitches batting practice. At 50, Nuxhall is throwing more pitches per season than he ever did as a player, but this time he does it for love, not money.
"He amazing," says Shortstop Davey Concepcion. "He go out there and throw maybe 170 to 180 pitches—more than anyone would in a whole game. Joe the best batting-practice pitcher there is." Batting instructor Ted Kluszewski, a friend and former teammate, agrees. "He's perfect for the job. He throws them the perfect pitch—a high, inside fastball. They hit it good. It loosens them up and gives them confidence."
But it also gives them cause for concern. After all, Nuxhall is 50, and he is overweight. Invariably described in his playing days as "barrel-chested," Nuxhall is now on the leeward side of 250 pounds. And the barrel has slipped a few inches on his 6'3" frame. Tom Seaver has been trying to get Nuxhall to diet, but he generally eats what he wants (lots of meat, potatoes and eggs), drinks what he wants (beer, preferably "Mitchilobi" on draft), smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and, apart from throwing BP, never exercises. "Heck," he says, "I ran every day for 24 years; now I want to enjoy myself." One of the ways Nuxhall most enjoys himself is watching Johnny Carson while munching cheese and crackers. "I start with a pound of Colby cheese, a box of crackers and a six-pack," he says, "but I always seem to need a little more to make everything come out even."
When he suffered muscle spasms in his chest three years ago, Nuxhall was told to stop throwing. He didn't. Last year, when former Detroit Coach Jim Hegan suffered a heart attack after pitching batting practice, Nuxhall's friends again begged him to quit. "I can't quit," says Nuxhall. "I'd look like Tony Galento. Besides, I love it. I'll do it until I die. It makes me feel like part of the team."
After batting practice, Nuxhall rushes to the locker room, slips off his girth-concealing jacket and size 42 pants, which are worn beer-drinker style, several inches below the waist. Then he showers and runs up to the radio booth, where he begins his second job of the day.
The moment the national anthem is played, Nuxhall is totally involved. He actually sings the lyrics. Then he adds color to partner Marty Brennaman's play-by-play, frequently urging long fly balls to "Go, go, go!"
"I really didn't know baseball when I started this job in 1974," says Brennaman. "And I was supposed to replace Al Michaels [a radio demigod in Cincinnati], of all people. It was tough, but Joe was wonderful. He stood by me."
Then, while Brennaman reads a book—not on baseball, of course—Nuxhall broadcasts the middle innings. Brennaman picks up the play-by-play for the late innings. Nuxhall occasionally becomes absorbed by a situation on the field and lapses into silence. "I don't like to say something just to hear myself talk," he says. After the game, Nuxhall conducts his star-of-the-game interview. "I always hope it will be Pedro Borbon," says Brennaman, "because he always answers every question, 'Oh, yah, Yoe.' " The interview is conducted in the dugout, where Nuxhall obviously is entirely at home. With beer in hand, he chats about the game with his star, just as a couple of guys in the locker room might. Once, while taping the pregame show for the next day, Nuxhall let loose a familiar obscenity, then forgot to tell his technician about the slip. But his listeners forgave him, realizing that's how ballplayers talk. After signing off—"This is the Old Lefthander, rounding third and heading for home"—Nuxhall collects his gear and strolls toward the bus, signing autographs along the way. One suspects that if the Old Lefthander ever did reach home, he would just round it and head on back toward first.