WHEN HE MADE his major league debut for the Reds on June 10, 1944, in a blowout loss to the Cardinals, Joe Nuxhall got the first man he faced to ground out. The third popped out; in between he walked the pitcher, who went to second on a wild pitch. Nuxhall, who was so raw that he had to borrow an old glove from veteran Johnny Vander Meer, followed the pop-up with another walk—and then he lost his control. He walked three more and allowed five runs that inning before manager Bill McKechnie lifted him. "Those people that were at Crosley Field that afternoon probably said, 'Well, that's the last we'll see of that kid,'" Nuxhall later recalled.
The shaky outing was easily forgiven: Nuxhall, who died last week at age 79 after a battle with lymphoma, was 15 at the time and is still the youngest player in big league history. (The Reds, desperate for talent during the war years, lured him from his high school team in Hamilton, Ohio, with a $500 signing bonus.) Nuxhall did disappear for a long while after his debut, but after some seasoning in the minors he returned to the Reds in 1952 and proved he was no wartime novelty. He pitched until '66, mostly for Cincinnati, winning 135 games and twice making the All-Star Game. A year after he retired, he moved to the Reds' radio booth, and he spent the next 40 years delighting Queen City fans with his folksy style, unabashed homerism and signature sign-off: "This is the old lefthander rounding third and heading for home." Longtime broadcast partner Marty Brennaman once called him "the most beloved man in Cincinnati sports history."
Well into his 50s, Nuxhall pitched batting practice to the Reds before calling games. He said he'd do it until he died; that wasn't the case, but even in failing health he was in the booth for several games this season. No one in Cincy was surprised. "What would he do?" former Reds manager Sparky Anderson once said. "He's a baseball player."