Join Date: Oct 2000
Re: Sad day for Reds Fans- Joe has Rounded 3rd and headed home!Joe passed away overni
The Ol’ Lefthander …
When I got to Cincinnati to become a sports columnist — this would have been 1994, a few months before baseball went on strike — Tim Sullivan passed down some advice he had received years before. Sully was the columnist at rival Cincinnati Enquirer then, and also one of the fine people in the business. I was 27 and looking for help.
He said: “When I became a columnist, they told me that the first thing any columnist should do is crap in the hat of the biggest man in town. Prove you’re not afraid of anybody.”
“So, does that mean I’m supposed to rip Pete Rose in my first column?” I asked.
“Not Pete,” he said. He smiled. “The biggest man in this town is Joe Nuxhuall.”
He was right. Not about ripping Joe Nuxhall, of course. That would have been criminal (and suicidal). The man wasn’t just the biggest man in town. He was the Pope. One thing you find out pretty quickly about Cincinnati is that it is really two towns. There’s the West side of Cincinnati and the East side. On the West side — in the grandest generalization sweep I can manage — you in large part have blue collar, Reds-loving, flannel-wearing, truck-driving, flag-waving, double-decker eating, brick and mortar Cincinnati folk. And on the East side — again generalizing beyond reason — you have plenty of white collar, Bengals-loving, suit-wearing, Lexus-driving, Starbucks-drinking mall-walking, upwardly-mobile Cincinnati folk.
It’s never that simple, of course, never that red and blue, the two sides were always more alike than people imagined. But perception is a part of reality, and in Cincinnati it is considered a local fact that there are two places — two countries, even — and that East siders would get lost on the West side of town and vice versa, I remember the brilliant editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman drawing a cartoon where he had a Berlin Type Wall separating the two sides of Cincinnati. That summed things up. There wasn’t much that crossed between the two sides. In fact, only three things come to mind:
1. Skyline Chili.
2. Graeter’s Ice Cream.
3. Joe Nuxhall.
Nuxie had been a Cincinnati icon from the day — June 10, 1944 — when as a 15-year-old, he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds. He had been signed as something of a publicity stunt while the best players were at war. Nuxhall was a hard-throwing high school pitcher whose father Orville was a pretty well known player around town (they actually scouted Orville, that’s how they found young Joe). Joe only made it 2/3 of an inning in his one Major League start, but it still made him the youngest player to play in the Major Leagues. He was then sent to the minor leagues — a major league footnote — and I suspect no one expected to see him in the big leagues again.
Eight years later, at 23, he re-emerged with the Reds. Nuxie pitched 15 seasons in the big leagues, almost all of them with Cincinnati. He won 10 or more games seven times. He had an amazing ability to reinvent himself as a pitcher. He would talk about it, if you asked him. As a kid, he said, he had no idea where the ball was going, but he threw hard. As a middle-aged pitcher, he gave up hits and home runs, but managed to tough it out and win more than his share on guts. He made a couple of All-Star teams. He led the league in shutouts in 1955. “But,” he would say, “I was still learning how to pitch.”
And then, in 1961, after a dismal year in relief, he was traded to Kansas City. Nuxie was soon released. He signed with Baltimore. Released before the 1962 season. He signed with the Los Angeles Angeles. Released again. It all seemed over.
In June of 1962, he came back to Cincinnati. And it was like magic. Everything came together. Nuxhall went 5-0 with a 2.45 ERA the rest of the way. Ol’ Nuxie was back. There’s just something about Cincinnati. In 1963, he had his best season. He went 15-8, had a 2.61 ERA, struck out a career high 169, walked only 39 (he had found his control). He was home. He never left.
Nuxie would have become a Cincinnati icon after his playing career no matter what because he was that kind of man — kind, decent, great story teller, certain of his convictions, a real Cincinnati guy. But in 1967, just after he finished playing, he became a radio voice for the team. He would be an announcer — mostly with Marty Brennaman — for the next 37 years. And he would become even more beloved.
I’ve written here before about how, to me, the hometown baseball announcer on your radio dial is like the weather. He simply is. He becomes part of your life. Herb Score was like that in Cleveland, Jack Buck in St. Louis, Vin Scully in LA, Denny Matthews in Kansas City, Dave Niehaus in Seattle, John Sterling in New York and so on. (I use Sterling here not because I think of him as a legend but I think of him as inescapable — as Mark points out the true New York broadcast legends are Bob Murphy and Phil Rizutto).
Nuxie was even more than that in Cincinnati. Together with Marty, they did not just call Reds games. They defined Cincinnati. There was Marty telling you the umpire was off that night or that someone did not run out a ground ball. There was Nuxie telling everyone that “If you swing the bat, you’re dangerous.” They always seemed to be talking about something a little bit more than baseball. People have all sorts of opinions about how a sporting event should be announced, and I will admit being more susceptible than most to those opinions. But Nuxie’s broadcasting wasn’t about style or form or any of that. He made his mistakes, mispronounced some names, whatever. His humanity always came through. At the end of any broadcast, you would think: “Wow, that’s a great guy. I’d love to have a beer with him and just talk baseball.”
I had that chance a time or two during my Cincinnati columnist days. And if you’ve ever heard Joe Nuxhall call a baseball game, you already know what it was like. Everybody loved Nuxie.
Joe Nuxhall retired in 2004, but he would pop back into the booth every now and again. He had a lot of health problems in his final days, — he was in and out of hospitals — but he still made his way around town, working the endless number of charities that wanted his name connected to their causes. He died late Thursday night. He was 79.
Nuxie used to end every broadcast the same way — he used to say, “This is the ol’ lefthander rounding third and heading for home.” When you heard that, I don’t know, it just made you feel like you were home too. Sully was right. He was the biggest man in town.