Nuxhall left a prominent presence
Though his loss still lingers, Reds great lives on through honors, memories
By John Erardi • email@example.com • July 4, 2009
If there's a weekend for remembering Joe Nuxhall, this is the one.
The longtime Reds broadcaster and former pitcher was an All-American guy. And the most beloved Redleg ever continues to be celebrated almost 18 months after his death at 79.
"Just when I thought things were settling down, along comes Mike Brennan and the Hamilton Joes," Kim Nuxhall, one of two sons of Joe and his wife, Donzetta, says of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate Baseball League team named in honor of his father. Brennan is president and general manager of the first-year club.
Yes, just when you think everything there is to be named after Nuxie has been named - Joe Nuxhall Boulevard, Joe Nuxhall Way, the Nuxhall Pavilion, Joe Nuxhall Field - along comes something else. And there's more to come: the YMCA in Hamilton where Joe played handball with Jim Tracy is going to dedicate its gym to Nuxhall this summer.
Kim and I are standing behind the backstop at Foundation Field in Hamilton, where the Joes are taking on the Cincinnati Steam.
"If Dad was still around, he'd be sitting here right now watching these games," Kim says. "It would be as much for the fact these kids are in college as they have his name on their uniforms. They've got a Plan B. Dad believed in a Plan B."
Even though for Nux, Plan B always was Plan Baseball.
"Dad knew that if he hadn't made it in baseball he'd have been over there working with his dad at the Fisher Body plant," Kim says. "I don't think he ever forgot that. I think he spent his life thanking people for the gift he had, and that it all worked out for him."
I asked Kim to point me in the direction of certain things, the Nuxhall touchstones. Not the streets and statues named for him, but the real landmarks.
"Two miles in that direction is where Dad grew up on Vine Street," Kim begins. "My aunt still lives in the house. Pine and Vine. Dad's brother, Bob, lived there; he passed away last year. The fields where he grew up and was signed, are right there, on Joe Nuxhall Boulevard. ... Wilson School (a junior high from which Joe had just graduated when he debuted as a Red as a 15-year-old) is over that-away, just across the river. Our house on Arlington Avenue in Lindenwahl where I lived until I was 21/2 is right there. ... Some special memories there."
Every morning, Kim meets with his buddies at the Bob Evans on Ohio 4 for the usual cup of joe, just as he hooked up with his Dad there whenever Joe was in town. The folks at Bob Evans have told Kim that he'd be surprised how often people come in and ask, "Where did Joe sit?" And sometimes they sit there. There's a little plaque on the chair. The original chair is in the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum.
When former Red Sean Casey came to town for the Nuxhall golf event that raises money for college scholarships, he sat in Joe's chair.
"We discussed it the night before," Kim says. "He wanted to do it. ... They were (kindred sprits). This might sound weird for saying it, but Sean is my dad. He's the young Joe Nuxhall. I know it was just business when the Reds traded him, but I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh. Do you realize what you have in this guy?' Can you imagine what Sean Casey would be doing (locally) right now?"
As anybody who has lost a loved one knows, memories can trickle back from out of nowhere.
"Something big will happen on the news and I'll say to myself, 'I'll talk to dad in the morning about that,' " Kim says. "For that split second, I think he's still here. And then it hits me."
Other times, he'll hear a recording of Joe's signature postgame phrase.
"One day they played that final 'Rounding third...' when Dad started crying," Kim remembers. "It tore me up. That's probably the hardest thing for me. But I feel like I'm starting to overcome that a little better now."
Kim sometimes will be listening to a Reds game on the radio or TV and wonder how his father might have called a home run.
"I think about the home runs all the time - how excited he used to get," Kim says. "It was genuine. That's how he really felt about the Reds."
Other times, four or five times a month sometimes, people will come up to Kim to tell him a story about Joe and preface it by saying, "I know you're tired of hearing this."
"And I tell them, 'No, actually, I'm not tired of hearing it,' " he says. "It's like somebody wants to tell you what a great guy your dad was. Who gets tired of hearing that?"
Continuing his work
What Kim misses the most is the Nuxie laugh, when he would roar at some story or some joke that somebody would tell at Bob Evans. The Nuxie laugh would come rising from his belly.
Even now, recalling it, Kim can't get through the talking about it.
I'll never forget the time I was at some Big Red Machine autograph show, in the green room with Nuxie, as he reached for a few pieces of cheddar on a cheese plate, giving me a smile and a twinkle of the eye as he did so. He did it as if to say, "I know I shouldn't be eating this, but I'm going to, anyway. And, by the way, in case you're wondering, I'm really going to enjoy it."
Kim laughed at that story. He could relate. It was Joe's way of connecting. Joe always connected.
Kim doesn't know if he's even fully through the grieving process yet. It's been 18 months of celebrating Joe's memory. The pace never has slowed.
"Maybe it never will," Kim says. "I don't know."
Maybe he's right, although most likely the time will come. It's just going to take longer for the guy who's most involved with his father's legacy. Joe still had work to do in the community, and so Kim is working, too. There are things to be named, golf events to be held and scholarship award winners to be feted.
The hardest stretch for Kim after his father's death on Nov. 15, 2007, was going into spring training in 2008.
"We'd been going there for six weeks every year, forever," Kim says. "That was our family's time together. We pulled in that driveway, opened up the storage bin, and there were his golf clubs. That's the only time we played golf together - in Florida, during those six weeks. It's the only time we really were together as a family. Even in the offseason, Dad was non-stop, talking, speaking. If the Cub Scouts in Findlay, Ohio, wanted him to come speak, off he went. He realized, on the deepest level, how fortunate he was."
Seeing those golf clubs was a tough reminder of the loss of his father for Kim.
"I tell you, I could have pulled right back out of that driveway and turned right around and gone back home," he says.
Kim says his mother, Donzetta, also is adjusting to life without Joe. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Oct. 4, 2007 - five weeks before his death.
"She's doing much better," Kim says. "She had a hard time at first doing any of the events. But (more recently), she came to the statue dedication. That was very touching to her. I think it's starting to feel better to her."
When Kim visits his mom, he sometimes catches a glimpse of the pitcher's mound in the backyard of her home out of the corner of his eye. He remembers as a 9-year-old asking Joe if it would be OK to build it.
"There's the wheelbarrow and the shovel," Joe told him.
So Kim built the mound, hauling dirt with that wheelbarrow from a farmer's yard 200 yards up the road - all so he would have a high-end place for his daily catch with Dad.
"Sometimes twice a day on weekends," Kim remembers. "I'd throw with him in the morning and then bug him in the afternoon before he went to the ballpark."
The mound has grown over now and mostly is washed out.
Voices from the past
In the third inning of the Joes game, Hamilton shortstop Phil Bauer charges in and makes a slick backhanded grab and quick throw to nab a runner at first base.
"I had him in elementary school, first grade," Kim, a physical education teacher, says. "Played a little game with a tennis racket and ball to give the kids some success hitting the ball. Man, was he smooth with the hands. I saw his dad a few days later and I said, 'Herb, your son's got it.' He said, 'Whaddaya mean?' I told him, and he said, 'Really?' So, how cool is this, him playing shortstop for the Joes?"
In the sixth inning, the taped voice of Casey is played on the public address system:
"I said, 'Nux, that is one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen!' And he'd say, 'Aw, Case, if you've never had a liverwurst-and-onion sandwich, you're not livin'! This is the greatest sandwich goin'!' "
On the tape, Casey cracks up after telling the story.
Kim, who contributed that tape to the Joes, is hearing it played by the team for the first time. He laughs.
Kim plans to produce some more audio bits like that. He wants to share his Joe stories. Fans will look forward to them, once they know they're a staple of the game experience.
Seems to me, Kim is healing.
I find myself rooting for a Joes home run because I am hoping to hear a tape of the Nuxie home-run call that I know the Joes have in their P.A. arsenal: "Get out of here! Get out of here!"
It doesn't come. The Joes are losing 2-0. Oh well.
Absence still felt
After the game, I follow Kim to Joe Nuxhall's Golf Center in Joyce Park a few miles away . Most of that trip is on a road named for Joe that runs between Hamilton and Fairfield.
I am going to meet another Joe - Joe Arminio, who works at the driving range and was a lifelong friend of Nuxhall. He was the best kind of friend, a good-natured thorn in the Ol' Lefthander's side.
Arminio and Nux went way back together. Arminio was listening on the radio when Nux made his major-league debut at age 15 on June 10, 1944, against the St. Louis Cardinals. And Arminio is the guy who introduced Joe to Donzetta.
"Sure I miss him, miss him every day," Arminio says. "I miss him stalking out of here when I'd tell him one too many times I was the greatest athlete up here. 'You're No. 2, Joe,' I'd tell him. He'd say, 'I've had enough of this,' and he'd stalk on out. Next day, I'd give it to him again.' "
As I pull out of the parking lot, I notice a splendid sunset, with splashes of pink and red in the sky between Hamilton and Fairfield.