CINCINNATI – Joe Nuxhall, who was the youngest player in major league history and the beloved "old left-hander" on Cincinnati Reds radio broadcasts, died overnight following a bout with cancer, the team said Friday. He was 79.
Nuxhall's health problems multiplied in recent years but couldn't keep him away from the game or the broadcast booth for long. He had surgery for prostate cancer in 1992, followed by a mild heart attack in 2001.
The cancer returned last February, when Nuxhall was preparing for the Reds' spring training in Sarasota, Fla. The broadcaster called some games last season even though his left leg was swollen by tumors. He was hospitalized again this week.
He retired as a full-time radio broadcaster after the 2004 season, the 60th anniversary of his historic pitching debut.
Nuxhall and play-by-play announcer Marty Brennaman described the Big Red Machine's two World Series titles in the 1970s, Pete Rose's return as player-manager and then banishment for gambling in the 1980s, and another World Series championship in 1990.
Nuxhall's place in baseball lore was secured the moment he stepped onto a big-league field. With major league rosters depleted during World War II, he got a chance to pitch in relief for the Reds on June 10, 1944.
No one in modern baseball history has played in the majors at such a young age — 15 years, 10 months, 11 days old. He got two outs against St. Louis before losing his composure, then went eight years before pitching for the Reds again.
"When you think of all the individuals that played at the major league level and you're the youngest in the history of the game and in the Guinness Book of Records, it does make you in awe of it," Nuxhall said on the 50th anniversary of his debut.
He got the chance purely by chance.
Nuxhall grew up in nearby Hamilton, Ohio, and was still too young to shave when the Reds were looking for wartime replacement players. They came to see his father, Orville, who pitched in a Sunday league in Hamilton.
"My dad could throw hard," Nuxhall said. "They were really scouting him. Almost by accident, they found me."
Nuxhall was big for his age — 6-foot-3, around 190 pounds — and could throw 85 mph. The Reds offered a contract, and Nuxhall's parents let him join the team when junior high classes let out in 1944.
He spent most of the time watching from the bench, assuming he'd never get into a game. The Reds were trailing Stan Musial's St. Louis Cardinals 13-0 after eight innings on June 10, 1944, when manager Bill McKechnie decided to give the kid a chance.
Nuxhall was so rattled when summoned to warm up that he tripped on the top step of the dugout and fell on his face in front of 3,510 fans at Crosley Field. He was terrified when it came time to walk to the mound.
"Probably two weeks prior to that, I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old," he said. "All of a sudden, I look up and there's Stan Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation."
Nuxhall walked one and retired two batters before glancing at the on-deck circle and seeing Musial. Nuxhall unraveled — Musial got a line-drive single, and the Cardinals scored five runs as the young pitcher lost his ability to throw a strike and failed to get another out.
"Those people that were at Crosley Field that afternoon probably said, 'Well, that's the last we'll see of that kid,'" Nuxhall said.
The Reds sent him to the minors. Eight years later, he was back with the Reds, picking up on a career that eventually got him into the team's Hall of Fame. He spent 15 of his 16 big-league seasons with the Reds, going 135-117 before his retirement in 1966.
A year later, Nuxhall started doing radio broadcasts, describing games in a slow-paced, down-home manner that caught on with listeners. Brennaman became the play-by-play announcer in 1974, and the "Marty and Joe" tandem spent the next 28 seasons chatting about their golf games, their gardens and some of the biggest moments in franchise history.
Brennaman made the broadcasters' wing of baseball's Hall of Fame with his blunt, outspoken style; Nuxhall rarely produced controversy with his folksy manner.
They had one high-profile moment together. Both were summoned to commissioner Bart Giamatti's office in 1988 because of their on-air comments after Rose bumped umpire Dave Pallone and was ejected. Angry fans threw debris on the field for 15 minutes as Brennaman harshly criticized the umpire.
Nuxhall became more critical as his broadcasting career wound down. He created a stir in 2001 by suggesting on the air that Barry Larkin was no longer capable of playing shortstop. Larkin, the team captain at the time, replied that he was hampered by injuries.
Just as Brennaman is known for his "This one belongs to the Reds" proclamation after a win, Nuxhall developed a signature signoff. He concluded postgame interviews by saying, "This is the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home," a saying that is illuminated across the top of the Reds' administration building.