Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Old Lefthander...

Bob and Becky Moses are two of the many kind and thoughtful people who I am privileged to know and serve at Westmoreland Baptist Church. They are always doing something nice for someone, faithful to be present at almost every service and activity, and always busy in some ministry of the church.

Several members of my congregation are forever bringing me some thoughtful trinket or gadget. Knowing my great infatuation with my boyhood hero, Superman, several of our folks (especially Becky, Pat Gunnell, Terry Perdue, and Rachel Lackey) regularly bring me some type of Superman memorabilia. A whole corner of my office is filled up with all that Superman stuff. I love it!

I think Becky might lay awake at night thinking of what that next project might be. The wheels are always turning in her mind, and she is forever coming up with some little thoughtful gift or idea. For example, a couple of years ago, in a morning message, I mentioned a rural area where I spent a lot of time as a child. To say things were dull around those parts would have been an understatement. I mentioned that the only thing folks had to do back then was "sit around the house, drink RC's and eat Moon Pies, and talk about who was going to die next."

The next Sunday morning, on my desk, the "gift fairy" had left a beautiful gift pack consisting of a 10 ounce bottle of Royal Crown Cola and a genuine Moon Pie. This wasn't a "do it yourself" gift pack, but something that had been done professionally. It was enclosed in a clear plastic wrapper, imprinted with RC and Moon Pie logos on it, with a little bow, tying it all together. Knowing this fit the MO of Becky Moses, I mentioned to her the item that had found it's way to my desk. The big grin gave her away immediately. "Where did you get that?" I asked. "Oh, I have my sources", was her reply.

She does that.

Just a couple of weeks ago, after church one evening, Becky handed me a book and said, "I though you might like this". It was a biography of Joe Nuxhall. Although far from being Superman, "Hamilton Joe" was another one of my boyhood heroes. Becky knew of my love for the Cincinnati Reds, and happened across this book (in mint condition) in a local Goodwill Store. I've been pretty busy in the last few weeks after returning from the Philippines, but a couple of nights ago, I picked up the book and began reading. Now it's not "War and Peace", "The Grapes of Wrath", or "To Kill a Mockingbird", but it opened a flood gate of memories that engulfed me to the point that I read the book in just two sittings.

Outside of Cincinnati and the surrounding areas, Joe Nuxhall is a name that is known only to the most hard core baseball fans. But in our part of this great country, Joe Nuxhall is a household word. While not enshrined in Cooperstown, Joe is one of the most beloved figures in the long history of the oldest professional baseball franchise in America. His association with the Cincinnati Reds ball club began during World War II (in 1944), and spanned SEVEN decades!

A whole generation of folks (like my boys) knew him as a broadcaster of Reds games on WLW and the Reds Radio Network. I remember him as a solid major league pitcher in the 50's and 60's. My Dad's generation remembers Joe as the youngest player to ever appear in a major league baseball game - a fifteen year old!

The book, "Joe" written by Greg Hoard, chronicles the life and times of the life of the boy growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, who was thrown into the spotlight by fate and World War II when he was called upon by Warren Giles, General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds, to fill a spot on a roster that had been depleted by the war. The greatest players of the game, in the very prime of their lives, had temporarily left baseball to serve their country in the various branches of the military. This left major league baseball clubs scrambling to fill their rosters with, shall we say less than stellar talent?

Nuxhall seemed to fit the bill for the Reds. He was a local boy that was already a legend in Butler County. Amazingly, baseball may not have even been his best sport. He was an all state fullback and was without a doubt the best schoolboy basketball center in Ohio. But Joe loved baseball, and he was good at it. He had pitched ten no hitters by the time he was 15 years old. And although he was taller than both men, he had to have the permission of his father and his 9th grade principal to ride the bus to Crosley Field where he became the youngest person ever to wear a major league uniform.

His first outing for the Reds was hardly auspicious. He was thrown into the game in a relief appearance against the league leading St. Louis Cardinals. It was a blowout, and Reds' manager Bill McKechnie figured this would be as good a time as any to bring in the big left handed kid. Joe got two outs pretty quickly and then stepping up to the plate came Stan Musial. "Stan the Man" ranks as one of the greatest hitters in National League history. He was an MVP and is revered in the Hall of Fame as one of baseball's all time greats. Musial drove a double down the right field line, and the wheels came off at that point for Hamilton Joe. He never finished the inning, and after his first Major League appearance he had an earned run average of 67.50!

In fact, Joe says that it took him eight years to record his third out in the Major Leagues.

Joe Nuxhall's life is a picture of what a little talent, a lot of hard work and persistence, and the right attitude can do in a person's life. One of the things Joe struggled with early on, was his lack of control - in his pitching, and in his hot temper. Eventually he was able to get a handle on both (although his tough competitive nature gave him trouble with the latter off and on throughout his career).

I don't have the time or space to go into all the memories that this book brought back to me. Those names of legends, with whom he played as a youngster, those boyhood heroes of mine in the 50's and 60's that were Joe's teammates and the Big Red Machine of the 70's and the many Redlegs who followed.

Joe Nuxhall passed away in 2007. But he made a lasting impression on those who knew him, and those (like me) who felt they knew him through his many years as a play by play announcer for the Reds.

Joe's partner in the broadcast booth since the 70's, Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman summed it up this way:
"In a business that breeds egomaniacs, Joe Nuxhall is the rarest of the rare. I've never seen him be anything but nice to his fans, and their numbers are beyond comprehension.... In all the years we have been together, I have never heard one person, not one, say anything negative about him. Thank about that, and then ask yourself if you know anyone in the public eye you can say that about. Take it from me, the 'Old Lefthander' is special."

Most of us remember how Joe signed off on each broadcast.

"This is the Old Lefthander, rounding third and heading for home. Good night everyone!"

That saying has become so familiar and special to Reds fans, that it is emblazoned in lighted letters on the side of Great American Ball Park. A fitting tribute to a great guy.

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