On June 10, 1944, Joe Nuxhall made baseball history by becoming the youngest player to appear in a major league baseball game. Nuxhall was 15 years, 10 months, and 11 days old when called upon to pitch in a blowout loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2/3 of an inning, Nuxhall allowed two hits and five runs (all earned), walked five, and threw one wild pitch in his only 1944 appearance. His ERA for that game (and season) was 67.50.
Major League teams were short of players during the early 1940’s since so many players were serving our country during World War II. Young players, older players, and career minor leaguers were given major league opportunities that they may not ordinarily have received. The St. Louis Browns even employed one-armed outfielder Pete Gray for 77 games in 1945 (batted .218). Some took advantage of this opportunity to hone their skills and became legitimate major leaguers. Others either didn’t have the skills or couldn’t further their skills enough to keep their major league jobs when the war ended and the pre-established major leaguers returned home. The by-product of the war years was that some of the most competitive baseball ever played came during the late 1940’s and 1950’s.
Thus the story of Nuxhall. For the record, until recently it was thought that Joe Nuxhall was not the youngest player to ever play Major League baseball. It was thought the youngest player ever was a “Fred Chapman” who was thought to have pitched one game for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1887 at the age of 14 years, seven months, and 28 days. But, according to baseball-reference.com that information is incorrect. The 1887 player was actually Frank Chapman who was age 25 in his sole “major league appearance.” There was a Fred Chapman, age 14, who played, but it was for the Reading, PA, baseball team at the time in a league that was not considered to be a major league. (In 2009, the Society of American Baseball Researchers published an article entitled “Joe Nuxhall’s Record is Safe.”)
Baseball-reference.com’s bullpen section also says that the Reds were actually scouting his 34 year old father, Orville, to fill their World War II depleted bullpen needs, but liked what they saw in the younger Nuxhall.
According to “Redleg Journal,” Nuxhall made the 1944 Reds squad out of spring training and was on the bench on opening day “after being excused from classes by Hamilton High School principal John Ewell.” The Reds had announced his signing in January ($175 a month) and said that he would not be joining the team until after school was out in June. He only appeared in the one June game that season, and that was after the Reds were trailing 13-0. He allowed the five runs and was eventually relieved by Jake Eisenhardt in what would prove to be Eisenhardt’s only game as a major leaguer. Eisenhardt was a 21 year old lefty, who walked the first batter he faced before getting the next batter out in his only appearance. He was released by the Reds two weeks later. The baseball record shows that Eisenhardt only pitched 30 more minor league innings in 1945, and had not pitched any more in 1944 after his sole appearance.
To quote Nuxhall (from baseball-reference.com):
“Probably two weeks prior to that, I was pitching against seventh, eighth and ninth graders, kids 13 and 14 years old. All of a sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial . . .”
In addition to Nuxhall and Eisenhardt, the Reds also used another young lefty, 18 year old Kent Peterson in 1944. Peterson pitched one inning on July 15 and retired the Cardinals in order in his only appearance of the year (it was another blow out loss, this time 12-1). Peterson made it back to the Reds by 1947 and pitched 129 games for them through 1951.
Nuxhall, on the other hand, pitched in the minors for the Reds for the next eight years before making it back to the major league club at age 23 in 1952. He went 1-4 with a 3.22 ERA out of the bullpen in his real rookie season, before finding his way into regular rotation work the next season at age 24. Nuxhall went on to win 130 games as a Red and appeared in two all-star games. He led the league in shutouts with five in 1955. He was a very good hitting pitcher, and compiled a .198 lifetime batting average with 15 career home runs. His best year was the 1955 season, when he went 17-12 with a 3.47 ERA in 257 innings pitched.
After the 1944 young pitcher experiment, the Reds went the other way in 1945 in the final year of the war. Of 17 pitchers used, seven were age 35 and older, including their top four starting pitchers. The Reds even employed three pitchers past age 40: 46 year old Hod Lisenbee (1-3, 5.49 ERA in 80 innings), 43 year old Guy Bush (0-0, 8.31 ERA in four innings) and 40 year old Boom-Boom Beck (2-4, 3.40 ERA in 47 innings). These senior statesmen were all former established pitchers at the ends of their respective careers. The Reds did use one youngster, 18 year old Herm Wehmeier for two games and five innings (0-1, 12.60 ERA). Wehmeier made it back to the Reds for good by 1948 and became a regular rotation starter.
Nevertheless, Nuxhall is arguably the most popular Red of all time, having spent nearly 40 years in the Reds’ broadcast booth after his retirement. He was with the Reds organization for nearly 60 years (1944 through 2004). Unfortunately, Nuxhall missed his only Reds opportunity to play in the World Series for he was pitching for the Kansas City Athletics in 1961, the only time the Reds played in the Series during his playing days. As popular as Nuxhall is to Reds fans, some may find it hard to believe that Nuxhall was pretty much run out of town by Reds fans during the 1960 season. According to “Redleg Journal”:
“Nuxhall had a 1-8 record in 1960, was booed nearly every time he stepped on the mound, and publicly expressed a desire to be traded. He had little success with the Athletics or the California Angels, and returned to the Reds in August 1962 after a stint in the minors. Ironically, in the only season that Nuxhall was not in a Reds uniform, the club went to the World Series.”
Nuxhall returned to the Reds to have some very good seasons, including a 15-8 year in 1963 with a 2.61 ERA. Nuxhall is in the Reds Hall of Fame and is deservedly one of the lasting icons of Cincinnati Reds baseball. The “ole lefthander rounded third and headed for home” for good on November 15, 2007.