An already dismal, depressing off-season for Reds fans got worse the day after Christmas.

Our family– Redleg Nation– lost Jim O’Toole. He passed away at the age of 78 after a long bout with cancer.

Most of you know about the former Reds left-handed starting pitcher. How he spent just one season in the minor leagues with the Nashville Vols and led the league in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts and walks. How he and Bob Purkey and Joey Jay were “The Big Three” of the Reds pitching staff that propelled Cincinnati to a National league pennant in 1961. And how he had his best earned run average (2.66) and a WAR of 5.4 in the heated, tragic pennant race of 1964.

But some of you may not know how he was one of the greatest ambassadors for the Cincinnati Reds. Jim O’Toole was a constant presence at Redsfest, at the Reds Hall of Fame and at baseball gatherings around the Tri-State region. He could be seen talking to Dusty Baker, to an ordinary fan like you or me or young children.

I was fortunate enough to visit with him several times. He loved to tell the story of how he witnessed two of Babe Ruth’s records vanquished within a week. The first was when the Reds sent him and reserve catcher Darrell Johnson to Yankee Stadium after the Reds clinched the pennant to scout the Yanks. It was at that game that Roger Maris hit his 61st home run.

And during the World Series, O’Toole saw New York pitcher Whitey Ford break Ruth’s scoreless inning streak in World Series play when Ford shutout the Reds 2-0 in Game 1 and then again in Game 4. “I saw that one broke up close because I pitched against Whitey Ford in both of those games,” said O’Toole.

Jim had fond memories of playing for Manager Fred Hutchinson. When speaking about Hutch, O’Toole would smile and relate not only stories about Hutchinson’s sometimes-famous temper but how the Reds respected him and how Hutch was out of the John Wayne mold. “We really wanted to win for Hutch in 1964,” said O’Toole about when the Reds skipper had to resign during his fight with cancer. “It really hurt a lot when we lost. We wanted it for him. We didn’t talk about it. We saw him dying before our eyes.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Jim O’Toole quickly became a Cincinnati guy. One of his favorite days of the year was Opening Day in Cincinnati. O’Toole started three of those games, winning two in 1961 and 1963. He pitched in relief for the Opener in 1960, throwing six shutout innings but the 9-4 Reds win over Philadelphia awarded to him by the Official Scorer was taken away by NL President Warren Giles and given instead to Brooks Lawrence who pitched one-third of an inning. After throwing a complete game 7-1 victory over the Cubs in Opening Day of ’61, O’Toole said after the game, “I’d like to see Giles or anyone else take it away!”

Now that was vintage Jim O’Toole.

He came close, but was never a 20-game winner with the Reds. The closest was in 1961, when he was 19-9. In two other years, he won 17 games. In his only All-Star appearance (1963) he started the game for the National League.

More than that, Jim O’Toole was a fiery competitor. If the Reds got into a fight in the field, you could bet that O’Toole and Frank Robinson were involved in it. Once during the 1961 season, O’Toole was on second base and tried to score on a hit to centerfield. He tripped on the third base bag and fell down. O’Toole went back for the bag but got tangled up with Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews and the brawl was on.

The last time I spoke to him was at the Reds Hall of Fame. Jim O’Toole was inducted to that HOF in 1970. He was sitting at a table, wearing a Reds jacket as he usually did, and by himself. I wandered over, asked if I could join him for a minute and O’Toole broke out in that grin and nodded. We talked baseball for 20 minutes. One of the subjects that came up was Joey Votto. So, I asked, how would you pitch Joey? What would be your approach?

Jim smiled again and laughed. “Very, very carefully,” he replied.

Jim O’Toole was a great Cincinnati Red. Actually, he was always a Cincinnati Red. I wish Reds pitchers would take Jim O’Toole’s attitude and competitiveness to the mound with them.

After Joe Nuxhall died, I would always think about him when attending a Reds function and he wasn’t there. It will be the same with Jim O’Toole.

He’s with Joe now. He’s in a better place.