Joe Nuxhall, the last of the pioneers
It didn’t merit very much news coverage. I saw it rolling across the bottom of the screen on CNN. But the news of Joe Nuxhall’s death last Thursday brought sadness to me and opened up a repository of childhood memories.
Nuxhall is in the record books as being the youngest person to ever play in a Major League baseball game when he took the mound for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944 at the age of 15. The team had been decimated by players being drafted to fight in World War 2 and Nuxhall was called upon to fill a gap in the roster.
He came in as a relief pitcher in a 13-0 blowout and promptly gave up five runs. He continued pitching for another 22 years but his biggest legacy didn’t come on the baseball field.
For people of a certain age and geographic location, Nuxhall will be forever remembered as the radio voice of the Reds during their most glorious days, the Big Red Machine era of the 1970s. The Reds of that time were arguably one of the greatest teams in baseball history, and since television coverage was extremely limited, the voices of Nuxhall and his partner, Marty Brennaman, were portals into that magnificent team.
Even after all these years, and without the help of Wikipedia, I can remember the legends of that team’s starting lineup. The self-effacing Tony Perez and Joe Morgan at first and second base, respectively. The soft-spoken Dave Concepcion at shortstop. The mercurial Pete Rose at third. Sluggers Ken Griffey, Cesar Geronimo and George Foster manned the outfield. And Johnny Bench, the pride of Binger, Oklahoma, was behind the plate.
Baseball was a much more popular sport then than it is now. These days, I can’t be bothered to watch the World Series, let alone a regular season game. I’m not alone, either. The World Cup soccer final last year drew more viewers in America than any game of the previous year’s World Series.
When you think of baseball these days, you think of steroid scandals, bogus record-holders, tickets costing more than $100 and, mainly, you think of its decline as a staple of popular culture. Barry Bonds’ record-setting home run wasn’t carried live on any of the major broadcast networks.
In contrast, Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record captivated the nation. World Series games were among the most-watched TV events of the year. And when a game wasn’t on TV, hardcore fans followed their teams on the radio.
Nuxhall was a voice of reason, albeit an excitable one. When a Reds player hit a deep ball, he’d try and coax it out of the park from his broadcasting booth. He was no Harry Caray, who shilled for beer companies and consumed their products on the air. He wasn’t controversial. He just did his job and he did it well.
He was the Reds’ broadcaster from 1967 until his retirement in 2004. In that time, he’d seen the game he loved transformed from a nation’s pastime into a less-popular choice in a galaxy of entertainment options. He still didn’t lose his enthusiasm for the game, nor did his belief that Cincinnati would once again become a baseball powerhouse.
We’ve taken quite a few blows in the past few years as the legendary figures of the 20th Century have passed away. And there doesn’t seem to be a reserve pool of talent to take their places. There are no literary giants like Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam or even Hunter S. Thompson anymore.
There are no comedic titans like Richard Pryor out there. Johnny Carson and Marlon Brando are gone with no successors even coming close to achieving their feats as entertainers.
There are no lions anymore. Instead, we have an era where millions of voices, none of whom are saying very much that hasn’t been said before, strain to be heard. Our novelists, athletes, broadcasters and entertainers, even the most successful ones, live in the shadows of the pioneers who came before them.
To lose another one of those pioneers is a sad occasion. And while Nuxhall’s death barely received a mention in the national media, his voice, booming from the 50,000-watt, clear-channel towers of WLW-AM radio, still resonates in my memory.
Nuxhall’s tagline, delivered at the end of each broadcast was “This is the ol’ left-hander, rounding third and heading for home.” After 79 years on earth, Nuxhall has finally arrived at his destination – and we are left behind with fewer and fewer legends to inspire us.