THE CINCINNATI GAME
There is no city that has meant more to baseball than Cincinnati. In 1869, a band of hearty mustachioed fellows who called themselves the Red Stockings revolutionized the sport by defiantly turning professional, and ever since, Cincinnati has provided the customs through which baseball men and their best ideas have passed. John Baskin and Lonnie Wheeler, in The Cincinnati Game, a Casey Award finalist, have created the ultimate baseball book, characterized by Robert Walker of American Studies International as “outrageous, hilarious, and seriously informative.”
The idea and layout are beautiful in plan and action, and the book itself is the first original work on baseball that I’ve come across in years.
—Roger Angell, The New Yorker
What a great book! I don’t know any other city that has been served so deftly and lovingly in this regard.
—Roy Blount Jr.
One of the most distinguished, classic baseball books I’ve ever seen—a complete baseball book
—Red Barber, National Public Radio
The Cincinnati Game is the Brittanica of Cincinnati baseball … rich in anecdote, exhaustive in detail, thoughtful and provocative.
—Tim Sullivan, The Cincinnati Enquirer
Without question, the greatest book I’ve ever seen on a sports franchise.
—Bob Trumpy, WLW commentator
The Cincinnati Game is baseball writing in the same exalted class as that of Roger Kahn and Roger Angell—a treasure on the shelves of baseball fans who’ve never been within a thousand miles of the city.
—Roger Grooms, The Cincinnati Enquirer
This energetic book combines a fan’s enthusiasm with a historian’s grand sweep to show how much baseball and Cincinnati have meant to each other … the authors bring a surprising intimacy and an astounding amount of detail to their descriptions of the first years of organized baseball in the city … The winters between baseball seasons are long indeed; books like this one are what get the true baseball fan through them.
Wheeler and Baskin are outrageous, hilarious, and seriously informative.
—Robert Walker, American Studies International
This is the most original and eccentric baseball book to appear in years … this book was obviously the product of painstaking effort. It is beautifully designed and is chock full of wonderful photographs and ingenious sidebars, which accompany a thoughtful, yet humorous text—this is the best baseball book of 1988.
—Dick Johnson, Sports Museum of New England
The Cincinnati Game is, foremost, a rare visual treat. And this is surprisingly accomplished without much in the way of colorful layout or glossy photography. True originality of text format is the key for Wheeler and Baskin’s masterpiece … this book truly has to be seen and browsed to be fully appreciated. Wheeler and Baskin have set a lofty standard for all coffee table histories to follow, and few if any so far have risen to meet that challenge.
—The Cooperstown Review, The Forum of Baseball Literary Opinion
Joe Nuxhall sold his soul to the Cincinnati Reds at an unseemly early age. He was fifteen. The records will show that nobody as young has appeared in a major-league baseball game in this century, although a fourteen-year-old Pennsylvania boy named Fred Chapman pitched in one for Philadelphia of the American Association in 1887. The American Association was a major league then—Cincinnati was in it—and although young Chapman’s career was concluded after five innings and four runs, he was, nonetheless, the major-leaguer least removed from his birth date, a distinction that has popularly been granted to the lovable lefthander from Hamilton, Ohio.
In Nuxhall’s unusual case, the war was on, outfielders were in their forties, and he was manly enough at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. Back in Hamilton, Ohio, Nuxhall had been pitching in a grown-up Sunday league since he was twelve, affected scarcely by lack of years. So the Reds signed him for a $500 bonus and $175 a month before the 1944 season and, for reasons Nuxhall still can’t figure out, placed him right on the big-league roster.
When the team went on the road, Nuxhall stayed back and attended ninth grade at Wilson Junior High in Hamilton. For home games, he would catch a bus (not being old enough to drive) and get off at Brighton Corner, six blocks from Crosley Field. There, he sat on Cincinnati’s bench until June 10, a game in which the Reds found themselves in arrears to the St. Louis Cardinals by the irretrievable score of 13-0. The state of affairs prompted Cincinnati manager Bill McKechnie to summon Nuxhall from the end of the bench with instructions to warm up. Nuxhall, not expecting this, eagerly located his glove and sprinted up the dugout steps, miscalculating by one and falling nose-down to the turf. Arriving ultimately at the bullpen, he tossed several pitches over the catcher’s head, then answered McKechnie’s signal to come to the mound and face the Cardinals.
For a mirage that lasted three batters, Nuxhall managed to pitch as if he belonged. He retired two of those, walking the man in the middle, but then the fourth batter singled, which served the unpropitious purpose of bringing the great Stan Musial to the plate. Musial, either unmindful of the kid’s jittery wildness or sympathetic toward it, swung at the first pitch and singled home the first of five runs that would cross against Nuxhall. This apparently so unnerved the big boy that he walked the next four batters, throwing two wild pitches in the process, and left with the inning still uncompleted and the score 18-0.
It would be eight years before Nuxhall would pitch again in the big leagues. The performance against the Cardinals checked him out of Cincinnati for the Reds’ farm team in Birmingham, Alabama, where, once the proper juvenile forms were completed and signed by his parents, Nuxhall was once again sent to the mound against grown men. He began his minor-league season by striking out the first batter to oppose him and ended it seven batters later, having surrendered one hit, five walks, one hit batsman and five runs.
But as cruel as professional baseball was to him that endless summer, it was more painful for Nuxhall to go home in the fall and watch his buddies play for Hamilton High. Nuxhall had actually rejected a chance to sign with the Reds the previous year, when he was fourteen, because he wanted to help his junior high basketball team to a third consecutive conference championship, which he did. As a basketball player, Nuxhall so dwarfed his schoolboy opponents that he was frequently forbidden by officials from rebounding on the offensive end of the floor. As a sophomore, he would unquestionably have been a three-sport starter for the Big Blue varsity, but the rules prevented it as long as he was a professional.
He was that for one more year, reporting to Syracuse and Lima and twice more failing to assert his obvious talent. As a teenager, Nuxhall had control of neither his fastball nor his disposition, and this weakness was his early undoing. So after a second unfulfilling pro season, Nuxhall applied to the Ohio High School Athletic Association to have his amateur status reinstated, and it was, conditionally: Nuxhall could play his senior year if he sat out his junior.
The subsequent impact in the prep leagues was a ringing one—far more so than his signing had been on the majors or minors. In his single season of eligibility, Nuxhall earned four letters and was an all-state player as a fullback and a linebacker in football and a hook-shooting center in basketball, captaining the Ohio squad in the latter. He was the stuff of local legend.
Four decades later, Nuxhall’s legend has been franchised into Cincinnati and the seven states included in the region that the local ball club likes to vaingloriously call Reds Country. The institutionalization of Nuxhall, however, has nothing to do with his high school heroics and little even with his famous failure at fifteen. Since he involuntarily retired as a pitcher in the spring of 1967, Nuxhall has been disarming tens of thousands of Midwestern baseball fans with a broadcasting style that blends gosh-honesty, unaffected pone and naked homerism with a manner of speaking that, well, to put it in his words, there again, you know, you talk about broadcasting and everyone has their own way of doing it, and the thing is, you know, you have to get the job done, and if you do that, well, that’s about all you can say.
Nuxhall succeeded Waite Hoyt in the Reds’ booth, and the contrast could not be more stark. Where Hoyt was cultured and commanding, Nuxhall is local and clumsy. If Hoyt hadn’t been an announcer, he would have gone to the stage (in fact, he was set to play Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees until Gary Cooper was signed). If Nuxhall hadn’t been an announcer, he would have probably pitched batting practice for the Reds, which he did anyway. Hoyt was a professional, Nuxhall a loyalist. The Reds got Nuxhall when he was 15, and he is happily theirs.
Yet there is an uncommon amount in common between the old righthander and the Old Lefthander. Nuxhall, of course, was the youngest modern major-leaguer at fifteen, but Hoyt was the first to sign a major-league contract at that age. When Hoyt signed with the Giants, though, there was no war on and he didn’t have to actually go out there on the mound and embarrass himself. And for all the dissimilarity in their methods as broadcasters, their effects have been stunningly parallel: with these two old pitchers, the radio audience of the Cincinnati Reds has enjoyed a sweet affair for going on fifty years.
Through all of Nuxhall’s bumbles and broken sentences, his pleasant popularity (This despite his insistence: “I ain’t no damn celebrity. I don’t try to trick anybody.”) sweeps cleanly through the Reds’ vast network. When The Cincinnati Enquirer took a public poll in 1980 concerning the broadcast team, only 16 of 2,461 respondents had complaints of any kind; only one mentioned Nuxhall. Many have said that they drift peacefully to sleep with Nuxhall’s halting hardball lullaby in their ears. His is a classic populist appeal. “I’ve never met anyone so genuinely liked by the public,” said his partner, Marty Brennaman. “I’ll tell you, if Pete Rose is a legend, Joe Nuxhall is equally as much a legend.”
For Nuxhall, this represents a remarkable turn of events, for there was a time—1960, specifically, when he was 1-8 and consequently traded to Kansas City after the season—when the fans of Cincinnati would boo him for even sticking his head out of the dugout. As a pitcher, though, he had his moments. He led the league in shutouts in 1955 and twice made the National League all-star team.
“He was the most competitive SOB I ever played with,” said Rose, who was Nuxhall’s teammate for four seasons. “I remember when we were playing Houston and their pitcher, Ken Johnson, threw a no-hitter against us but we scored and won the game, 1-0. So after the game, somebody comes over from the Houston locker room and says Ken Johnson wants the game ball. Nux said, ‘The hell with him. I won the game. “ It turned out that Nuxhall did send a ball over, after all—one only moderately disfigured from batting practice.
It wasn’t until Nuxhall faced the professional consequences that he was able to master his competitive wrath when he played. In a junior high school football game, his teammates once had to run him down as he chased after an official who had ejected one of his buddies. When he was in Lima for his second pro season, Nuxhall was suspended for visiting an umpire in his room and arguing forcibly. Had he not learned restraint, he would have never returned to the big leagues, which he finally did in 1952 after carrying around that horrendous 67.50 earned run average for eight years. He stuck around for 15 more seasons, winning 135 games and losing 117.
His broadcasting career has lasted even longer, which is sort of odd because Nuxhall appears to be no better at it than he was at pitching, only more appreciated. The fans don’t boo him when he asks a bad question on the Star of the Game show. And the Reds didn’t fire him after the time Phil Gagliano was throwing pebbles at him while Nuxhall was trying to tape the pre-game show and Nuxhall called Gagliano a dirty name and the dirty name mistakenly got on the air. Anybody but Nuxhall might have been fired for that. But Nuxhall, well, there again, he’s Nuxhall, and, you know, those things happen sometimes, and, hey, what can you say, it just goes to show in this game, you never know.