Ten years ago, I set out to do a piece about Reds equipment manager Bernie Stowe, one of those guys you find in baseball forever because he loves the habits just like you. Ask Bernie how he's doing as he sweeps dirt from the clubhouse carpet or carts filthy jock straps to the wash, and he'll tell you with a sage's grumpy irony that it's "another day in paradise."
As it happened, Stowe marked 50 years with the Reds in 1997 and I asked him to explain how it all started. It turns out that the man who gave Stowe his break as a kid on the West Side went by the name of Chesty Evans.
But by whatever perverse mechanisms of parapraxis that operated in my mind, the man's name didn't appear in the afternoon paper as Chesty Evans. No, it appeared as Chesty Morgan, infamous 30-odd years ago as a ridiculously endowed stripper.
"Chesty Morgan," Joe Nuxhall chuckled when he saw it. Then he just laughed himself red.
Yeah, that was worth it. Perhaps not an error of genius, but it's on the books as a harrowing embarrassment turned into good times thanks much to Nuxhall's amusement. And that kind of sums it up about the ol' lefthander.
If no one goes into the history books just for being a good guy to have around, that's still the most and the least that could be said about Joe Nuxhall.
Believe it or not, a lot of baseball people -- the players, the executives, the journalists -- are under a lot of stress. But Nuxhall was having none of that. Spend a couple minutes with Joe, and he'll slow it down for you.
Reds fans across the country valued that same communion with Nuxhall every evening on the radio. As years went by and announcers increasingly contrived to announce their own presence, it was enough for his presence to just be assumed. Knowing the game is best savored slowly and quietly, Nuxhall worked in that spirit.
Generations who understood why Jack Benny was funny could give the same reasons for valuing Nuxhall as a broadcaster. He realized, unconsciously, how to use silence as a weapon.
When you were driving back into town from Columbus or Lexington, rolled the radio dial over to 7 and heard nothing but dead air, you knew you found the Reds game, everything was alright and Joe would have something to say in a couple minutes.
Nuxhall was exactly who you thought he was. If you only knew him from listening to the Reds on the radio, you knew him. He was that guy. Not an act, not a front, not a professional performer, but that guy.
Nuxhall died from cancer on Nov. 15, age 79. The world became a different place that night. All who forged some connection with the Reds lost a friend, and none lost an enemy.
It isn't true that no one ever said anything bad about Nuxhall. Complaints about his sparse broadcasting style and mangling of names popped up as often as roadwork. But no one meant anything bad about him, nor could they.
The Nuxhall legend begins with an incongruity, for it seems he will live forever in the record books as the youngest player in major league history: 15 years, 10 months and 11 days, just a kid from Hamilton when he first pitched for the Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 10, 1944, at Crosley Field. But if the legend will always be 15, the man was an old guy, in the good sense, before he was especially old.
Even going back to the mid-1980s, when Nuxhall hadn't turned 60, he took something of a grandfatherly approach to the world around him. He saw the humor in the dumb stunts people pulled and saw none of the outrage. If some episode made him laugh, the memory made him laugh, too. If some episode ticked him off a little, the memory might make him laugh as well.
Nuxhall was the kind of guy where, if he knew you were trying to quit smoking but you were feeming and approached him to bum a cigarette, he'd toss you his pack of heaters and cheerfully say, "Take all you want, Pete." Very comfortable guy. If you want a cigarette, it's up to you. Take all you want.
For 31 years, Nuxhall perfectly countered Marty Brennaman's excitable style with that slow rumble up from the bottom of his well, a voice taking its time on the way to a thought. The contrast ginned up a kind of magic, sort of an aural version of Laurel & Hardy with Brennaman as the thick one and Nuxhall as the thin one. Then they did the Kroger commercials on television and their physical types showed up in reverse.
Marty and Joe were a team, almost a perfect match. Though Brennaman lived in Anderson Township and Nuxhall lived in Fairfield, they fit each other so well that people sometimes were surprised to learn they didn't really visit Kroger together.
Sitting in the radio booth while Marty and Joe called a game summoned painfully dry laughs because you didn't want to bust up while they were on the air. But then they'd exchange looks of bewildered contempt as they deadpanned the call when some Reds slugger left a runner on third with one out after swinging at a 3-2 hook in the dirt. Then Joe says, with thinly concealed resignation, "So ... two out now ... and up comes ... Reggie Sanders."
Nuxhall perfected the life well lived by a Cincinnatian, he loved it and Cincinnatians loved him for it. He pitched for the local ball club, lived in the same house with the same wife for more than 50 years, threw left-handed BP into his sixties, rode shotgun on the team bus with a smoke and a beer in hand, saw nothing in celebrity except the opportunity to do numerous good works, remembered the old times with the old guys, shared the old times with the young guys and lived the great game almost from cradle to grave.
Simply, Joe Nuxhall was a good guy to have around. It doesn't sound like much.
Sounds can be deceiving. But not with Joe Nuxhall on the air.
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