The 1940s were an odd time in major league baseball. The decade started strong with such superhuman feats as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams hitting .406, but baseball soon felt the effects of World War II as many pro players volunteered for or were drafted into the war effort — leaving MLB teams with thin rosters and without strong farm systems to provide relief.
That overall lack of talent not only led to weaker overall numbers across MLB, but also to some unusual happenings — not the least of which was 15-year-old lefty Joe Nuxhall making his MLB debut for the Reds on June 10, 1944.
Yes, 15 years old. Even by war-effort standards, this is something that boggles the mind.
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Nuxhall was fresh out of junior high school when he signed a contract with the Reds (actually, his parents signed it for him), trading his paper route (yes, that’s true) for a job in a big league system. To put that in perspective, think about any random ninth-grade boy you know, perhaps not even through puberty, then picture him playing professional baseball. Again, it boggles the mind.
And it basically happened by accident.
Because MLB teams were short on quality players, scouts noticed anyone with any hint of ability. That included Nuxhall’s dad Orville.
“My dad could throw hard. They were really scouting him,” Nuxhall told The Associated Press in 1994. “Almost by accident, they found me.”
Though only 15, Nuxhall was tall and somewhat lanky at 6-3 and 190 pounds. But his fastball was around 85 mph, which was good enough to play in the war-depleted version of MLB.
Though the Reds wanted him for that 1944 season — it was part PR move, part need — the plan wasn’t for him to be a mainstay on the team, so he mostly sat in the dugout and watched the games. But during a blowout against the reigning NL champion Cardinals on June 10, his big moment came.
With his team trailing 13-0, young Nuxhall got the call from manager Bill McKechnie to warm up for the ninth inning.
Or, as The Sporting News wrote at the time, “McKechnie took the blanket off Joe Nuxhall in the ninth.”
The nerves were intense.
“Probably two weeks prior to that, I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old,” Nuxhall told the AP. “All of a sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial and the likes. It was a scary situation.”
Though Nuxhall managed to retire the first batter on a groundout, the already “scary” situation quickly turned into the stuff of nightmares. After a walk and a flyout to the next two batters, things unraveled.
Single, by Musial: “I can see the pitch right up to this day,” Knuxhall told TSN in 1994. “He’s up there like it’s a 1-0 game, and I’m a needle-threader. The first pitch I threw, he hit a rocket to right field for a base hit. It was always interesting to me that he would be that solid in there with the score like that and a young kid out there not having any idea where in the hell he would throw the ball.”
At that point, knowing that the experiment/publicity stunt/rolling of the dice had fizzled, McKechnie removed Nuxhall from the game. The teen’s final line: 0.2 innings, two hits, five walks, five runs. His ERA: 67.00. The final score: Cardinals 18, Reds 0.
Bad numbers by MLB standards, sure. But it’s admittedly somewhat impressive that a 15-year-old was able to record two outs in an MLB game, war-affected or not.
Still, Nuxhall’s debut season ended there. He was soon back in the minors, where he’d stay for the better part of seven years (he chose not to play in 1946) before making his return to the big leagues in 1952. This time, though, he was there to stay.
Knuxhall spent parts of 16 seasons in the bigs, making two All-Star teams and finishing with a career record of 135-177, a 3.90 ERA and 30.3 bWAR. So, it turns out, his talent was good enough even for post-war MLB.
“One of the things that’s always been in the back of my mind is, what might have happened had I gotten three outs with just the one walk?” he said in the 1994 TSN interview. “I was 0-and-2 on the guy I walked. Because of the times, the war and their looking for any talent they could find, if I had gotten him out, would I have been on my way to (the minors) that Monday? It’s a question that’ll never be answered.”
After retiring as a player, Nuxhall began a long career as a beloved broadcaster for the Reds. It’s a job he held until his death in 2007 at age 79.
Nuxhall was proud of both of his careers, and he was proud of his debut too. It’s still the youngest MLB debut in history, and it’s unlikely to be broken. MLB’s current rules don’t allow anyone younger than 17 to be on a big league roster. So Nuxhall’s name will probably stand alone forever.
“It’s a record. … It’s nice to be able to talk about something like that,” he told TSN in 1994. “I’d rather it be five straight 20-win seasons or something like that, but it isn’t. But it’s always a good conversation piece.”