Sunday, October 3, 2004
Rounding third and heading for home
From a 15-year-old pitcher in World War II to the broadcast booth today, Joe Nuxhall has been, for his family and the Reds, a left-handed complement
By Kevin Kelly
Enquirer staff writer
The 76-year-old man slid a weathered hand along the metal support railing as he ascended the dugout stairs. Once he reached the final step, with the afternoon light cascading over him before a recent game at Great American Ball Park, Joe Nuxhall paused to survey the baseball field.
His home away from home for six decades.
Think about that. Think of the history - baseball, societal, technological - that transpired between bookends spaced 60 years apart.
From Ted Williams and 16 teams to Barry Bonds and 30 teams. From World War II to the War on Terror. From typewriters to wireless Internet.
From Claude Sullivan, Jim McIntyre and Joe in the Reds radio booth to Marty (Brennaman) and Joe.
"To me," said Kim Nuxhall, Joe's younger son, "he's a walking history book."
The 15-year-old left-hander from Hamilton, who made history by pitching two-thirds of an inning for the Reds on June 10, 1944, and went on to win 135 major-league games, has become the Ol' Left-hander rounding third and heading for home.
Weather permitting, today's Reds game will be Nuxhall's last after 38 years as one of the team's primary radio announcers.
"It will be different," said Donzetta Nuxhall, Joe's wife of almost 57 years. "I don't know how he's going to react to this."
The Reds have promised Joe an opportunity to work some games behind the microphone next season, down from 80 or so this season, and to be a part of the organization for as long as he wishes.
"I'll be here somewhere," Joe said on Opening Day this season when asked where he probably would be on Opening Day 2005. "I won't be here in the booth, but I'll be here somewhere."
Even so, life as the Nuxhall family has known it for so long will feel different when the sun sets on this longest summer and rises on a retirement sure to include plenty of golf and public appearances.
"I think the anticipation of semi-retirement is worse than the reality," said Phil Nuxhall, Joe's elder son. "I think he's going to be fine.
"He's starting to realize we can take a family trip for the first time since we were kids. We can do things. We can go to a show or something. I think when that sets in, he's going to be fine."
The couple first met at the LeSourdsville Lake amusement park in Middletown on a Wednesday during the summer of 1946.
"I knew of her before," Joe said, "but I had never really met her."
Sean Casey: "He's one of the greatest human beings I've ever met. He's humble. He always thinks of others first. I know he was a great pitcher and he's done a lot of other things. But I think everything else is second to him being a great human being."
Don Gullett: "I think he's the one guy who exemplifies the Reds organization more than anyone else. His longevity, his personality, his presence. He's a great individual. I have the utmost respect for him."
Sparky Anderson: "Joe is baseball in Cincinnati. For myself personally, if he doesn't go in the Hall of Fame, they shouldn't have one."
Johnny Bench: "From the first day I walked on the field at spring training in Tampa, Joe was always there to help with whatever. He just oozed Reds baseball. He's a lovable guy."
He had just come from a fast-pitch softball game with some friends and was still in uniform. Donzetta arrived with friends to enjoy the big band music.
"The last bus home left at 8 p.m. or something," Donzetta said. "So when we ran into Joe and his friend, they said they would take us home. We didn't know they were in a pickup truck.
"But we stayed and danced, and they took us home in the truck. That's Joe."
They were engaged a year later. Donzetta, who found herself attracted to Joe's shyness, did the proposing.
"They were sending him to Syracuse," she said. "And Joe was saying, oh, how was he ever going to leave me? I said, 'Well, you could take me with you.' So that's how that happened."
They married in October 1947.
"At the time, I didn't have any money, and she worked at Ohio Casualty Insurance," Joe said. "She actually bought her engagement ring and paid for it. Maybe I still owe her."
When Donzetta went into labor with the couple's first child (Phil) in 1951, neighbors took her to the hospital in Tulsa, Okla.
Joe was on his way back from a game in San Antonio.
"He wanted a boy," Donzetta said.
And he got two.
The couple's second son, Kim, was born three years later in 1954.
"For what she's been through, I don't know how to explain it," Joe said. "She's been an absolute saint, an angel."
With her husband playing major-league ball from 1952 through the 1966 season - only to follow that by a move into the Reds' radio booth - Donzetta became the glue that held the family together.
"She had to keep it all together," Kim said. "She did 75 percent of the parenting because Dad was on the road.
"People ask if we resented that. No, we never resented that. It's just the way it was. We knew that was his life."
When the Reds honored Joe with an on-field ceremony Sept. 18 at Great American Ball Park, the evening reminded Phil of a similar event 50 years earlier.
Hamilton Night at Crosley Field.
"I can remember the masses of people, the cheering and all that stuff for Dad," Phil said. "And I didn't understand it. This was my dad.
"It kind of forms this image in your mind of, 'How can I ever live up to that?' That's been the struggle throughout my life. Luckily with Mom and Dad's upbringing, I think we came out pretty good."
Growing up as the son of Joe and Donzetta Nuxhall did offer its share of challenges. There were expectations that couldn't possibly be met, and criticisms born out of jealousy.
"Our identity was tied into being Joe Nuxhall's kid," Kim said. "People looked at you as that first and maybe didn't look at you as the person you might be.
"There were some jealousies and stuff like that growing up, but I think it was good because it taught us how to deal with things like that."
Kim was the athlete, who would go on to play two-plus seasons in the Reds' farm system.
"He played Little League ball, Babe Ruth ball, high school ball, but I'd bet you I didn't see him play 10 games because of the time factor," Joe said. "Then again, there were times when I did get to go and I would ask Donzetta, 'Is this the way it is every day?'
"Parents would yell at Kim, something about his dad. Boy, I'm glad I wasn't there, because with my temper I probably would have gotten arrested."
When Kim was released by the Reds' Triple-A affiliate in Seattle during the summer of 1974, Donzetta and Joe met him at the airport.
"Of all the things that have happened over my career, that was one of the toughest because I knew his love for the game," Joe said. "I saw him get off that airplane and I had tears in my eyes. But in all honesty, it was the best thing. He's done very well for himself since."
Kim became a physical education teacher, a husband and a father of two. A resident of Hamilton, he also heads the Joe Nuxhall Character Education Fund program.
Phil was into music and the arts - as gifted musically as his dad was athletically - but dabbled briefly in baseball and basketball as a teenager.
"They called in some coach, I think it was from Miami University, to coach me after basketball practice," Phil said. "That really bothered me because it was like, 'We're going to create the next Nuxhall sports hero.'
"I'm horrible in basketball. The worst. Yet here they are coaching me, the worst person on the team, just because of my name. That bothered me because it wasn't fair to the rest of my teammates."
Phil went on to work 30 years as a speech pathologist, and the Cincinnati resident is now a historian and tour guide at Spring Grove Cemetery.
Though his sons never matched his athletic prowess, Joe is proud of them and what they've achieved.
"One of the toughest things about this whole career was basically not seeing your kids grow up," Joe said. "I tried to teach them to work hard. Like I say, and I tell the players, always be ready.
"I admire them both for the patience they have."
The fondest and most telling memories are the ones the family made away from the ballpark, many originating at their home in Fairfield or at spring training in Florida.
"Spring training and living on the beach," Phil said, "that definitely is the top. People dream about stuff like that."
Reds' radio announcer (center) Joe Nuxhall poses with his family, (far left) his son Kim Nuxhall and his wife Bonnie (top), his son Phil Nuxhall, and Joe's wife (right) Donzetta.
(Enquirer photo/JEFF SWINGER)
Last week workers replaced a sliding glass door that leads to the backyard patio at Joe and Donzetta's home in Fairfield, where they've lived for the past 48 years.
It's a wonder the door lasted that long.
"I never could have flowers back there," Donzetta said.
The patio doubled as a basketball court when the kids were younger. There Joe frustrated would-be defenders with his kinesthetic sense around the basket, and hook shots lobbed at the basket with either hand.
"Dad is the most competitive human being," Kim said. "My friends always laugh because they know my dad as pretty much a mild-mannered guy. They'll say, 'The only person I saw get you upset was your dad.' When it came to competition, it was competition."
Home was Joe and Kim hauling dirt from down the street in a wheelbarrow to build a backyard pitcher's mound.
"I'd take Kim and he'd pitch and play infield," Joe said. "Some of his buddies, we'd get them down there and work with them.
"If it was an off day I might load up the neighborhood kids, five or six of them, and we'd go to the ballpark, choose up sides and I'd pitch to them."
Home was Christmas and the holidays, and Phil playing the organ during baseball's hibernation.
"Winters were nice because Dad was home," Phil said. "You didn't have that deal of eating dinner at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and he's off to the ballpark by 4 in the summers.
"Dad would take us sled riding or ice skating in Hamilton. I would say winters were some of my fondest memories."
Home was the kitchen table where Joe, in his early days as a radio broadcaster, would practice the delivery of commercials on a reel-to-reel recorder.
"I can remember thinking, 'Man, he's pretty bad.' He's gotten better," Kim said. "Dad's dad. People talk about his English, but that's not what he's about."
Home is where Donzetta turns on the TV to watch Reds games but turns down the sound so she can hear her husband's voice on the radio.
"I always have it on," she said.
And doesn't that sound familiar?
The public grew to know, and treasure, Joe over those airwaves.
That voice a slow, sweet taste of summer in the Midwest. Those occasional miscalls - fly balls to right-left-center field come to mind - reminders we're only human. The long pauses a cue to slow down and enjoy life. The rain delays with Marty and the banana phone an example of how much fun friendship can be.
This is a game, after all. One that made a summer last 60 years.
"He'll probably still be down at the ballpark every other day or more, which is OK," Donzetta said. "But there does come a time. We've had a lot of good years."
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