The mid-winter boredom (cabin fever) has set in, promptly one reader to correspond over the recent baseball tale written about former player and manager, Billy Gardner. He asked…if I had a favorite regarding the Cincinnati Reds.
A reader named Freelund Goss wrote to the site recently.
“I’ve never written to your site, but I like the old-time baseball stories you post about players from when I was growing up. I lived outside of Cincinnati, in Newport, across the river. I’m old enough to remember Billy Gardner. Good story. Wondering if you have any such stories like that from the days of the Reds and Big Red Machine?”
Freelund, first…thanks for the kind words.
Second, while Hal McCoy or Greg Hoard would be a better source because they actually traveled with the Reds during all those seasons, there is one story regarding a Reds coach that I enjoy telling because it involves one of the best people I met during my years around minor league baseball.
His name was Russ Nixon, a minor league and major league coach with the Reds…and after I was out of baseball he eventually managed in the major leagues with the Reds and the Atlanta Braves. Nixon also played for a long time, as a catcher with the Red Sox, Indians, and Braves (among others), and was widely regarded as being a ‘good baseball man’ for his ability to communicate and teach the game. And I’m not stretching things when I say I learned more about baseball by just listening in the minor leagues than I ever did actually playing the game.
For instance, I once asked hall-of-famer, and roving pitching instructor for the California Angels, Warren Spahn (363 career wins, most ever by a lefthander), about young players trying to throw the curveball at too early an age, and risking arm injury.
“Warren, how old is old enough before you start throwing the curveball?” I said.
“As soon as you’re able to walk,” Spahn said, dead-panning. “More arm injuries occur throwing the fastball than the curve because the fastball involves a more violent, repeated arm action.”
That was, of course, contrary to everything you’ve ever heard about kids hurting their arms trying to throw the curve too soon.
But I digress. I first met Nixon when he was working as an organizational instructor the Reds farm system, spring training 1978. And on a daily basis, prior to the minor league inter-squad games in the afternoon, the A, AA, and AAA teams would work out on the backfields near old Al Lopez Field, on Dale Mabry Boulevard. It was there that I first noticed him.
He was hitting ground balls to the infielders, with what’s called a ‘fungo’ bat, a lighter, slimmed-down version of a regular ball bat designed specifically to hit balls for fielding practice. And after he got done hitting ground balls, he turned to the catchers standing around home plate. He started hitting popups, straight up in the air and over home plate, like balls that would come off the bat of an actual hitter. Only, Nixon was hitting them higher…much higher! Some of them were a hundred feet high, and he could make them curve, depending on the spin he put on the ball.
He hit one after another, and never missed – never hit one out over the infield or a ground ball into the outfield. Catchers actually got dizzy looking straight up, trying to follow Nixon’s fungo popups. I’ve seen them get their feet tangled and fall down. But no one laughed, because they understood. It might happen to them, too. But Nixon? He would laugh!
Afterwards, I would ask him, “How did you learn to do that?”
He simply shrugged and said, “Practice.”
“Well, how many people can do it?” I asked, further.
He didn’t answer. He just smiled, shaking his head. “It’s job security,” he finally muttered.
Over the years I would see him in Double-A and Triple-A parks, hitting those fungos, and making catchers turn in circles. Of course, the higher the level of baseball, the better they adjusted.
“You find the ball, then you look around to make sure you don’t trip on something,” Triple A catcher Dave VanGorder once told me. “You don’t want to stare up at the ball the whole time. You learn.”
Russ Nixon was a wonderful baseball guy, and best fungo hitter I ever saw, although when I was in Double-A former infielder Eddie Brinkman was almost as good when he managed in Montgomery, Alabama. Brinkman could actually hit fungos with either end of the bat.
Nixon, who had a twin brother, passed away a few years ago at age 81. I remember thinking when I heard about it…what a loss.
Things you remember…about the great game of baseball!