If it hadn’t been for Woody Hayes and his do-the-right-thing character, Earle Bruce might have joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In 1949, Bruce finished a high school career at his native Cumberland, Md., as a star running back and track star. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. How could that guy have been a track star? Well, in those days, Bruce was 5-9 and 155 pounds and never lost a 220-yard dash in three years of high school. He was beaten only once in the 100.
That kind of speed got him noticed by college football coaches and Bruce always figured he would go to his home-state school of Maryland. But he was turned off by a meeting with Terrapins head coach Jim Tatum and decided to explore other options. Bruce went with a teammate on an official visit to Ohio State where he met head coach Wes Fesler.
Two things impressed the youngster about Fesler – the coach called him by his childhood nickname “Lefty,” and later sent him a telegram on his birthday. That was all Bruce needed to make up his mind.
He spent the 1950 season on the Ohio State freshman team, trying to learn Fesler’s single-wing offense. At the end of the season, Bruce sat in frigid Ohio Stadium as the Buckeyes lost a 9-3 decision to Michigan in what has become known as the Snow Bowl. A few weeks later, Fesler resigned and Hayes was named as his replacement.
Bruce was still down the depth chart at halfback, behind such notables as future Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz, and expected that he would be moved to flanker or a receiver position to take advantage of his speed. Then in August 1951, about a month before the Buckeyes’ season opener against SMU, Bruce was taking part in practice drills when he slipped on the grass and twisted his knee.
At first, team trainers believed the injury was a simple muscle pull. But several days later, the pain had yet to subside and Bruce sought a second opinion. He had suffered cartilage damage to the joint and the meniscus tendon had been torn away from the bone. Today, he would have undergone reconstructive surgery and returned the following season. In 1951, that was a career-ending injury.
Knowing he was no longer of use to the Buckeyes, Bruce packed his bags and returned home to Cumberland. By the time he got there, Hayes had already called and left a message with Bruce’s mother – get your carcass back to Columbus, finish your education and help coach the team.
In those days, injured players typically lost their scholarship. Hayes didn’t follow that philosophy, however, believing that schools and coaches should honor their commitments. Bruce re-joined the team as a student assistant with no formal title. As he continued his education, he wasn’t thinking about coaching as a profession. He was considering law school and a career with the FBI.
But when he began enjoying his role on the coaching staff, Bruce decided to transfer out of OSU’s Arts College and into Health and Physical Education.
He graduated from Ohio State in 1953 and landed his first (paying) coaching job as an assistant at Mansfield (Ohio) High School. Bruce would later become head coach at three high schools in Ohio – Salem, Sandusky and Massillon – before returning to Columbus in 1966 to rejoin Hayes’ staff.
Bruce became a college head coach in 1972 and served stints at five different schools for the next two decades including nine seasons at Ohio State from 1979-87 during which the Buckeyes posted a 81-26-1 record. Overall, Bruce had a 154-90-2 record as a college head coach, and took four different schools to bowl games where he had a 12-5 record.
In 2002, he received one of the sports highest honors when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bruce is one of only six former Ohio State coaches in the hall – John W. Wilce, Francis A. Schmidt, Howard Jones, John Cooper and Hayes are the others. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even consider becoming a coach until being coaxed into it.
In the end, the FBI’s loss was Hayes’ – and college football’s – gain.
JUNIOR GETS NO. 600
I have never quite understood why many Cincinnati Reds fans loathe Ken Griffey Jr. He was named to the All-Century Team, owns 10 Gold Gloves, has made 13 All-Star teams and took a huge pay cut to play for his hometown team. Yes, he has been injured – a lot – since joining the Reds in 2000 and the team has finished above .500 only once since he has been in Cincinnati.
But it’s not like the guy was trying to get injured. Even at the age of 38, I contend Junior remains one of the top 50-75 players in the game. And he has accomplished all that he has without the slightest whiff of any controversy – something that has unfortunately become all too rare in the so-called steroid era.
So when Griffey hit his 600th career home run last night at Florida, it gave me pause. He became only the sixth player in major league history to reach that plateau, and if you consider the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, Junior joined an elite group that includes only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. When you earn admission into a club with that kind of exclusivity, you have staked your claim to be called one of the game’s all-time greats.
Here are some little-known facts about the 600 home run club:
Ruth needed only 2,044 at-bats to reach 600. Sosa was next at 2,302 followed by Bonds at 2,394. Griffey hit his 600th in his 2,439th career at-bat and that was faster than either Mays (2,557) or Aaron (2,592).
Ruth, of course, became the first MLB player ever to reach to the 600 mark, hitting that historic homer Aug. 21, 1931, off pitcher George Blaeholder of the St. Louis Browns. It would be more than 38 years before another player would join Ruth in the 600 club. Mays took San Diego’s Mike Corkins deep on Sept. 22, 1969.
On April 27, 1971, Aaron hit his 600th on a pitch (probably greased up) from future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who was pitching for San Francisco at the time. Another 31 years would go by before Bonds connected off Kip Wells of Pittsburgh for his 600th on Aug. 9, 2002. And just last year, on June 20, Sosa cracked No. 600 of his career on a pitch served up by Jason Marquis of the Cubs.
Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker hit 242 homers in his career, but has a direct connection to four members in the 600 club. He has managed Griffey, Bonds and Sosa, and was the on-deck hitter for the Braves when Aaron slugged No. 715 to pass Ruth on April 8, 1974.
Among the several thousand graduates who picked up diplomas Sunday at Ohio State’s spring commencement ceremonies were 14 football players – Alex Barrow, Matt Daniels, Mike Doss, T.J. Downing, Matt Drummelsmith, Dan Dye, Dionte Johnson, Devin Jordan, Mike Kudla, Ryan Lukens, Devon Lyons, Jon Skinner, A.J. Trapasso and Brent Ullery.
Another freshly minted graduate’s names you might recognize – basketball player Matt Terwilliger.
Congratulations to these current and former Buckeyes, just a small fraction of the 115 student-athletes who graduated Sunday.
Birthday wishes go out today to an eclectic mix that includes Price Philip of Edinburgh (Queen Elizabeth’s better half), famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, former NFL quarterback and noted Ohio State hater Dan Fouts, disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, actress Elizabeth Hurley, former Cincinnati Reds second baseman Pokey Reese and Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Tara Lipinski.
Among those passing into history on this day were such notables as actor Spencer Tracy, playwright William Inge, novelist Louis L’Amour, Mafia kingpin John Gotti, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, singer Ray Charles and Alexander the Great.
SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO TODAY
It was June 10, 1944, and nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States was either in Europe or the Pacific fighting in World War II. That meant the talent pool in major league baseball was diluted enough that the Cincinnati Reds allowed a skinny kid from nearby Hamilton to suit up for a game.
Sixty-eight years ago, 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall – just a few days removed from completing the ninth grade – pitched two-thirds of an inning against the St. Louis Cardinals and became the youngest player in modern major league history. (In 1887, Fred Chapman pitched five innings for the Philadelphia A’s at the tender age of 14. It was his only major-league appearance.)
Nuxhall’s line for the game: two hits, five walks, two wild pitches and five earned runs that translated into an ERA of 67.50. Nuxhall actually recorded an out against the first man he faced, then gave up a walk before pitching to outfielder Stan Musial. The future Hall of Famer greeted the youngster with a solid single to right, a hit Nuxhall later described as “an absolute rocket. He blistered it.”
Nuxhall was sent to the minors after his lone appearance and didn’t return to the majors until eight years later.
Nuxhall’s debut wasn’t that unusual in 1944. He was one of eight National Leaguers who played in their first major league games that season at the age of 17 or less. The most famous of those was probably infielder Granny Hamner, who had a 17-year career playing mostly for the Philadelphia Phillies. Hamner made his debut Sept. 14, 1944, at the age of 17.
Most baseball fans remember Nuxhall as only a broadcaster – the Ol’ Lefthander who would butcher names and unabashedly root for the Reds. But he put together a pretty nice major-league career that lasted 16 years.
Pitching mostly for Cincinnati, he appeared in 526 games and fashioned a 135-117 record and 19 saves to go along with a 3.90 ERA. Nuxhall’s best season came in 1963 when, at the age of 34, he went 15-8 with a career-low 2.61 ERA.
Unfortunately for him, Nuxhall pitched in the Reds organization when it was not a consistent winner (kind of like now). Cincinnati won the National League pennant in 1961 and played the New York Yankees in the World Series, but Nuxhall had been shipped to the Kansas City Athletics three months before that season began.
He went 5-8 with a 5.34 ERA for the A’s in 1961, a performance that got him released in December of that year. Nuxhall was signed as a free agent by Baltimore before the 1962 season but the Orioles released him late in spring training. He was picked up later that day by the Los Angeles Angels and appeared in five games with them, posting no record and a 10.13 ERA. The Angels gave him his unconditional release in mid-May and the Reds gave him a contract in June.
That began a continuous 45-year run for Nuxhall as a player and broadcaster for the Reds that ended with his death last November at the age of 79.
** If you’re into quirks of fate, I received a copy of Orange Bowl Insider yesterday in the mail. Since Ohio State has appeared in the Orange Bowl only once, and that was way back in 1977, I can only assume I got on the mailing list because of the other game the Orange Bowl folks are hosting this coming season – the BCS National Championship Game.
** Did you know that the Pac-10 has “associate members” for wrestling? I didn’t either but it seems that Boise State, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Bakersfield, Portland State and UC Davis each compete for the annual Pac-10 wrestling championship. In fact, Boise State won this year’s title while Cal Poly senior Chad Mendes was named conference wrestler of the year.
** Remember Washington quarterback Jake Locker, the virtual one-man team for the Huskies? Locker is spending his summer playing center field for the Bellingham (Wash.) Bells, a team in a special league designed for college players. Locker has the blessing of U-Dub head coach Tyrone Willingham to play in the league with one caveat – the strong-armed lefty is not allowed to pitch.
** The famed Madison Square Garden in New York City is hoping its $500 million renovation project will help it land some future NCAA Tournament games, perhaps the East Regional championship in 2012 or 2013. MSG, site of the annual postseason NIT, last hosted an NCAA tourney game in 1961.
** Why does sour cream have a sell-by date? And what does it become after that date? Sour cottage cheese?
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