As a rookie with the Minnesota Twins in 1965, he played alongside Harmon Killebrew and registered hits off of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the World Series.
Later as a coach, he helped restrain George Brett in the infamous pine tar game, was one of the first to shake Hank Aaron’s hand after the slugger broke Babe Ruth’s all-time RBI record and taught baseball fundamentals to Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan.
Yes, few can share better baseball stories than Joe Nossek, who spent 43 seasons in professional baseball as a player, manager and coach. Yet the affable Ohio native, who’s now retired, still ranks his performance in a game with the Triple-A Vancouver Mounties on September 7, 1968 at Capilano Stadium as one of the most memorable of his career.
“Mickey Vernon was our manager in Vancouver and I talked him into letting me pitch the second-last game of the season,” recalled Nossek, then a fleet-footed, 27-year-old centre fielder who hadn’t pitched since high school. “It was a doubleheader that day, so it was only seven innings, but I ended up pitching a complete game and we won 5-1. I remember I struck out two guys in the first inning and then I couldn’t lift my arm when I went out for the second inning. But I did make it through the game, but I got a whole new appreciation for pitchers and what it takes for them to get in shape.”
It should be noted that the Hawaii Islanders, Nossek’s opponent that day, were in second place in the Pacific Coast League’s West Division and their lineup boasted the likes of Angel Bravo, Jimmy Stewart, George Kernek, Gene Freese and Rich Morales – all of whom spent time in the big leagues.
The Mounties, on the other hand, were destined for a last-place finish, but future big league managers Tony LaRussa and Steve Boros, as well as Canadian Wayne Norton were among the teammates providing offensive and defensive support for Nossek.
That contest was one of the few bright spots for Nossek and his Mounties teammates on the field that season. Despite having six players – LaRussa, Boros, Dave Duncan, Marcel Lachemann, Rene Lachemann and Nossek himself – that would go on to enjoy successful big league managerial and coaching careers, the team limped to a 58-88 record.
“We had a smart team, but we sure didn’t play very well,” said Nossek. “I guess it’s like they say, ‘If you can’t play it, coach it.”
Forty-five years have passed since Nossek’s sole professional pitching performance, but he still has fond memories of Vancouver. Nossek was the only Mountie to suit up for every inning of all of the team’s 146 games that season and he led the club with 133 hits. For his efforts, he was named the team’s MVP and most popular player.
“I played about a half a year with a hamstring pull,” remembered Nossek. “But back then you played through it. You didn’t sit down unless you had broken something, because there was always somebody waiting in line for your job.”
At that time, Nossek couldn’t have fathomed that he would maintain a job in professional baseball for more than four decades. Born in Cleveland in 1940, Nossek grew up listening to Jimmy Dudley calling Cleveland Indians games on his radio, and by the time he was six, he was “chomping at the bit” to play baseball.
Starting out as a pitcher, the eager youngster was tutored on the finer points of the game by his father, Joe. Sr., a star moundsman in Cleveland’s Sandlot ranks, and his uncle Jim Stepp. By his senior year of high school, Nossek had evolved into a first-team All-Ohio outfielder who led his squad to a berth in the state championship tournament.
Nossek then attended Ohio University and was named a first team All-American in his junior year while several big league scouts were monitoring his games.
“When it was time to make a decision to sign [with a big league club], our college coach and my dad were in the room with the scout, and Minnesota was the first team in and I ended up signing with them. I didn’t even talk to the other teams,” recalled Nossek.
After inking his deal with the Twins in 1961, he was assigned to their Class-A South Atlantic League affiliate in Charlotte, N.C.
“The Jim Crow laws were in back then so that was a new experience for me to see how they treated the black players [in Charlotte]. That was a culture shock,” he said. “My wife came to visit and there were separate restrooms and drinking fountains at the ballpark. And my black teammates had to stay in a different part of town and they had to go to the back of kitchens to get served [at restaurants.] It really stunk, but unfortunately that’s the way it was.”
Nossek hit .274 in 80 games that season and returned to Charlotte the following year, before being promoted to Triple-A Dallas-Fort Worth in 1963. He impressed the Twins’ brass enough to earn a spot on the big league club’s Opening Day roster in 1964, before he was dispatched to the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Atlanta for the bulk of the campaign.
That off-season, Nossek was sent to the Florida Instructional League, where he led the circuit in batting average. This would help him crack the Twins’ big league roster the ensuing spring and stick with the club for their entire pennant-winning season. On June 13, 1965, he belted his first big league home run, depositing a pitch from left-hander Hank Aguirre into the bleachers at Tiger Stadium.
“It went over the old scoreboard in left field. It was kind of a line drive shot,” recalled Nossek.
Nossek also had 20 at bats in the World Series against the Dodgers that season and was the first to record a hit off of Koufax in Game 2.
“I think my biggest accomplishment was only striking out once in that series, and that was against Howie Reed, a right-handed curveballer,” recalled Nossek. “Koufax didn’t get me and neither did Drysdale or [Claude] Osteen.”
After a month with the Twins in 1966, Nossek was sold to Charlie Finley’s Kansas City A’s, where he hit .300 for much of the season, before finishing at .261.
“I remember I was enjoying Christmas with my family on Christmas Eve in 1966 and I get a call at 11:30 at night and it’s Charlie Finley wanting to talk contract,” remembered Nossek. “He gave me a nice raise to $10,500 and that was a great Christmas present.”
Between 1967 and 1969, Nossek was shuttled between the A’s and their Triple-A clubs in Vancouver and Iowa. During that stretch, he got to play with legends Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson and befriended Joe DiMaggio, who had been hired to work with Jackson.
On July 12, 1969, Nossek was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he would split the rest of the season and the following campaign between the big club and their Triple-A affiliate in Tulsa, before being signed by the Milwaukee Brewers to serve as a player/coach with their Triple-A squad in Evansville in 1971.
During his playing career, Nossek frequently served in a utility role and while he was on the bench, he studied what was happening on the field. This helped him develop a reputation as one of the game’s best sign-stealers.
“When I played for Hank Bauer, out in Oakland [in 1969], I was sitting on the bench a lot, so I started watching the [opposing] manager and the third base coach interact,” recalled Nossek. “I was sitting there one game and I thought, ‘Gee whiz, I think they did this [used that same sequence of signs] yesterday and I think it’s going to be a hit and run.’ So I went up to Hank, who could be quite gruff, and I said, ‘Hank, I think the hit and run is on here.’ And he just looked at me and gave me that stare and looked away and didn’t do anything about it, so I went back and sat down and sure enough, the hit and run was on. The following day I’m sitting there, not playing again, and I see the same signs and so I walked over to Hank again – a little fearful of what he might do – and I said, ‘Hank, I think the hit and run is on again.’ And he says, ‘You think?’ And I said, “Yes, sir.’ And so Hank pitched out and we got the guy and I got hooked [on trying to steal signs].
“I built up a reputation [as a master sign-stealer] that I think was deserved for the first half of my career,” he said. “But I think a lot of it was psychological later in my coaching days, but psychologically it turned out to be a good weapon.”
Nossek was the Milwaukee Brewers’ third base coach when Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s all-time RBI mark on May 1, 1975. He actually retrieved the ball that Aaron smacked for the record-breaking RBI and gave it to Aaron after the game. He continued with the Brewers through 1975 and then assumed the same post with the Cleveland Indians from 1977 to 1981. While Nossek was with the Indians, the Toronto Blue Jays joined the American League and the Canadian city quickly became one of his favorite stops on the schedule.
“I used to bring my wife to Toronto because I knew she would enjoy it. It was such a well-kept city. It was always clean. It was a pretty city to visit,” he recalled.
Nossek was part of the Tribe’s coaching staff when Indians pitcher Len Barker hurled a perfect game against the Blue Jays at Cleveland Stadium on May 15, 1981.
“That was one of the games that stands out for me,” said Nossek. “You could see that the Blue Jays had talent back then, but it was young talent and they had some growing to do and they eventually did grow [into a contender].”
In 1982, Nossek began a two-year stint as third base coach of the Kansas City Royals and he was on the field when George Brett homered off of Goose Gossage with two out in the top of the ninth inning on July 24, 1983 to give the Royals a 5-4 lead over the Yankees in the infamous pine tar game. But Yankees manager Billy Martin sprung out of the dugout and contended that Brett had too much pine tar on his bat.
After conferring with each other, the umpiring crew ruled in Martin’s favor and the home run was nullified, inspiring one of the greatest tantrums in baseball history from Brett. American League president Lee MacPhail eventually overruled the call and the Royals and Yankees resumed the game a little less than a month later, with the Royals leading 5-4 in the ninth inning. Dan Quisenberry recorded the final three outs for the Royals and Nossek, who was sitting in for ejected manager Dick Howser, was the winning skipper.
Following his tenure with the Royals, Nossek enjoyed a long association with the Chicago White Sox, including a successful stretch as their bench coach from 1991 to 2003. He was in the Sox dugout when Chicago battled the Blue Jays in the 1993 American League Championship Series.
“The Blue Jays had a pretty darn good team, but so did we,” recalled Nossek. “We had Bo Jackson, Robin Ventura and Frank Thomas . . . Jack McDowell was our ace pitcher. And you know how one pitcher or hitter always has trouble with one or two other teams? Toronto happened to be one of Jack’s teams that he never did well against. So Toronto beat him twice in that series.”
The Blue Jays prevailed in six games over the Sox and went on to win their second consecutive World Series.
Hampered by arthritis in his knees, shoulder and back, Nossek decided to retire in the spring of 2004 and return to Amherst, Ohio to spend more time with his wife Jean. He also has four children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Nossek still has countless friends in professional baseball, but these days you’re more likely to find him on the golf course or adding to his sports and non-sports card collections. Two of the baseball card sets that Nossek has tackled in retirement are the 1951 Bowman and 1953 Topps sets.
“The main reason I got into those sets was because I had gotten to know so many of the players from that era,” said Nossek. “I played for Mickey Vernon, Hank Bauer and Alvin Dark, so that made collecting those sets more enjoyable.”
And those are just three of the diamond legends that Nossek crossed paths with during his 43 years in professional baseball. He got to know 64 Hall of Famers and as a versatile player and respected coach, he was on the field for some of the biggest moments in baseball history. But if you ask Nossek to select a few of the highlights from his storied career, he’s still likely to rank that night in Vancouver in 1968, when the toed the rubber and threw a complete game, near the top of his list.