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. The affable Ohio native spent 43 years in professional baseball and got to know 64 Hall of Famers (and counting). He says it's the memories from his long career around the diamond that inspired him to start collecting sets on the PSA Set Registry.
"The appeal of collecting to me is that I knew many of the players on the cards," said Nossek. "I enjoy putting these sets together. The journey is the fun part about it."
Born in Cleveland in 1940, Nossek remembers ripping open packs of 1952 and 1953 Topps baseball cards as a kid. Jimmy Dudley, the long-time play-by-play voice of the Cleveland Indians, provided the soundtrack to the summers of his childhood, and by the time Nossek was six, he was "chomping at the bit" to play baseball.
"But I had to wait until I was eight years old to play at the little league level," he recalled.
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.
"I worked out with the Washington Senators after I graduated from high school," shared Nossek. "I went to Washington for a couple of days and they said, 'We'll keep an eye on you, but we think you should go to college for a couple of years,' which I ended up doing. And it turned out to be the right thing to do."
Nossek 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. 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, North Carolina.
"The Jim Crow laws were in effect 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 Eve with my family in 1966 when I got a call at 11:30 at night, and it was 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.
"I tried to hang around when Joe would talk to Reggie around the batting cage," said Nossek.
On July 12, 1969, Nossek was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he would split the rest of the season and 1970 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 closely. 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.' He just looked at me and gave me that stare, and then he 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. 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.
In 1982, he 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. After the homer, Yankees manager Billy Martin contended that Brett had too much pine tar on his bat.
The umpiring crew eventually 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. He served as their bench coach from 1991 to 2003.
"If someone asked me who's the greatest athlete I've been around, I'd probably say Bo Jackson; and not necessarily for his baseball skills, but just his all-around athleticism as a football player and the almost inhuman things that he was capable of," said Nossek. "I used to call people like him and Michael Jordan, who we also had for a year in spring training, aliens. They had to be from outer space because they sure defy gravity in a lot of ways. They were just super talented."
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 didn't save a lot of memorabilia from his career, but he was looking for a hobby after he retired.
"As a coach, I never made a lot of money, but after I retired, the kids were out of the house and Jean liked to go to the casinos, but I'm not a big fan of casinos. I'd rather have something to show for the money, so that's how I got the collecting bug," he explained.
Nossek credits veteran hobbyist Frank Evanov with educating him about collecting and helping him build his PSA Set Registry sets.
"Frank Evanov has really been instrumental in my collecting history," said Nossek. "He's really aided me in all of the sets that I've collected. He's been a real friend to not only me but a lot of collectors. He really took me under his wing."
The first sets that Nossek pursued on the PSA Set Registry were the 1951 Bowman and 1953 Topps baseball 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."
After completing those issues, he moved on to the 1951 Bowman and 1964 Philadelphia Football sets.
"Unfortunately, we had a theft about five years ago where I lost my football cards," he said. "I had started a 1951 Topps Football set and a 1964 Philadelphia set, which was complete, but I didn't hide them too well I guess. The guy got away with my 1951 [set], which was about 50% complete, and half of my Philadelphia set. It kind of discouraged me from collecting for a few years."
But with some coaxing from Evanov, Nossek returned to collecting and finished his football sets, and more recently he assembled a 1952 Topps Wings set on the registry.
"My grandson, Evan, is 14 now, and when he was 12, he took glider lessons and became very interested in flying. I sat down with him one day and I was looking for something we could collect together," said Nossek. "Then I ran into the 1952 Wings set. The planes were neat and I enjoyed the pictures, so I started on that."
Nossek has traded with other registry collectors and purchased cards through eBay to build his sets. In some cases, dealers and collectors have recognized him.
"They have to be pretty good fans to have heard of me, but over the years I would say 20 to 25% of the sellers recognize the name and ask if I'm the ex-player," said Nossek, who still receives about 250 pieces of fan mail a year.
Nossek, who was inducted into the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Ohio University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013, loves to converse with hobbyists who appreciate the history of the game.
"Collecting should be about learning about the individual [on the card] and not just about the money," he said. "It's sad to me how the history of the game seems to be falling by the wayside."
But if anyone can educate collectors about the history of the game, it's Nossek. The modest, long-time baseball man can describe what it was like to share the field with Killebrew, Koufax, Jackson and Jordan. He's also an authority on pinch-hitting, pine tar and now, thanks in large part to Evanov, PSA.
"I researched PSA and I felt they were the best [card grading] company," he said. "They just seemed like a quality company that was well run. I never buy anything except for PSA."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Joe Nossek for providing photos to go with this article.
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