Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cal Neeman, played seven season in the majors, came up with Mantle in Yankees system

Cal Neeman, a former major league catcher with five different teams in the 1950s and 1960s, passed away Thursday at his home in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri. He was 86.

Signed by the New York Yankees in 1949 out of Illinois Wesleyan University, where he also competed in basketball, Neeman was assigned to their Class C farm team in Joplin. During his second season in Joplin, he was joined by an erratic, but powerful shortstop in Mickey Mantle.

Cal Neeman / Author's Collection

Speaking with Neeman in 2011 in the wake of the tornado that wreaked havoc on the place of his debut, Neeman recalled a more positive image amidst the devastation the town was facing.

“I had all positive memories about Joplin,” he said via telephone in 2011. “It was the first place I played professional baseball. The whole atmosphere there was really good. People liked the ballplayers. We stayed in people’s homes; they would rent a room for $5 per week. Fourth and Main (where the stadium was located) was really close to where that tornado went through, just a tad north up.”

Neeman felt at home in the Yankee organization, primarily due to his Joplin managers Johnny Sturm and Harry Craft. Both had tremendous major league experience, which helped to shape his young career.

“My first manager was Johnny Sturm the Yankee first baseman,” he recalled. “He was just a good manager and I respected him a lot. My second year, Harry Craft was our manager, so I got to play for two good people.”

In 1950, Neeman was joined in Joplin by a young shortstop named Mickey Mantle. His abilities were evident, but he was a far cry from the legend that most know today.

“Everybody knew he had a lot of talent,” he said, “there’s no doubt about that. He did some fabulous things, but he also made some errors too.”

Mantle was so erratic at shortstop that fans were hesitant to sit behind the first base seats for fear of his wild throws. His defensive shortcomings were overshadowed by his trademark speed and power.

“Mantle was just a fun-loving kid that loved baseball,” he said. “He lived for playing ball. We had a fence in center field that was about 420. The first year I was there, no one hit it over the fence during the game. One night in Joplin, Mickey hit one over it left-handed and one over it right-handed. Of course, he could run. People found out about him being able to run like he did and they would usually have races before the away games. They would bring out the other team’s fastest runner and they’d run and win five dollars. Mickey would win every time; he would just run off and leave everybody. The Yankees then sent off a directive that there would be no more races before games.”

Neeman had little time to relish his experiences with Mantle, or the Yankees for that matter. Just as the 1950 season ended, he was drafted into the Korean War, serving two of his prime years in the military.

“After 1950 I went in the Korean War,” he said. “The bad part was I went to Korea itself [for] most of 1952, so there wasn’t any baseball or anything over there.”

The time he spent away from the game while in Korea hampered his return with the Yankees in 1953; however, as with his earlier managers in Joplin, he found a supporter in his manager with Binghamton during his first year back.

“I had a tough time, not physical shape, but to be able to throw, hit, and catch,” he said. “We had a manager Phil Page who stuck with me no matter what.”

Stuck behind Yogi Berra who recently passed away, Neeman was amongst almost a dozen Yankee catching prospects whose paths were blocked to the major leagues. Just as he was about to give up hope on making the big leagues, the Chicago Cubs drafted Neeman from the Yankees at the end of the 1956 season.

“I was ready to look for a job,” he said. “I didn’t think I could stay in baseball any longer. I was married and by that time, I was thinking that I didn’t have enough money to survive on. I was very fortunate and I got to play for a really fine man and manager, Bob Scheffing in Chicago.”

Neeman played in 376 games during his seven seasons with the Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and Washington Senators. He had a .224 career lifetime average with 30 home runs and 97 RBIs, serving primarily as a backup catcher.

After the completion of his professional baseball career, he went back to school to become a teacher and a coach. He later ran a school supplies business before retiring in Lake Saint Louis.


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