Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review: Eddie Neville of the Durham Bulls by Bill Kirkland

Although published in 1993, Bill Kirkland's, "Eddie Neville of the Durham Bulls," serves as a primer to all major league hopefuls in their quest to make it from the bushes to the big leagues.

Recommended to me by former Eddie Neville teammate Emil Restaino, Kirkland chronicles Neville's playing career from his days toiling in the sandlots of Baltimore, through the shores of the Canal Zone, to his jumping among the rungs of the Detroit Tigers minor league system. Along the way, Neville hangs on to the dream of donning the Tiger uniform, while enduring long bus rides, thrifty owners, and steady doses of winter ball in the off season.

You ride with Neville, as he makes steady progress under the watchful eye Al Kubski in Panama, leading you to believe that he is on the path to the Major Leagues. After posting 28 and 25 win seasons in Tarboro and Durham respectively, he ascends to the highest rank of the Tigers minor league organization, their AAA affiliate in Toledo. Neville struggles at AAA that season, posting a 6-15 record while battling a sore arm. It was as close as Neville would get to the Major Leagues.

Even with a sore arm, Neville displayed tremendous guile that would be his calling card throughout his career. Neville would often will his way to victory, relying on his junk as he slowly began to lose his fastball due to prolonged arm problems. During the 1950 season against first-place Indianapolis, he pitched a 16-inning victory in 90 degree heat, scoring the winning run after hitting a triple at the top of the inning. Neville would add to his legend in Durham, pitching an 18 inning victory in 1952. Such performances are rarely ever seen or heard in modern baseball. His bulldog approach drew praise from fans and sportswriters alike. Neville's reputation would earn him multiple starting day honors for Durham as he rose to the top of the class of the Carolina League. Crowds would flock to Durham Athletic Park every fifth day to see him pitch.

While Neville's stats may recommend that he was due for a promotion, there were questions about his velocity and being difficult to manage. Neville was also passed over to replace his former Durham Bulls manager, NFL Hall of Famer Clarence "Ace" Parker, when Parker took the helm at Duke University. Ironically, Neville would go on to work for 20 years as a buyer in the purchasing department at Duke. He would suffer in his later years from multi-infarct dementia.

Much of the information gathered is courtesy of Neville's diary that he kept while he was playing, and from the vast collection of his wife Janet. Kirkland meticulously combed small-town newspaper articles and conducted interviews with Neville's former teammates to accurately depict the career of Neville. The rare photos of Neville and his teammates from the 1940's and 1950's, including a young Tommy Lasorda from the Canal Zone take you back to when baseball was a reflection of close knit atmosphere of minor league baseball before the era of expansion.

Neville's grandson, Kenneth Villines was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2008. Here is the News Observer article that mentions Neville's legacy as a Durham Bull in relation to his grandson being drafted.


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