Showing posts with label Joplin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joplin. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How Mickey Mantle swept through Joplin on his way to stardom

With Joplin, Missouri devastated by an EF-5 strength tornado, the highest possible on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado power and intensity, much of the country’s attention is focused on beginning the relief efforts in this southwestern Missouri city.

While baseball may be farthest from the minds of those attempting to put back the pieces of their lives destroyed by the storm, longtime residents remember Joplin as the home of the Class C Joplin Miners of the New York Yankees organization.

Mickey Mantle / Cliff1066 - Flickr
In 1950, a fleet 18-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle captured the hearts of this Midwestern city, rallying the team that inhabited Miners Park on 4th and Main. Leading the Western League in almost every offensive category, Mantle batted an astounding .383 with 26 home runs.

Defensively, Mantle did not develop as quickly as his hitting, committing 55 errors in 137 games. Blessed with a strong arm and tremendous range, Mantle went through growing pains at one of the most demanding positions in baseball.

Teammate Cal Neeman, who would go on to a seven-year career in the big leagues as a catcher for five major league teams, knew very well Mantle was a star that needed just a little more polishing.

“Everybody knew he had a lot of talent. There is no doubt about that. He did some fabulous things, but he also made errors too,” Neeman said via a telephone interview Wednesday from his home in Missouri.

Steve Kraly, who pitched with Joplin that year and made it to the Yankees himself in 1953, also shared via telephone Wednesday tales of Mantle’s woes at shortstop.

“If there was an infield pop-up, we’d tell him to get out of the way! He had such a strong arm, when he threw to first, nobody sat in the box seats behind first base.”

Despite Mantle’s troubles in the field, there was no denying his prowess at the plate. Neeman, who had played at Joplin the year before, marveled at Mantle’s power.

“We had a fence in center field that was 420 feet. The first year I was there, nobody hit it over the fence during a game. One night in Joplin, Mickey hit one over it left-handed and right-handed. Incredible!”

Both Kraly and Neeman saw a tremendous change in Mantle’s play in between the 1949 and 1950 seasons. Prior to the start of the 1950 season, Casey Stengel held a training camp for Yankee prospects in Arizona. Neeman attended the camp along with Mantle in January that year.

“Mantle made his mark in a school that Stengel started for prospects in January of 1950 in Arizona. I was there too. In Phoenix, everything everyone knew about him was his power,” said Neeman. “He was left handed and hit it over the left field wall constantly. He’d go the other way right handed and there was no telling where he would hit it.”

Kraly provided the perspective of Mantle's transformation from playing with him during his debut year of 1949 at Class-D Independence.

“When he joined us in Independence, he came in the second month of the season. He weighed about 160 lbs. All he did was bunt and run,” Kraly remembered. “Harry Craft finally told him to start swinging the bat. Then he started swinging the bat and hitting the ball, [but] he didn’t hit too many home runs. The next year we went to spring training in Branson, Missouri with Joplin and you saw the difference in his physique from 1949 to 1950. That’s what you saw in the big leagues. He hit home runs over the light towers.”

During his time in Joplin, Mantle roomed with a trio of future big leaguers, Kraly, Lou Skizas and Bob Wiesler. The four were teammates the previous year in Independence. Kraly said that the experience living together in Joplin strengthened their bond.

“We enjoyed it and we had a lot of fun. We became like brothers, not just teammates,” Kraly said.

Reminiscing about their Hall of Fame teammate, also allowed both players to share their impressions of the devastated town.

“I had all positive memories about Joplin. It was the first placed that I played professional baseball. The whole atmosphere there was really good. People liked the ballplayers,” Neeman said.

He added that the community went out of their way to support the players.

“Some of those places would give us a free meal if you hit a double and things like that. It was just really pleasant.”

Kraly echoed Neeman’s feelings about the good-natured people of Joplin.

“I was shocked when I saw that on television. There are a lot of nice people there. It hurts to see a town get wiped out where I was able to play and meet the people there. If they released the names, I probably could remember some of them. The people were nice; they gave us gifts when we performed on the field.”

Over sixty years later, invoking the name of Joplin brought back pleasant memories for two of Mantle’s teammates, playing alongside one of baseball’s brightest rising stars during a more innocent time away from the spotlight that followed their teammate until his passing in 1995.

While Mantle’s spirit may not be able to fix the damage of this tragic disaster, hopefully the memory of his magical season in Joplin will make the day for residents a bit brighter than the last.