Al Neiger is one of the finest athletes to ever hail from Delaware. His athletic acumen is enforced by his enshrinement in both the University of Delaware Athletics and the Delaware Sports Museum Hall of Fames. Baseball was the sport in which he excelled, and while he did not play there long, he was good enough to make the major leagues; one of just 50 Delaware born players to make that claim.
A left-handed pitcher, Neiger was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959, after a very successful college career. He pitched well in the minors in 1959 and the first half of 1960, which earned him a call-up to Philadelphia, where he made his debut on July 30, 1960.
The Phillies were a miserable team in 1960. They finished the season with a 59-95 record, and their pitching staff was in tatters. Besides an aging Robin Roberts, there was a collection of young, but largely unproven pitchers. Neiger was another of the prospects brought up to see what he could do. Unfortunately, he was not given much of an opportunity to impress, which likely impacted his ability to stick in the majors.
Neiger appeared in a total of six major league games in 1960; all in relief. All were games that the Phillies lost by at least 3 runs, indicating they were only willing to use the rookie in mop-up situations. It would have been difficult to gain any momentum while pitching in such confinements.
Neiger’s shining moment came in a game against the eventual World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Philadelphia starter Jim Owens couldn’t make it out of the first inning, and Neiger was brought on in relief. Although the Phillies ended up losing 11-2, the rookie pitched well, allowing 7 hits and 3 runs over 6.1 innings. He punctuated his performance by getting his only major league hit, a single, off Pirates’ starter Bob Friend.
Although Neiger won 11 games in the minors in 1961, and another 13 in 1963, he was never again summoned to the majors. He ended his big league career with no decisions and a 5.68 ERA in 12.2 innings. He struck out 3 batters, and gave up 2 home runs; ironically both coming from the bat of Ken Boyer. More information on Neiger’s career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/n/neigeal01.shtml.
Neiger retired from playing following the 1963 season. Despite not playing competitively for some time, he still enjoys talking about the game and his experiences in pro ball. I was lucky enough to have him answer some questions I had about his career.
Al Neiger Interview
How did you first become interested in baseball?: My Dad was an ex semi-pro catcher and had me throwing, catching and hitting a baseball on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware probably as soon as I could walk. He told me later that the first throw I made was left-handed, and he tried to get me to throw and hit right-handed, but I would have nothing to do with that idea. If I had changed I would probably have become a catcher.
Who was your favorite team and player growing up, and why?: Mine was Ferris Fain of the Philadelphia Athletics before they left Philadelphia. I thought I could be a first baseman like he was. Also, my Dad was a huge A's fan in those years, and later became friendly with a scout from the A's.
My Dad was born in 1912, and his favorite player was Hall of Fame Catcher Mickey Cochran, who played originally with the A's from 1925 to 1933 before being traded to the Detroit Tigers in 1933.
What was the process like getting signed by the Phillies in 1959?: In 1959 there was no draft, so players could sign with anybody. The big deterrent to huge bonuses was a major league rule that stated if they gave a prospect more than $15,000; he had to be included on that team's major league roster.
As a 17 year old kid I most likely would have signed for nothing. Fortunately for me, I was a late bloomer and hadn't matured mentally or physically. I was 5'9 and weighed 160 pounds coming out of high school, and grew to 6' 0 and 190 pounds by my junior year.
My first offer to play pro ball came in 1958 after my sophomore year, from the A's for $15,000. My Dad and I decided to wait and finish my education. My next year (1959) was pretty much my break out year, when I made 1st Team All-American and put up "phenom" type numbers pitching. That year the Phillies were the first team to make an offer ($30,000 signing bonus + $500/month salary). My Dad wanted to give the A's a chance, and they offered me $35,000 and $700/month. He wanted me to sign with the A's, but I was a Phillies fan and also knew Bob Carpenter and his son Ruly. Even though the Phillies had said the $30,000 was off the table when I didn't sign, we went back to the table and they upped the ante to $37,500 + $750/month. My Dad didn't think their offer was good enough and wanted to go back to the A's. I balked and after conferring with each other, we decided we would sign, providing they threw in a new car, which they did. I got a "brand new" 1959 Bel-Air Chevy. Our family car had been a 1950 Chevy.
They assigned me to Rookie Ball in Johnson City, Tennessee. My roommate was 17 year old Ray Culp, who had just received a $100,000 bonus and a 1959 Bonneville. Three weeks later I was moved up to Williamsport, and the rest is history.
Who was the biggest character you ever played with or against?: Every team had its characters, myself not excluded (being a left-handed pitcher). There were many I ran into in my brief career, but none of them were "off the charts."
What was your favorite moment from your playing career?: Being called up to the big leagues and not giving up a run in my debut. Also, getting a hit the first time up, off Bob Friend of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
Who was the toughest hitter that you ever faced?: I guess I would have to go with Ken Boyer of St. Louis. I faced him only twice; once in St Louis and again in Philly, and he homered in both at bats.
Also, if it wasn't for my efforts, Roberto Clemente would have finished with only 2,998 hits instead of 3,000.
How difficult was the transition from going from a professional ballplayer to the "private sector"?: Looking back, I was only 25 years old when I decided to give up the game, due to family responsibilities. Fortunately I had completed my education and the job market was good in 1964. Also, I married well; 50 years last January, to my wife Barb, who raised our three daughters.
If you could do anything differently about your baseball career, what would it be?: It’s not healthy to second guess yourself.
What have you been up to since you stopped playing?: I retired in 2003 after 39 years with a manufacturing company. I continued to work part time in sales with a home insulation company. I love to fish and crab at our beach house in Fenwick Island, Delaware.
Do you still follow baseball, and if so, what do you think about the current game?: I follow the Phillies closely and renew many old acquaintances each year at the Phillies’ annual Alumni Game.
The Home Run is now King. When I played, by today's standards, every team played "small ball."
Fan's love home runs, and they and TV contracts pay the big salaries. With the game on the line most pitchers, I feel, would rather face a home run hitter than someone trying to just put the ball in play. Home run hitters were easier to pitch to than 'spray hitters.'
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