Gold Gloves—Part IV: MLB 2B in Puerto Rico Winter Ball (Charlie Neal)

Charlie Neal

Seven MLB 2B who played in Puerto Rico have 21 Rawlings Gold Gloves (GG) between them: 16 American League (AL) and five National League (NL). This covers 1957-to-2018. In 1957, GG were awarded to nine total MLB players by position. From 1958-on, separate AL-NL recipients received this award. Nellie Fox—1957 Chicago White Sox—won the first GG at 2B. This is Part IV A in a series on Gold Gloves (GG) earned by MLB players who played winter ball in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

The most GG won by a 2B is 10 by Roberto Alomar, all in the AL with Toronto-Baltimore-Cleveland, followed by Ryne Sandberg (nine), Bill Mazeroski (eight), Frank White (eight), Joe Morgan and Bobby Richardson with five apiece. Charlie Neal was the first GG recipient who played professionally in Puerto Rico, for the Caguas Criollos. This part focuses on Neal, Félix Millán and Davey Johnson, three of the seven MLB 2B who won GG and played in Puerto Rico.

Charlie Neal, from Longview, Texas, played in the Brooklyn Dodgers system, 1950-to-1955. In 1953, he was the Piedmont League’s Class B All-Star 2B for the Newport News (Virginia) Dodgers, hitting .304 with .446 SLG. Those Dodgers were one of 16 minor league teams in their system, second to 18 St. Louis Cardinals teams. Newport News made the finals, losing to the Norfolk Tars, a New York Yankees farm club managed by Mickey Owen. The Yankees had 10 minor league clubs. There were 160 total minor league teams in 1953 (94-NL, 66-AL), compared to 16 MLB clubs, a 10-to-one ratio. Today the ratio is five MLB teams to one farm club.

Mickey Owen managed the 1953-54 Caguas Criollos in Puerto Rico, a team which finished last in 1952-53. One top Caguas prospect was 19-year old 2B Henry Aaron, who was mired in a bad hitting slump when Mickey Owen moved the 2B to RF. Ozzie Virgil, Sr. recalled that Aaron was one Puerto Rico at-bat away from getting sent back to the States. Mickey Owen mentioned this in one of our phone conversations: “I knew where I could get a better 2B than Aaron, [but] Aaron could sure hit,” remembered Owen. “So one day I hit him a few fly balls and he went to it and got them easy, and he threw good. I said, you’re not an infielder, you’re an outfielder.”

Owen secured Charlie Neal to play 2B, and the rest is history. Owen liked Neal’s defensive skills, hitting ability and attitude from managing against him in the Piedmont League. When Neal teamed with Aaron’s buddy, shortstop Félix Mantilla, in the middle of Caguas’s infield, Aaron went to RF. Owen encouraged Aaron to “hit the ball more toward RF…” Aaron, a guest in the broadcast booth during a nationally televised MLB game in 2018, noted that Puerto Rico winter ball helped him develop his underhand throwing style from the OF.

Neal’s first Caguas season showed a .267 BA, zero HR, 13 RBIs and 16 runs. Caguas (46-34) won the pennant, league playoffs and 1954 Caribbean Series. Neal returned to the States so Caguas picked up San Juan 2B Jack Cassini for the Caribbean Series. Neal’s second (1954-55) winter with Caguas was better: .294,7, 27, with 77 hits [second to Roberto Clemente’s 94] in 262 AB. Neal scored 48 runs, fourth-best behind Clemente (65), Willie Mays (63) and San Juan’s George Freese (49), and ahead of teammate Mantilla (47). The 1954-55 Criollos lost a five-game final series to a Santurce Crabbers team with Mays, Clemente, Don Zimmer and others. Neal homered in Caguas’s only win, 7-3, in game two, behind Chi Olivo’s pitching at Sixto Escobar Stadium, the Crabbers home. Bob Montag and Félix Mantilla also homered for the Criollos.  The Crabbers outscored Caguas, 43-6, in their four wins, including a 14-0 rout in game three. Caguas RHP Joey Jay left that game after throwing two pitches. A Caguas official admitted he hid Jay in his own house for two days because of his concern for the pitcher’s safety from angry fans.

The 1956-57 winter season was Neal’s final one with Caguas, hitting .305 (36-for-118), 4, 15, with 19 runs. Caguas (39-34) failed to make the playoffs after losing a one-game tie-breaker with San Juan (40-33) for third place. Neal’s career totals with Caguas: 141 hits/485 AB, 83 runs, .291 BA, eleven HR-55 RBIs. Héctor Barea, Caguas team historian, placed 2B Neal on the All-Caguas team of the 1950s, with GuiGui Lucas (Luis St. Claire) and Ray Murray at catcher; IF—George Crowe (1B), SS Stan Breard and Félix Mantilla (11 HR in 1954-55); OF—Luis R. Olmo, Jim Rivera, Henry Aaron, Wes Covington and Johnny Powers; plus three pitchers: Roberto Vargas (10-1 in 1950-51), Bob Buhl (14-3 in 1953-54) and Juan Pizarro (14-5 in 1957-58).

Neal’s 1956 rookie season in Brooklyn produced a .287/.353/.382/.736 slash line, 150 AB, mostly as a 2B and pinch-hitter. Neal was 0-for-4 against LHP Whitey Ford in game three of the 1956 World Series, viewed by 73,977 fans. Neal’s fine play with Caguas was instrumental in him becoming the Dodgers regular 2B, 1957-to-1961. A 3x All-Star, his best season was in 1959, a .287/337/.464/.802 slash line. Neal stole 17 bases; hit 30 doubles, 11 triples, 19 homers, drove in 83 runs; and won a GG. He and rookie SS Maury Wills combined to give the Dodgers a fine double play combo. Neal became the game two hero of the 1959 World Series at Comiskey Park. The Dodgers lost the opener, 11-0, and were down, 2-0, in the fifth, when Neal hit a solo HR to deep left off Bob Shaw. Neal came up in the seventh with two outs and Junior Gilliam on first. Chuck Essegian had tied the game, 2-2 in this inning, with a pinch-hit HR. Neal’s two-run HR over the 420-foot sign in CF proved to be the game-winner in a 4-3 victory. Los Angeles won this series in six games. Neal’s slash line: .370/.370/.667/1.037, two HR, six RBIs. This was the first World Series featuring two GG winners at 2B—Nellie Fox (AL) and Charlie Neal (NL).

On December 15, 1961, Neal was traded by the Dodgers to the New York Mets for OF Lee Walls and $100,000. The Mets received a player to be named later (Willard Hunter) on May 25, 1962. Craig Anderson, a Mets pitcher, liked Neal, affirming “he played hard; glad we got him…good in the clubhouse.” Anderson was “surprised we were able to get him; I didn’t think he was available.” Anderson, now 80 years young, noted that Neal was close with [ex-Dodgers] Gil Hodges, Roger Craig and Don Zimmer, with the 1962 Mets. Neal played with the Mets the first half of 1963 and finished his career with Cincinnati. MLB slash line .259/.329/.394/.723.

Neal hit third in the Mets line-up, their first game—April 11, 1962—at St. Louis. This blog was finalized April 11, 2019, exactly 57 years after the Mets made their regular season debut. Neal drove in the first run in Mets history, in the third, after Richie Ashburn singled and Félix Mantilla walked. Neal poked a single to RF, scoring Ashburn. Then, Frank Thomas’s sacrifice to CF scored Mantilla, to tie the game, 2-2. Neal homered in the fifth, one inning after Gil Hodges hit a fourth inning HR, first in team history… Larry Jackson held the Mets in check after Neal’s HR, as St. Louis won, 9-4. The Mets line-up was: Ashburn-CF, Mantilla-SS, Neal-2B, Frank Thomas-LF, Gus Bell-RF, Gil Hodges-1B, Don Zimmer-3B, Hobie Landrith-C and Roger Craig-pitcher.  St. Louis went with: Curt Flood-CF, Julián Javier-2B, Bill White-1B, Stan Musial-RF, Ken Boyer-3B, Minnie Miñoso-LF, Gene Oliver-C, Julio Gotay-SS and Larry Jackson-pitcher.

Craig Anderson fondly recalled the game against St. Louis when pinch-hitter Marv Throneberry failed to touch first-or-second base on his triple. This cost the Mets two runs and the game. Mets manager Casey Stengel told the umpire: “He (Throneberry) didn’t miss third base—he’s standing on it.” The next day, Charlie Neal hit a HR and Stengel immediately came out of the dugout, pointing to each base, to make sure Neal touched each one on his way home! In another game at Los Angeles, Anderson induced Maury Wills to hit into a very rare 6-4-3 double play, Elio Chacón to Neal to Hodges. Anderson laughed when he described how excited Neal was in turning this double play against his former team and his ex-double play combination partner.

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