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Ray Neil

“Currently the best hitter in Negro baseball, [Neil] can't be considered a Big League prospect because he has celebrated at least 30 birthdays.” 
--- Chicago Defender newspaper in 1953


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Negro Leaguer of the Month

November, 2008

Raymond "Ray" Neil

Born: October 12, 1920 in Apoka, Florida
Ht:5'-9", Wt: 165
Batted and threw right
Position: second base
Playing Years: 1942-54
Teams: Ethiopian Clowns, Cincinnati Clowns, Indianapolis Clowns, Venezuela

Who was the best second baseman in baseball during the 1940s and 50s? Joe Gordon, Red Shoendienst, Jackie Robinson or Bobby Doerr? Some believe it was a baby-faced player for the Indianapolis Clowns, Ray Neil.

Neil was hired by Syd Pollock when he owned the Miami Ethiopian Clowns, and he followed the team as they moved to Cincinnati, and finally to Indianapolis. From '42 through '54, Neil was half of some of the greatest double play combinations in baseball.

When Neil broke in, his shortstop was the sensational Jim Oliver. None other than Buck O'Neil said that the Neil-Oliver DP combo was one of the best ever.

Later, Neil teamed with Sherwood Brewer, Willie Wells, and Hank Aaron, who all spent time at shortstop with the Clowns, and in East-West All-Star competition, Neil teamed with Artie Wilson and Ernie Banks.

Neil had quick hands, a slick glove, a rifle arm, and, despite his boyish looks, was tough as nails on the pivot; he once had 19 chances in one game without an error while playing in Venezuela.

Clowns' manager Buster Haywood thought that Neil was the best second baseman he ever saw.

But, could Neil hit? Yessir! In three East-West All-Star game, Neil batted .600 (6 for 10) and slugged .900, and in his 13 year career Neil batted around .330.

In 1953, when Neil was past his prime, he led the Negro American League in batting with a .397, 50 points higher than the number two batter, Ernie Banks! In total, he led the league in eight offensive categories, including hits and doubles, and he placed second in stolen bases and total bases.

At the '53 East-West Game, Neil was proclaimed "too old" to be a Big League prospect (he would soon be 33), as there were many players in that year's game that eventually made the Majors, including Junior Gilliam (24 years old), Ernie Banks (22), Bob Boyd (25), Minnie Minoso (26), Joe Black (28), George Crowe (29), Connie Johnson (30) and Sam Jethroe (32). Banks, by the way, went 0 for 4, while Neil went 3 for 3 with a triple.

In 1954, Neil was described often as the best hitter in Black Baseball, and in his last at bat he hit a game-winning homer, helping his manager Oscar Charleston win the Negro American League pennant.

After the '54 season, Clowns' owner Syd Pollock got Neil a job with a Caterpillar factory in St. Joseph, Michigan where he stayed for years.

Despite his outstanding play, Neil helped his team survive in the 1950s when other Negro League teams were folding, by agreeing to let Toni Stone, the great female baseball player, play the first three innings of many games at second while he patrolled left field. Stone brought in big crowds which filled the Clowns coffers, and the Clowns existed into the 1970s, the last Negro League team to play.

_______

(some information from
“Barnstorming to Heaven,” by Alan J. Pollock


XXX