By Mark Hodapp
For years, Cal Neeman was the man behind a catcher’s mask.
The long-time Cahokia, Ill. resident disappeared from major league baseball in 1963 and was gone, but not forgotten.
“I don’t do much now,” he says. “I am right now in Florida, enjoying the nice sunshine.”
At 83 years old, Neeman is as energetic as many men half his age.
He still enjoys playing golf, and traveling with his wife of 58 years, Maryann.
“I am not a scratch golfer,” he says and laughs. “I never was. I didn’t even have a handicap last year. The last time I had a handicap, it was a 14.”
Neeman now lives in Lake St. Louis, Mo. He recently had his right knee replaced.
“I’m down here (in Florida) trying to recoup,” he says.
Neeman was born in Valmeyer, Ill. on Feb. 18, 1929. He remembers moving to Waterloo, Ill. when he was in the first grade. His family later moved to East St. Louis, Ill. after his dad got a “good job” with Monsanto. They later relocated to Maplewood, Ill. (better known as Cahokia today), where he lived most of his teenage life and had a newspaper delivery route.
Neeman graduated from Dupo High School in 1947, and is still widely considered as one of the school’s most gifted athletes in baseball and basketball.
He helped Dupo win the regional basketball title during his senior year.
Neeman was later signed as an amateur free agent by the New York Yankees out of Illinois Wesleyan University, where he also played basketball, before the 1949 season.
The Yankees organization assigned him to the Joplin Miners of the Class C Western Association, where he spent both the 1949 and ‘50 seasons.
Neeman hit .292 for the Miners in 95 games to win the pennant in 1950 with help from Mickey Mantle.
“Everyone who saw Mantle play knew he could run faster and hit the ball farther than anyone on the field,” Neeman recalls.
Neeman was drafted by the U.S. military and served during the Korean Conflict, returning in time for the 1953 season.
He served with the Army’s 105th Field Artillery Battalion, spending about a year in Korea.
After being discharged from the Army, he met his wife while playing with the Binghamton Triplets. The Triplets were a minor league baseball team in Binghamton, New York, affiliated with the New York Yankees.
Neeman spent four seasons in the minor leagues, with his best year coming in 1955 when he caught 122 games and hit .294 with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association.
In 1956, he played with the AAA Richmond Virginians and also the AAA Denver Bears.
On Dec. 3, 1956, he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the New York Yankees in the Rule V Draft. “That shocked me,” he says. “I could hardly believe it.”
It was the break Neeman needed as the Yankees were well stocked at catcher with Yogi Berra and a number of young catchers in their system, including Elston Howard, Ralph Houk and Johnny Blanchard.
Neeman jumped right in and became the Cubs’ first string catcher as a rookie in 1957, hitting .257 with 10 home runs in 122 games.
He fondly recalls getting his first big league hit off Milwaukee Braves star Warren Spahn on April 16, 1957, at Wrigley Field.
He remembers getting his first home run a week later off of Milwaukee hurler Lew Burdette in the 10th inning on April 23, 1957, at County Stadium in Milwaukee.
The game ended with Milwaukee Hall of Famer Hank Aaron hitting a line drive caught by Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, killing a Milwaukee scoring rally.
He split the Cubs catching duties in 1958 with Sammy Taylor.
“In those days, if you didn’t hit close to .300, a second division team was looking for ways to improve their team,” he says. “On a pennant winner or contender, that was a different story.”
A solid receiver, Neeman would be with the Cubs until he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with Tony Taylor for Ed Bouchee and Don Cardwell on May 13, 1960.
While with Philadelphia, he became close friends with the late Robin Roberts. The former Phillies pitching great was born in Springfield, Ill., the son of an immigrant Welsh coal miner. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
“He could throw the ball where the hitters could never hit it,” Neeman recalls.
He spent a day with Roberts last spring shortly before his death on May 6, 2010. He was 83.
“That was a sad day,” Neeman says. “He was one of those good men we lost.”
Neeman’s game started to tail off and the 33-year-old catcher was passed along to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1962 and he would finish off his big league career in the American League with the Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators in 1963.
Neeman finished with a .988 fielding percentage and a .224 batting average. He had 30 home runs while appearing in 376 games.
After baseball and during the offseason, Neeman worked as a railroad switchman.
Neeman later worked as a salesman with the Nystrom Company, selling school supplies.