The Korean War has the unfortunate nickname of the Forgotten War. The conflict in Korea was wedged between World War II and the Vietnam War, but it was no less horrific for the soldiers. 36,574 Americans were killed in just over 3 years of fighting. The Forgotten War cut short the lives of many soldiers. Among those killed in Korea was Major Robert Neighbors of the Army Air Force.
Major Neighbors joined the Army Air Force on May 8, 1942. He served with the 22nd Air Transport Training Detachment in Wichita Falls, Texas. He also spent part of his time playing baseball for the Sheppard Field Mechanics. After the German and Japanese surrenders, the United States began demobilizing large parts of its military. However, Neighbors decided to stay and make a career in the Army Air Force.
Roughly five years later, on June 25, 1950 North Korea attacked South Korea sparking the Korean War. The conflict was both an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under one flag and an escalation of the Cold War. The United States was immediately drawn into the conflict defending its South Korean ally and preventing the spread of Communism. Major Neighbors was assigned to the 13th Bomb Squadron of the 3rd Bomb group. On August 8, 1952 Neighbors and his crew, First-Lieutenant William Holcom and Staff-Sergeant Grady Weeks, flew a night mission over North Korea. They were originally not scheduled for the mission but the pilot of the scheduled crew was sick. During their mission Neighbors and his crew were shot down. They radioed they were hit but did not provide a location. The crew bailed out of their Douglas B-26 Invader and were never heard from again. Neighbors and his crew were officially declared dead on December 31, 1953 after they were not among the Prisoners of War repatriated in accordance with the Armistice. He was 34 years old and left behind his second wife, his first wife was hit and killed by a car in 1941, and a 2 year old son. Neighbors was the only Major League player killed during the Korean War, and is the last Major League player killed in combat.
Major Robert Neighbors is the most recent MLB player killed in war. (www.mlb.com)
Neighbors’ spent 6 seasons in the Minor Leagues playing primarily for teams in Texas and Arkansas. He began his professional career in 1936 with the Siloam Springs Travelers of the Class D Arkansas-Missouri League. He returned to Siloam Springs to begin 1937 before joining the Abbeville A’s of the Class D Evangeline League. In 1938, Neighbors played for the Class A1 San Antonio Missions in the Texas League and the Palestine Pals of the Class C East Texas League. In 1939, he joined the Class B Springfield Browns of the Triple I League before his September call up. Neighbors was back in the Minors in 1940 with the Toledo MudHens of the Class AA American Association, before playing for both San Antonio and Palestine. Neighbors spent 1941, his final season of professional ball, with San Antonio. It was during a road trip that his first wife was hit and killed. Across 6 seasons in the Minors, Neighbors hit .268 with a solid to very good glove at Shortstop.
September call ups reward young prospects with a taste of the Major Leagues. Bob Neighbors was not the next super star the Browns were always searching for, but his play earned him a cup of coffee in the Big Leagues. He debuted on September 16, 1939 against the Washington Senators as a Pinch Runner. In 7 games, Neighbors had 2 Hits in 11 At Bats (.182), including a solo Home Run for his only RBI, scored 3 Runs, with 1 Strikeout. In the field, he played 28 Innings at Shortstop. He had 12 Chances, made 5 Putouts, 6 Assists, 1 Error, and turned 1 Double Play.
The Boston Red Sox were finishing out the 1939 season. Their new super star Ted Williams had arrived in April, slugging 31 Home Runs, a league best 145 RBI, and hitting .327. Boston would finish the season 89-62, but it did not matter. The Yankees won the American League pennant by 17 games. Even good seasons at Fenway were not enough. The St. Louis Browns came to Fenway on September 21, 1939 to play a game because it was on the schedule. The official attendance was 598. Five Hundred and Ninety Eight. In the Bottom of the 6th, the Red Sox loaded the bases with 1 out. Doc Cramer hit a ground ball to Neighbors who threw to Johnny Berardino covering Second to force out Red Nonnenkamp. Instead of throwing to First, Berardino threw to 3rd Baseman Harlond Clift to tag Denny Galehouse. Before the 3rd out was made, Gene Desautels scampered home to score. Only the Browns could turn an inning ending Double Play while allowing a run to score. Neighbors was up second in the Top of the 7th with 1 out. He drove a pitch from Galehouse over the Green Monster for his only career Home Run. Neighbors’ best day in his short Major League career was not enough, the Browns lost 6-2. His final game was nine days later on September 30, 1939 in the second game of a Doubleheader against the White Sox. The Browns went 1-6 with Neighbors on the team, finishing dead last in the American League at 43-111. 1939 was the Browns’ 10th consecutive losing season.
Bob Neighbors did not have a long, memorable career. He, like so many others, had a cup of coffee in the Majors. He is forever listed among the select few who have played Major League Baseball. While his career was far from spectacular, his dedication to his country went beyond the call of duty. Major Robert Neighbors is among those we remember this Memorial Day who gave their lives in defense of our nation. He stands out for playing in the Major Leagues, but he is no different than the thousands of soldiers lost in war. Neighbors is the most recent Major League player killed in war. Hopefully he retains this title forever and fewer sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins go off to war and do not return.
Valentine’s Day is about spending time with that special someone in your life. You express your love with gifts, flowers, candies, a nice meal, or simply spending time together. Winning builds love in baseball, it solves every team’s problems. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner hated losing, “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.” So what creates more love, winning, in baseball? WAR.
WAR, Wins Above Replacement, measures a player’s value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position. The higher a player’s WAR the more they help the team.
The highest career WAR for any Major Leaguer born on Valentine’s Day belongs to Charles “Pretzels” Getzien. Born in Germany on February 14, 1864, Getzien played for five teams during his nine seasons in the National League. Nicknamed Pretzels for throwing a double curve ball, Getzien’s career 18.1 WAR far outpaces his closest competitor Arthur Irwin’s career 15.2 WAR. Even Candy LaChance’s career 11.1 WAR was no match for Getzien.
Charles “Pretzels” Getzien while with the Detroit Wolverines. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)
Baseball in the 1880’s and early 1890’s was not the same game played today. Getzien, a starting pitcher, was expected to pitch every few days; teams did not use the modern five man rotation. Starters were expected to pitch the entire game; pitch counts did not matter. Bullpen matchups in high leverage situations were never a thought. In 1884, Getzien’s first season in the National League, it took six balls to walk a batter, not the modern four. There were other rule changes along the way.
1886 was Pretzels Getzien’s best season. He started 43 games for the Detroit Wolverines, pitching 42 Complete Games, and 1 Shutout. His 30-11 record included a 3.03 ERA and 1.223 WHIP. Getzien pitched 386.2 innings, allowing 388 Hits, 203 Runs, just 130 Earned Runs, 6 Home Runs, striking out 172, walking 85, and throwing 19 Wild Pitches. At the plate, he hit .176 in 165 At Bats, collecting 29 Hits, 3 Doubles, 3 Triples, 19 RBI, 3 Stolen Bases, scoring 14 Runs, 6 walks, 46 strikeouts, for an .205 On-Base Percentage, Slugging .230, and .435 OPS. Getzien’s 1886 season was the first of five consecutive seasons with at least 40 starts.
More rule changes occurred before the 1887 season. Batters could no longer call for high or low pitches. Five balls were required to walk a batter, not six. Striking out a batter required four strikes. Bats could have one flat side. While the rules changed Getzien’s success remained. He was the only Wolverine starter to make more than 24 starts, starting 42 with 41 Complete Games. Riding Getzien’s right arm, Detroit won the National League Pennant. They faced the American Association champion St. Louis Browns in the World Series. Pretzels Getzien went 4-2, throwing 6 Complete Games, 58 innings, with a 2.48 ERA and 1.310 WHIP. He allowed 61 Hits, 23 Runs, 16 Earned Runs, walked 15, and struck out 17. Getzien was a threat at the plate too. He hit .300 in 20 At Bats, collecting 6 hits, including 2 Doubles, 1 stolen base, scoring 5 Runs, 2 RBI, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts. He boasted a .391 On-Base Percentage, .400 Slugging, and .791 OPS. The Wolverines won the series 10 games to five.
The 1887 World Series Champions, Detroit Wolverines. (www.detroitathletic.com)
In 1888, Getzien started 46 games throwing 45 Complete Games. The Wolverines pitching staff also had Pete Conway, 45 starts, and Henry Gruber, 25 starts. Despite the team’s success Detroit owner Frederick Stearns disbanded the Wolverines after the season due to financial woes. Getzien joined the Indianapolis Hoosiers for the 1889 season. Prior to the season, the National League adopted the modern four balls for a walk and three strikes for a strikeout rule. Getzien started 44 games, throwing 36 Complete Games. After one season with the Hoosiers, Getzien spent 1890, his last great season, pitching for the Boston Beaneaters. He made 40 starts, throwing 39 Complete Games alongside future Hall of Famers Kid Nichols and John Clarkson. Nichols, a rookie, threw a Complete Game in all 47 of his starts. Clarkson made 44 starts with 43 Complete Games. Getzien’s pitching career began to decline after 1890.
Getzien started nine games for Boston in 1891 before he was released. He would sign with the Cleveland Spiders and pitch just one game. Getzien finished his career with the St. Louis Browns in 1892. It was the only season of his career where batters were forced to hit a round ball with a round bat squarely; bats could no longer have a flat side.
In 1893, Getzien’s first season out of professional baseball, saw the pitching distance moved from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches. The rules governing baseball in the 1800’s shed light on the games’ differences in its infancy and today. In 1901, almost a decade after Pretzels Getzien last pitched, the National League would count foul balls as strikes. Previously if a batter fouled off seven consecutive pitches to begin an at bat the count remained no balls and no strikes. Striking out a batter required a swing and miss or a called strike.
Pretzels Getzien as a member of the Detroit Wolverines in 1888. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)
Getzien compiled a career record of 145-139, 1 Save, 3.46 ERA, and 1.288 WHIP. He started 296 games, throwing 277 Complete Games, and 11 shutouts. In 2,539.2 innings, Getzien allowed 2,670 hits, 1,555 runs, 976 Earned Runs, struck out 1,070, walked 602, hit 28 batters, and threw 111 Wild Pitches. He is the all-time leader in Wins, Loses, Complete Games, Shutouts, Innings Pitched, Hits Allowed, Runs, Earned Runs, Wild Pitches, and Batters Faced for German born Major Leaguers. Getzien led the National League in Home Runs allowed in 1887 and 1889, with 24 and 27 respectively. In an era of few home runs Getzien allowed more Home Runs than many modern day pitchers. He allowed 6.2% of the 383 Home Runs hit in 1887 and 7.2% of the 371 hit in 1889. In 2018, Tyler Anderson of the Rockies and Chase Anderson of the Brewers led the National League with 30 Home Runs allowed. They both allowed 1.1% of the 2,685 Home Runs hit.
Offensively, Getzien had 1,140 Plate Appearances, 1,056 At Bats, collecting 209 Hits, 27 Doubles, 15 Triples, 8 Home Runs, 109 RBI, 17 Stolen Bases, 78 Walks, 247 Strike Outs, .198 Batting Average, .257 On-Base Percentage, .275 Slugging, and .532 OPS. His pitching, not hitting, abilities made him dangerous on the diamond.
Pretzels Getzien is most remembered for his odd nickname. On his 155th Birthday, let us remember him as the career WAR leader for Major Leaguers born on Valentine’s Day. So in his honor, may the love of your life be kind like the warm sunshine and green grass of the coming baseball season. Happy Valentine’s Day, WAR can create love.
Memorial Day is when we, collectively as a nation, pause to remember and honor the men and women who have given their lives to protect our freedoms. The impact of war goes beyond the soldiers who fought; it impacts their families and friends. When soldiers are deployed overseas, they not only miss anniversaries and birthdays, but they also miss the daily life events. If you have ever had the opportunity to walk the length of the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. you begin to understand the toll which war has taken on our nation. Every name on the wall is a brother, husband, father, son, grandson, uncle, cousin, and friend who never came home. The void their deaths have left behind cannot be filled. So this Memorial Day weekend, and every other day throughout the year, we should slow down from our busy lives and honor the brave men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.
Among the many individuals who we honor this Memorial Day for their sacrifice,we allow six individuals to stand out here. These men are the only six men who have played in Major League Baseball and died during combat.
Eddie Grant- WWI
“Harvard Eddie” Grant played 10 seasons in the Majors for the Cleveland Naps, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Giants. He compiled a career .249 batting average, stole 153 bases, hit 30 triples, all while playing all four infield positions. After his retirement in 1915, Grant opened a law firm in Boston before enlisting in the military in April 1917. Grant fought at the battle of Meuse-Argonne and assumed command after all his superior officers were killed during the four day search for the Lost Battalion. Grant was killed during the search by an exploding shell on October 5, 1918. He was the first Major League player to die in combat during World War I.
Robert “Bun” Troy- WWI
Troy was a German born pitcher who started his only career game on September 15, 1912 for the Detroit Tigers. In his only Major League appearance Troy went 6 2/3 innings, allowed nine hits, four runs, three walks, struck one batter out, and hit one batter. The Tigers lost to the Washington Senators 6 to 3. After several more years in the Minors Troy joined the United States military. He was shot during the battle of Meuse-Argonne. He would later die of his wounds at an evacuation hospital on October 7, 1918.
Tom Burr- WWI
Burr played in his only Major League game on April 21, 1914 for the New York Yankees. He was a late inning replacement in the Yankees 10 inning 3 to 2 victory over the Washington Senators. He did not have any fielding chances or plate appearances. He returned to Williams College but left for the Army Air Force before graduating. Burr was killed when the plane he was in collided with another plane on October 12, 1918 over Cazaux, France.
Elmer Gedeon- WWII
Gedeon played in five games for the Washington Senators in September 1939. He collected all three of his career hits as the starting Centerfielder in the September 19th victory over the Cleveland Indians. He was recalled from the minors again in 1940, but did not appear in any games. Gedeon was drafted by the Army in January 1941. He was later reassigned to the Army Air Force after being accepted into pilot school. He flew bombing missions over France until April 20, 1944, when his B-26 was assigned to take out a V-1 Buzz Bomb site which was under construction. Gedeon and five other crew men were killed after their plane was shot down by Germany anti-aircraft guns.
Harry O’Neill- WWII
O’Neill appeared in only one game for the 1939 Philadelphia Athletics. He caught two innings (8th and 9th inning) after replacing Frankie Hayes during the A’s 16 to 3 lose against the Detroit Tigers. O’Neill enlisted in the Marines in 1942 and saw action in Saipon were he was injured when he was hit in the shoulder with shrapnel. After recovering, he was sent back to the Pacific. He fought on Iwo Jima where he shot and killed by a sniper on March 6, 1945. He was the last player from Major League Baseball to be Killed in Action during World War II.
Robert Neighbors- Korea
Neighbors appeared in seven games in late September for the 1939 St. Louis Browns. He hit .182, with one home run and one RBI. He entered the Army Air Force in 1942 and remained in the service after World War II ended. Neighbors flew combat missions in Korea, including a night mission on August 8, 1952, during which his plane was shot down inside North Korea. No further contact was made with Neighbors or his crew. His status remained as Missing in Action until July 27, 1953 with the Korean Armistice Agreement and prisoner exchange. Neighbors status was changed to Killed in Action. He remains the last Major League Baseball player to die in combat.
These six men are among the thousands who have sacrificed their lives to protect the freedoms we all enjoy. They are the only former Major League players to die in combat. However they are not the only ones associated with the game of baseball to have died serving our country. Former baseball players from every level have given their lives during their service in the military during in Pre-World War I, World War I, World War II, Korea, Peace time, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
This Memorial Day take some time to remember these men and the other men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. To those who have served or are serving, thank you for everything you have done. To those who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice, as well as the families they have left behind, we are forever in your debt. On this Memorial Day we thank you and honor the sacrifices you have made.
The men behind the masks who call the games often do not receive the notoriety or praise they deserve for the abuse they receive in playing their position. These masked men take foul tips off their mask, hand, or occasionally the unmentionable. They do not leave the game unscathed due to the abuse on their knees from squatting, their arms from throwing, and their hands from catching. The tools of ignorance are what band them together; however there is a select group who stand apart from the rest. Led by Jack Clements, the first catcher to use a chest protector, this group is among the most selective in baseball. The left-handed catcher. How rare is a left-handed catcher? Since 1901, the year after Clements retired; there have been 7 left-handed catchers in the Major Leagues. They have caught a collective 62 games. Since 1908, there have only been 7 games caught total and this was achieved through three players. Left-handed catchers are a rarity; their history should be celebrated, not forgotten.
Jack Clements is, and most likely will remain, the gold standard for left-handed catchers. He is the only member of this select group to have caught more than 400 games in the Major Leagues. Over the course of his 17 year career, Clements caught 1,076 games. He began his career with the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association in 1884, the same year Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the unbreakable record for most wins in a single season by a pitcher with 59. By the end of the 1884 season, Clements was playing for the Philadelphia Quakers, who would later become the Phillies in 1890. He stayed with the Quakers through the 1897 season. In 1895, Clements set the Major League record for highest batting for a single season for a catcher with a .394 mark. He then bounced around to three different teams at the end of his career. In 1898 he played for the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Spiders in 1899, and finished his career in 1900 with the Boston Beaneaters.
Jack Clements enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 1891. He played in 107 games, he hit .310, .380 OBP, 29 doubles, 75 RBI, and walked 43 times against 19 strikeouts. Defensively he was an above average backstop, throwing out 32% of base stealers. He has 415 putouts, good for third in the Major Leagues, and 108 assists, which was good for 2nd in the Major Leagues. Clements is the only 19th century player with more home runs than triples (minimum of 1,000 games played).
The successful career of Jack Clements makes the scarcity of left-handed catchers all the more surprising. Why have there been so few left-handed catchers? There are three technical concerns which arise from using a left-handed catcher and one logistical issue.
Among the many duties of a catcher is to throw out base stealers. Preventing a runner from going from first to second would be a little more difficult for a left-handed catcher. There are more right-handed batters than left-handed batters. This means that a left-handed catcher would be more likely to be throwing to second with the batters’ box occupied on the side of their throwing arm. While right-handed catchers do face this challenge, left-handed catchers would face this challenge more often. This requires the catcher to throw more over the top than if the batters’ box on their throwing arm side is empty. This minor adjustment can cause a slight delay in the delivery of the ball to the middle infielder. Interference can be called by the umpire, but the hindrance would be more likely to cause a runner to safe, than the likelihood of interference to be called. The other issue presented to left-handed catchers when throwing to second base is the tendency of the baseball to fade. Right-handed catchers benefit from the fade going towards the second baseman’s side, whereas left-handed catchers would be faced with a baseball which tended to fade towards the shortstop side of second. The necessity of the middle infielder to catch the ball and then bring it back to the proper side of the base would cost even more time. Base stealers already possess an advantage over the defense in stealing bases, unfortunately the nature of the game would shift the advantage a little further to the runner should a catcher be left-handed.
The second issue with having a left-handed catcher shows itself once the base stealer has reached second base. Stealing third base is much more difficult than stealing second. A runner can gain a few steps before the catcher sees him going if a left-handed batter is up, by shielding his view; whereas a runner on second is in full view of the catcher. The distance from home to third is much shorter than home to third. When throwing to third base, a right-handed catcher can receive the pitch and then step into his throw. The same is not true for a left-handed catcher. He would have to receive the pitch, pivot, and then throw. This takes additional time and baseball is a game of inches. Giving the opponent additional time means giving them additional distance when they are running the bases. The inability to make snap throws to third base would have a detrimental impact upon a team as the opposing team would be more likely to steal third base; thus shortening the necessary distance to score a run from 180 feet to 90 feet. A runner on second requires a base hit to score, but a runner on third only requires a ball to be hit deep enough into the outfield for the runner to tag up and race home.
The third issue with having a left-handed catcher rears its ugly head once a runner is on third base. The new rule regarding home plate collisions will prevent more of the hard hits which catchers have long endured from runners racing home. Hitting a sacrifice fly and the runner tagging up lends itself to a play at the plate. The new rule means catchers will have to perfect the sweep tag. This puts left-handed catchers at a disadvantage as they will have to sweep across their body. Again this can add additional time to applying the tag to the runner, but it could also put the catcher out of position and result in their blocking the plate. Even an inadvertent blocking of the plate will result in the umpire calling the runner safe and awarding the opposing team the run. A right-handed catcher has the ability to stay a bit further away from any resemblance of blocking the plate and can more easily sweep across the plate. This prevents any accidental blocking of the plate and having the runner called safe according to the new rules, while also giving the catcher a greater ability to apply the sweep tag. This issue with protecting home plate is due to the simple logistics of the game, and cannot be overcome. Unfortunately for left-handed catchers, teams are unlikely to utilize a left-handed catcher due to the advantages they give to the opposing team, however small they might be.
I have shown just a sample of the disadvantages which a left-handed catcher would have in preventing the runner from moving from base to base and scoring. However, there is a more fundamental issue as to why there are currently no left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball, and why this is unlikely to change. It is nearly impossible to find a catcher’s mitt for someone who throws left handed. Even when you can find a left-handed catcher’s mitt, the cost can be prohibitive for many people. The inaccessibility of the equipment prevents many Little Leaguers who do not live in a community which has the financial means with which to purchase this specialized equipment from ever catching. Every Major Leaguer began as a Little Leaguer. The fundamentals and development begin there and the lack of a pool of left-handed catchers means the few left-handed catchers there are face even greater odds of making it to the Majors.
The sighting of a left-handed catcher is nearly as rare as a sighting of Big Foot. Unlike Big Foot though, a left-handed catcher could go unnoticed unless an astute observer recognized the importance of the moment. Only 30 men have ever caught a professional baseball game at the highest level, and of these 30, only six have caught at least 100 games. Since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, only three left-handed catchers have appeared in a game. Dale Long appeared in 2 games for the 1958 Chicago Cubs. Mike Squires appeared in 2 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980. The last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game was Benny Distefano, who appeared in 3 games for the 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates.
We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game. Such a long stretch between appearances raises the question: have we seen the last of this rare breed? I certainly hope not, but I hold out little hope that this endangers species can survive for much longer, if it is not already gone.