RIP to Neal Watlington, who was one of the game’s oldest players and one of a handful of surviving members of the Philadelphia Athletics. He died on December 29, 2019, just four days after his 97th birthday. Watlington, a catcher, played for the A’s in 1953. While he seems that he didn’t like to talk about it, he was a war hero who was honored both by the United States and France for his service during World War II.
Julius Neal Watlington was born on December 25, 1922, in Yanceyville, N.C. He was the only son among seven children and worked in his father’s general store when he wasn’t in high school or playing for the school’s football or baseball teams.
Watlington’s professional baseball career started in 1941 with the Mayoden Millers in North Carolina. Well, he believed his pro started in 1947, but the record books told a different story.
“Back in 1941 when I was 17 and just out of high school, a team of the old Bi-State League ran out of catchers,” he explained late in his career. “They asked if I’d catch a few games. I caught two games, got my release and forgot about it. So did everybody else. But a couple of years ago somebody went through some records, discovered those two games and added six years to my career.”
Watlington never had the chance to pursue pro baseball any further, because World War II broke out, and he was called to the Army. According to his obituary, Watlington received a Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. He suffered “nicks” on his hands and head — “nothing worth talking about,” he told an interviewer in 1953. According to a Baseball in Wartime newsletter, Watlington said, “I put in six months on the front lines in France, Belgium and Germany.” His battalion fought at Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge. After the War had ended, he played baseball with the 19th Replacement Depot.
He never talked about the War much. When his son once asked him why he only had one Purple Heart when he was wounded twice, he simply replied that he never filled out the paperwork the second time. “What do I need two for?” he said.
Watlington returned home from the War and went to work in the Caswell Knitting Mills in Yanceyville. He played amateur baseball as well and caught the eye of a local baseball fan. The fan recommended him to Giants scout Herb Brett, who brought Watlington back into professional ball. He signed with the Class-C Danville Leafs of the Carolina League. Though he had lived a busy life already, Watlington was still just 24 years old. He hit .328 with 21 doubles and 7 home runs and was one of the team’s offensive leaders.
He did so well that Yanceyville Rotary Club sponsored a “Neal Watlington Night” at Danville on July 24. Baseball fans from Caswell County, N.C., showed up and presented the rookie with a pocket watch for making his hometown proud.
Watlington kept up the offensive attack as he moved up the ranks of the Giants’ organization. He batted .302 for the Knoxville Smokies in 1948 and moved to the Jersey City Giants, their AAA team, in 1949. He stayed in AAA for the next three seasons for the Giants. His hitting tailed off to .238 in 1951, and he hit just 1 home run. It came off Tommy Lasorda of Montreal on May 6.
In the offseasons during his playing days, Watlington worked for a couple of years as a tobacco auctioneer. Once his teammates found out about his hidden talent, he was frequently asked to give demonstrations.
The Philadelphia A’s bought the contract of Watlington from the Giants in February 1952. He hit .253 for the AAA Ottawa A’s in 1952 with 4 homers and 37 RBIs. The following season, he was back at Ottawa and was batting .259 through 49 games when Philadelphia catcher Joe Astroth broke his thumb. The A’s brought Watlington to the majors to back up second-string catcher Ray Murray.
The 30-year-old rookie was promoted on July 6. On July 12, he made his debut versus the Boston Red Sox. He went 1-for-4 with a single off Boston starter Hal Brown in a 9-5 loss. He also made a bit of history on September 13, when he caught Bob Trice, the first African-American player in Philadelphia A’s history. Watlington had caught Trice in the minor leagues, so manager Jimmy Dykes gave him a rare start behind the place.
Watlington appeared in a total of 21 games, 9 as a catcher and 13 as a pinch-hitter. He hit .159, with 7 hits in 44 at-bats. He drove in 3 runs and scored 4, and 1 of his hits went for a double. Though he didn’t play that much behind the plate, he threw out 4 of the 6 baserunners who tried to steal on him. He committed 1 error in 45 chances for a .978 fielding percentage.
Watlington rejoined Ottawa in 1954 and, once again, hit in the .250s. He remained in AAA through 1958, playing in the Yankees and Cardinals organizations. His playing time and productivity gradually decreased as he got into his mid-30s. By 1956, he was seen as the senior citizen of the International League. Watlington, 33, reasoned that there was probably some player who joined the IL earlier, but none had spent more seasons in the International League. He started in the IL in 1949 with Jersey City and retired after the ’58 season with the Rochester Red Wings. He hit .250 in the IL with 34 home runs and 315 RBIs in those 10 seasons.
After retiring from the game, Watlington coached an American Legion team in Yanceyville and helped found a semipro baseball program in Caswell County. He and his wife Katherine also operated a department store in town called Watlington’s on the Square. He ran the store, which he had bought in 1953, until 2000. He was also a member of the Caswell County Chamber of Commerce as well as a local Wachovia bank.
In 2016, Watlington and 11 other surviving North Carolinians traveled to Charlotte to be awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. The medals, presented by French Consul General Denis Barbet, were given in appreciation for their help in liberating France during World War II. Watlington was a machine gunner and transported supplies, mail and the wounded back and forth from the front, according to this article on GoDanRiver.com.
His son Stuart said that he offered to take Watlington back to France. “He said, ‘I was so glad to get home, why would I want to go back?””
With Neal Watlington’s death, there are, according to Baseball Reference, nine living members of the Philadelphia Athletics.
Photographer Chip Millard has photos of Watlington’s on the Square after it had closed around 2008.
For more information: https://www.harrelsonfs.com/obits/obituary.php?id=680028