Obituary: Al Naples (1926-2021)

RIP to Al Naples, who was one of the last surviving members of the St. Louis Browns. He died on February 26 at the age of 94. No cause of death was given, but his SABR bio, written in 2019, noted that he had beaten leukemia in the 1990s and was battling it again as of 2019. His wife of 71 years, Rose, passed away on February 8 at the Terraces Nursing Home in Orleans, Mass., also at the age of 94. The two had lived in Massachusetts for more than 30 years, following his retirement as a teacher. Naples played in two games for the Browns in 1949, largely by a series of unfortunate events.

Aloysius Francis Naples was born in Staten Island, N.Y., on August 29, 1926. He grew up in a baseball community, as baseball players from Phil Rizzuto to Mickey Harris and Sam Mele all lived in the area. “My father was a catcher and although he never played professionally, he got me started playing ball when I was just about able to walk,” he said in a 1949 interview.

He and his brother Donald were multi-sport stars at St. Peter’s High School in Staten Island. They were part of a basketball team that won the Metropolitan Catholic High Schools championship basketball tournament in 1944. The team was celebrated at a victory dinner in April that included Brooklyn Dodgers coaches Charley Dressen and Red Corriden among the litany of speakers. Al Naples was a shortstop as well and was scheduled to report to the New York Yankees after graduation.

That promising baseball career would wait for a few years, as Naples decided to enter into the Navy. He spent most of the next couple years on a destroyer in the North Atlantic. If you want to read more about his life in the military, I really do recommend that SABR biography. Writer Bill Nowlin interviewed Naples and got some great anecdotes from his life, some told with a little prodding by Rose.

After his service time, Naples returned to New York and played amateur baseball. He then attended Georgetown University on a basketball scholarship and was the starting shortstop on the varsity team for three seasons. Naples is a member of the Georgetown Athletics Hall of Fame for his accomplishments, but the mathematics major he studied there would pay a much larger role in his life.

Source: St. Peter’s Boy’s High School, Staten Island, N.Y.

In 1949, Naples was a junior at Georgetown and was looking forward to completing his education. His play in the field had attracted interest from several clubs, and the Yankees, Senators and Braves all reportedly had asked him to contact them once he had graduated.

So how did he end up in a Browns uniform without having spent a day in the minor leagues? It was a whirlwind of events. The 22-year-old was scheduled to work out with the Newark Bears in late June. “That is,” he explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “until I got a call from Mr. DeWitt [Browns vice president Charlie DeWitt] Wednesday night [June 22, 1949]. He told me to come up to Boston and that the Browns would give me a chance to start out in the big leagues. That’s what I’ve wanted since I was a kid, so I flew up this afternoon and signed a contract.”

DeWitt probably didn’t let on how desperate the Browns were, but the team was riddled with injuries. In relatively short order, pitchers Cliff Fannin and Dick Starr were put out of action with arm trouble and appendicitis, respectively. The infield was in even worse shape, as shortstop Eddie Pellagrini dislocated his shoulder. Then the Browns traveled to New York for a doubleheader against the Yankees and lost third baseman Bob Dillinger (twisted ankle) and second baseman Jerry Priddy (pulled leg muscle) to injuries in successive innings. By the time the team limped to Boston for a series, the infield resembled a triage unit. Which led to the phone call from DeWitt to a college junior at Georgetown University who was a year away from even considering a professional baseball career.

Naples sat on the bench on June 23 and watched the Browns get annihilated by the Red Sox, 21-2 in Fenway Park. Ted Williams drove in 7 runs all by himself with a pair of home runs, a bases-loaded walk and a 2-run single. Naples was put into the starting lineup on the 24th, as Browns manager Zack Taylor tried to patch up his battered infield as best as he could. Backup outfielder Whitey Platt played first base, Andy Anderson was at second, Naples debuted at shortstop and John Sullivan played third base. The Browns did much better with this infield, losing by a score of only 13-2. If Naples had any anxiety about his rapid rise to the majors, he didn’t show it. He hit a double to right field in his first major-league at-bat off starter Mel Parnell. He grounded out in his other three trips to the plate but was flawless in give chances in the field.

The Browns lost a nail-biter to the Red Sox on June 26, 5-3. Naples was hitless in 3 at-bats against Boston’s Chuck Stobbs, with a strikeout and two more groundouts. In the field, he committed an error on a Vern Stephens ground ball in the bottom of the sixth inning. Stephens would score the go-ahead run on a Matt Batts double off Browns pitcher Karl Drews.

By the time the Browns played again on June 28, Priddy was well enough to return to the lineup. Naples stayed on the bench as insurance, but he broke a finger on his right hand while taking fielding practice on July 5. That ultimately ended his brief career in the majors. When he was healthy enough to play, the Browns sent him to Class-B Springfield (Ill.). He slashed .232/.322/.293 in 56 games there, with 3 doubles and 4 triples among his 42 hits. Those were the final games of his pro baseball career.

In his two games, Naples went 1-for-7 for a .143 batting average. His one double was the only ball he hit out of the infield. He had 8 chances in the field and committed the one error for an .875 fielding percentage.

True to his word, Naples returned to Georgetown in 1950 to complete his education. He married Ms. Rose V. Penny on January 21, 1950. They were a perfect match, as she was deeply involved with both sports and education. She was a physical education major at New York University and became a teacher at Gettysburg High School in 1947 and 1948 before taking a similar role at the College of New Rochelle.

Naples graduated from Georgetown, got a master’s degree at Fordham University and eventually ended up at his old high school of St. Peter’s, where he became a math teacher. He then moved to River Dell High School in Oradell, N.J., and stayed there for 30 years. Rose, while not on the River Dell staff, was a frequent field hockey referee there.

As a teacher, Naples seemed to be constantly looking for opportunities to improve, both himself as a teacher and the curriculum for the students. In 1959, he was one of 13 Bergen County teachers who took part in three advanced education institutes held at the Newark College of Engineering. The goal of the program was to improve teaching techniques in chemistry, physics and mathematics. In 1965, River Dell began to re-evaluate teachers’ roles in education and possible changes to the school curriculum. Some of the changes the school instituted, according to The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), were to introduce independent learning, shift the responsibility of learning to the student and present the teacher as a guide, consultant and provocative questioner. As the school’s math chair, Naples was an advocate for change in the mathematics department.

Picture taken from an unknown newspaper. Source: Anne R. Keene, author.

One of Naples’ biggest accomplishments in his academic career was the work he did with Columbia University and Watson Labs in introducing the computer into the classroom. As he explained to Nowlin in his SABR bio: “I got a national foundation scholarship to Columbia University with Watson Labs, a full scholarship. Watson was the founder of IBM. The intent was to get teachers — I was teaching at the time — to try to get them computers into the high schools. It was just a promotional type thing. I was picked out of 30 teachers from the metropolitan area; 12 completed the course. I was able to get with the president of the Board of Education of Oradell and River Edge, New Jersey. His name was George Howitt. He was one of the vice presidents for Hewlett-Packard and he got the computer in our school.”

Naples did some basketball and baseball coaching while at River Dell, and he retired from education in 1987. He and Rose moved to Massachusetts to be closer to their children — they had seven. Naples was inducted into the St. Peter’s Boys High School Hall of Fame in 2019 as part of its inaugural class.

Author Anne R. Keene also has a lovely essay about Naples written in 2020.

For more information: Dignity Memorial

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