Obituary: Al Neiger (1939-2022)

RIP to Al Neiger, whose 5-year professional baseball career included 6 games for the 1960 Philadelphia Phillies. He was also one of the must successful pitchers in the history of the University of Delaware Blue Hens baseball program. Neiger died on October 3, at the age of 83.

Alvin Edward Neiger was born in Wilmington, Del., on March 26, 1939. Baseball was a big part of his family. His father, Al Sr., was a good athlete growing up in Taylor, Pa., and later became a semipro catcher. He started taking his son to baseball games at an early age. Al Jr. was an active athlete from an early age, spending his teenage years playing basketball in a local Protestant church league and baseball with the Junior Legion. He didn’t pitch regularly at Wilmington High School until his junior year. Though he pitched well, he had a combined 4-8 record as a junior and senior, losing many close games. He said those losses proved helpful in the long run. “You can’t help but learn something from losing those close ones,” Neiger later said.

Al Neiger, left, accepts the Delaware Athlete of the Year Award for 1959, from Joe Hukill, president of the DSBA. Source: The Morning News (Wilmington, Del.), January 1, 1960.

Neiger attended the University of Delaware starting in 1956. The talented lefty starred on the school’s freshman baseball team — he struck out 14 batters in a 11-5 win over Drexel in May of 1957. As a sophomore in 1958, he had a 5-1 record and 1.49 ERA to help guide the Blue Hens to the Middle Atlantic Conference Title. Famed Blue Hens baseball coach Tubby Raymond said that Neiger “could possibly be our best pitcher.”

Neiger had what remains one of the best seasons that a Blue Hens pitcher has ever had in 1959. He won 9 games against 3 losses and had a microscopic ERA of 0.88. He struck out 166 batters in 103 innings, which led college pitchers nationwide and remains a Blue Hens single-season record. He also had a 55-inning scoreless streak and struck out 21 batters in one game against Swarthmore. He became the first University of Delaware pitcher to earn All-American Honors. The Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcaster’s Association (DSBA) named him the Delaware Athlete of the Year for 1959.

Phillies scout Jocko Collins had to battle at least 11 other teams to sign the southpaw, but he landed Neiger in June of 1959. The signing bonus was undisclosed but rumored to be around $35,000. “Neiger’s the finest pitching prospect in the Middle Atlantic area. That’s my opinion, and I have a lot of company. So many of the other scouts feel the same way,” Collins said.

Neiger reported to Class-D Johnson City in 1959 was was bumped up to Williamsport of the Class-A Eastern League after just a couple of appearances. He won 7 games and showed that his stuff carried over to the pro level, with a 15-strikeout game against Allentown in the Eastern League semifinal playoff series. He returned to Williamsport in 1960 and continued to be effective, with a 8-3 record and 2.73 ERA in 15 games. The Phillies promoted the 21-year-old lefthander to Triple-A Buffalo, and then a couple of weeks later, the team brought him to the majors.

The 1960 Philadelphia Phillies were in a furious battle with the Chicago Cubs for dead last in the National League. The Phillies ended up with 95 losses and sole ownership of the NL basement. But in July, in an attempt to shake up the pitching staff, Philadelphia sent two underperforming pitchers, Humberto Robinson and Taylor Phillips, to Buffalo and brought up Neiger and fellow rookie pitcher Art Mahaffey. Both made their major-league debut in the same game, against St. Louis on July 30, 1960. The Cardinals scored 6 runs off starter Chris Short, so manager Gene Mauch brought Neiger into the game with two outs in the fourth inning and a runner on second base. Neiger retired Curt Flood on a grounder to shortstop to end the inning, and then he threw a scoreless sixth inning, allowing a harmless single to pitcher Larry Jackson. Mahaffey worked the final two innings and allowed no runs, thanks to two pickoffs at first base.

The Cardinals gave Neiger a harsher welcome to the majors the next day. He threw an inning of relief in the first game of a July 31 doubleheader and surrendered a sacrifice fly to Joe Cunningham and a 2-run homer to Ken Boyer. Neiger, stuck as a mop-up reliever, made two appearances in August. Boyer hit another 2-run blast off him in an inning of work on August 9, leaving him with a 13.50 ERA. The rookie’s final games were a definite improvement. He threw 6-1/3 innings of relief against Pittsburgh on August 16 when starter Jim Owens was knocked out of the game in the first inning. Neiger wasn’t perfect, scattering 7 hits, but he held the Bucs to 3 runs, including two sacrifice flies. He also singled off Bob Friend for his only major-league hit. His final two outings came in September, and he threw 2 scoreless innings against Cincinnati on September 5 and 1 scoreless inning against Milwaukee on the 28th.

In those 6 appearances, Neiger pitched 12-2/3 innings and gave up 16 hits and 8 runs for a 5.68 ERA. He struck out 3 and walked 4, hit 2 batters and threw a wild pitch. Neiger didn’t put up the best statistics, but he never had many opportunities. He sat on the bench for weeks at a time in some instances. Considering the state of the Phillies, one has to wonder why Mauch didn’t pitch him more often. It’s not like Neiger could have done worse than the pitchers on a team that lost 95 games.

Al Neiger and Art Mahaffey (behind him) flex for Phillies manager Gene Mauch. Source: The Morning Call, February 24, 1961.

Neiger spent 1961 playing for Chattanooga of the Southern Association. He had an 11-9 record between 19 starts and 13 relief appearances, and his 3.16 ERA was best among all lefties in the league. Neiger was disappointed about his demotion to Chattanooga, initially. “Then I came to realize that it was for my own good. I had made the big jump too early,” he said of his rapid rise to the majors.

Source: News-Journal (Wilmington, Del.), May 15, 1971.

The Los Angeles Angels purchased Neiger’s contract in October of 1961, which gave him the chance to start over with a new team. He found himself competing with the likes of Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance to join the Angels’ inaugural pitching staff. None of the three cracked the Opening Day roster, and Neiger was sent to the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers of the American Association to pitch. He worked mainly out of the bullpen and had his worst season, with a 5.23 ERA in 28 appearances. He rejoined the Phillies organization after the season. Arm problems that had limited his effectiveness in 1962 carried over to spring training in 1963. Had he been healthy, Neiger may have started the season with a Triple-A team and had a decent shot of returning to the majors. Instead, he joined the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Double-A team that had moved to the new South Atlantic (Sally) League. He was strong enough to return to the starting role and had a 13-10 record, with 13 complete games. He was assigned to Triple-A Little Rock for 1964. “I’m shooting for an outstanding year. I need it to make the major leagues,” he told Wilmington’s Evening Journal in March of 1964. “If I felt I couldn’t make the majors, I wouldn’t be getting ready to go to spring training.”

At the time he said those words, Neiger was still in Wilmington instead of the Phillies training camp at Fort Dade, Fla. His wife Barbara had just given birth to their second child, and he was given permission by the Phillies to report late to spring training. Neiger never reported at all. Instead of rejoining the Phillies, he stayed in Delaware to be closer to his growing family. Neiger did pitch in 1964, but it was for a Brooks Armored Car semi-pro team in Wilmington. He retired from professional baseball at the age of 25, with a 43-32 record in the minors.

Neiger pitched for Brooks for a couple of years before giving up on pitching. He was coaxed out of retirement in the 1969 to pitch for Concord Esso, a slow-pitch softball team in the Metropolitan Softball League. He pitched without pain, and Concord Esso became became one of the best teams in the state. After all, how many other softball teams in Delaware could boast of having a $35,000 bonus baby as their ace pitcher?

Professionally, Neiger was a plant manager for NVF in Yorklyn, retiring in 2004. He was inducted into the University of Delaware Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008 and threw out the first pitch at a Blue Hens game in 2019, when he was 80 years old. He is survived by Barbara, his wife of 61 years, and daughters Susie, Shelly and Amy, as well as a large extended family.

For more information: Delaware Online


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