Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Finding Charlie Neal

By Chuck Vanderbilt

Like many collectors, I find myself visiting hobby based forums frequently. Who doesn't like to talk about their hobby and show off their collection? Some conversations I come across are more interesting than others. Tuesday, I came across a peculiar discussion thread on the forum Net54 Baseball, a website devoted to the vintage aspect of collecting sports cards and memorabilia. This particular thread caught my attention because it mentioned the grave site of Hall of Fame pitcher Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove.

No matter how it's presented, the conversation of death is never an easy one. Despite the admittedly uncomfortable nature of this thread, I found the contents within eerily intriguing. Forum members shared stories of visiting grave sites that belong to some of the greatest names in baseball like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Among the many comments, a website dedicated to providing information on the grave sites of baseball players across the country was mentioned. As a former Texas History teacher, I immediately began to wonder which sites could be in Texas.

After some light research I learned that Hall of Fame players Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, and Tris Speaker are all buried in Texas. However, what really stood out to me was the sheer number of former Major League ballplayers buried within the state lines. Among the players listed I found many names that I did not recognize buried in cities that I'd never been. I can honestly say, I did not think that I would find one right here in Longview, Texas, where I have lived for over six years.

Before Tuesday I had never heard of Charles "Charlie" Neal. That morning, I found his name listed as buried in Grace Hill Cemetery in Longview. I began to research Charlie and quickly learned of his accomplishments on the baseball diamond. Born in Longview on January 30th of 1931, Charlie made the Brooklyn Dodgers team in 1956, which was also Jackie Robinson's last season. Charlie played six seasons with the Dodgers, which included the 1959 season in which the Dodgers won the World Series. Among Charlie's teammates were Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Duke Snider. In 1959, Neal also made the National League All-Star team, won a Gold Glove, and finished in the top ten in votes for the Most Valuable Player award.

While 1959 was Charlie's best season statistically, the infielder maintained solid production throughout his nine seasons as a professional baseball player. Neal played for the New York Mets for two seasons and finished his career in 1963 playing on Reds team that featured Frank Robinson and a young rookie by the name of Pete Rose.

After my research, I jotted down the location of Charlie's grave site and made my way to Grace Hill Cemetery. Located just ten minutes away from my home, I was soon driving through the cemetery grounds with the section number and space number listed online in which Charlie is supposedly buried. The website also listed Charlie's grave as unmarked. This was odd since Charlie passed away in 1996.

After wandering, somewhat aimlessly, in search for an unmarked grave I noticed a groundskeeper up the hill in the distance. I made my way across the cemetery noting the headstones that caught my eye. When I approached the city employee on a riding lawnmower she shut the machine down and obliged my request for assistance in locating Charlie's grave site. I gave her the details from the website and we began to look where she believed to be the correct location. After fifteen minutes of searching, we still had not found Charlie.

The city employee went back to the maintenance building to try and verify information. While I waited, another city employee came by. Before I could finish telling him who I was trying to find, he smiled at me and said, "Oh yeah, you're looking for the ballplayer." He knew right away who I was talking about and he also knew exactly where Charlie was located. After talking with the employee about Charlie for a few minutes, he pointed me in the right direction of Charlie's grave site. It turned out that the website had Charlie's grave site location listed as in section ten of Grace Hill Cemetery, which is incorrect, the site is actually located in section seven.

Next to an old oak tree I found the grave site of Charles Lenard Neal, clearly marked. Decorated with a small bouquet of flowers, the headstone was lightly covered in dirt. After a moment of contemplation I decided to clean off the headstone and I snapped a picture. I never met Charlie Neal, nor ever saw him play the game of baseball. However, I've come to know of Charlie and his accomplishments. Maybe one day in October years down the road, I'll take my son Cohen to Charlie's grave site and tell him about the ballplayer from Longview that played with some of the greats of the game and one year, way back in 1959, won the World Series.

If you are interested in reading the discussion thread that sparked this project, you can find it HERE.

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