SABR

Harley McNeal

This article was written by David Nemec.

John Harley McNeal is listed in most current reference works as having played under the name Harry McNeal. But in game write-ups and items in sporting papers that mentioned him during his career, he was universally referred to as Harley McNeal. His surviving family members also remember that he was called Harley, Harlow or John (to distinguish him from his son) in his post-baseball life, but never Harry. The most telling evidence, though, that he preferred Harley to Harry is that he named his son Harley John McNeal, and his son throughout his life was known exclusively by family, friends and business associates as Harley. Clearly, it was a name that both father and son fancied and one whose usage may have been chosen either by John Harley McNeal or by his family early in his life to distinguish him from his father who was also named John.

Arriving on August 11, 1877, in Iberia, Ohio, McNeal was the first-born child of John McNeal and Mary Feerer McNeal. McNeal’s father was one of five children born to Joseph McNeal and Martha Struthers McNeal. Both Joseph and Martha were born in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Of Irish ancestry, Joseph migrated to Ohio early in life according to a history of Ohio’s Morrow County, and first settled in Marion County, where he established a carding mill and linseed oil mill. Around 1830 he forsook his business to move to neighboring Morrow County when it was still “pristine wilderness” and acquired a large tract of land upon which he built a farm. Some three years later he sent for Martha and the two were married on March 4, 1833. Joseph was particularly well educated for a farmer. He taught school in the winter months when he could not work his farm and was the local justice of the peace. John, his third born child, came along on March 20, 1838. Upon his parents’ passing he inherited the family farm where his birth had occurred. By that time the area was settled enough to receive the name of Washington Township and was considered part of Iberia, a town roughly fifty miles north of the Ohio state capital in Columbus.

Like his father, John was well educated. After finishing high school, he matriculated at Ohio Central College in Iberia. Although the school was only in existence during the second half of the nineteenth century, it was unique for its time in that it was open to both genders and all races. Founded by the Presbyterian Church, it was led by the Reverend George Gordon, a strong abolitionist, and counted among its alumni Warren G. Harding, a native of Morrow County and the 29th President of the United States. By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, John was 33 and appears to have been either working the family farm alone or else with help from his brother Wallace. Nonetheless, both brothers left town to enlist with other men from Cardington and Iberia in Company I, Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. But the unit disbanded just four months after their arrival and they then joined Battery E, First Regiment Ohio Light Artillery. In the battle of Stones River in Tennessee, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Civil War, John was shot through the pelvis and lay on the battlefield for 10 days attended to only by comrades before receiving qualified medical treatment; his brother Wallace was killed in the battle and the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic at Iberia was named in his honor: Wallace McNeal, Post No. 687. John served three years all told in the Union Army and was awarded a lifetime pension of $17 a month. Since he was still unmarried at the time, his homestead was probably maintained during his absence by either a sharecropper or another family member.

Upon returning to his farm, John began breeding Norman horses and expanded its operation so that all seventy-eight acres were utilized for either crops or pastureland. On September 6, 1876, at the age of 38, he married 23-year-old Mary M. Feerer of Morrow County in Wesley Chapel in Columbus, Ohio. Less than a year later the McNeals gave birth to John Harley. By 1891 they had five more sons and a seventh son and a daughter who did not survive childbirth. Each of the six surviving boys seems to have gone in a different direction. Joseph, born in 1885, graduated from West Point in 1911 and served in World War I; David, born in 1888, settled in Michigan and was just short of his 90th birthday when he died in Lansing in 1978; Donald, the youngest, graduated from Ohio State University, married a fellow OSU graduate and remained in Columbus, where the University is located, for the remainder of his life.

Of the six brothers only John Harley harbored any serious athletic aspirations. After graduating from Iberia High School, he enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University, a nonsectarian school in Delaware, Ohio, and finished his undergraduate work there in the School of Business in 1900. Something of a loner all his life, McNeal appears to have seen to it that his movements for the next 10 or so years after he left Ohio Wesleyan are nearly impossible to determine. A note in the August 17, 1901, issue of The Sporting News related that he had been pitching for an independent team in Warren, Ohio, and had graduated from Warren Business College, where he had been Salutatorian of his class, before signing that summer with the American League Cleveland Blues. That note may or may not have been accurate, but it seems reasonable to surmise that the 6’3”, 175-pound McNeal probably first took up baseball in earnest in high school and began to come of age as a player while attending Ohio Wesleyan. Records of Ohio Wesleyan’s baseball teams in the 1890s are sparse, but if the lanky right-hander played for the Battling Bishops—and there is every reason to believe he did—he would have become just the second Ohio Wesleyan alumnus to make the majors, preceded only by Phil Saylor, class of 1891 and a one-gamer with the 1891 Phillies. Third on that list is none other than Branch Rickey.

McNeal is also on record as having attended Ohio Northern University law school at some point in the early 1900s, and if so he probably eventually received a law degree from that institution after attending classes only during the winter months while he actively pursued a career in baseball. His first professional game came at the top level of competition. Within days after joining the Cleveland American League entrant in the loop’s first season as a major league, McNeal was handed the ball by manager Jimmy McAleer in Chicago on August 5, 1901, to face the pennant-bound White Stockings. Catching him that afternoon was the Hall of Fame first baseman Roger Connor’s brother Joe; for his mound opponent he drew Chicago’s rookie wonder, Roy Patterson. The day after McNeal went 2-for-4 in his own behalf and triumphed over Patterson 6-3, the August 6 Chicago Tribune observed: “Cleveland tried a new pitcher today who did some very clever work, batted well, and with good backing won an easy game.” The Tribune added that Blues manager McAleer’s “new boy wonder” was an amateur from Marion (which may have been true, as Marion, Ohio, is very close to Iberia and McNeal quite conceivably could have previously pitched for a team located there) and opined: “He has a combination of the old Yale Carter’s gymnastic delivery and Cuppy’s deliberateness.” The references were probably to Walter “Dutch” Carter, a great Yale pitcher in the early 1890s, and definitely to Nig Cuppy, a Cleveland mound stalwart in the 1890s who was a notoriously slow worker.

The flattering comparisons no doubt helped buy McNeal considerable credibility with McAleer. By August the former Cleveland Spiders’ center fielder had reached a point in the season where he had despaired of finishing with a winning record and had already given up on all the pitchers with which the Blues had begun the 1901 campaign except for rookie fireballer Earl Moore. Complementing Moore on the Cleveland staff when McNeal arrived was only southpaw Pete Dowling, whom the Milwaukee AL club had cast off in June. Two days after McNeal’s debut another newbie, Jack Bracken, made his first start for the Blues. McAleer then went with a four-man rotation consisting of Moore, Dowling, McNeal and Bracken until September 3 when yet another frosh arrival, Bill Cristall, in his initial appearance, blanked Boston 4-0 in the second game of a doubleheader. Cristall’s performance was a mirage—he never won another major league game —and Bracken also was beyond his depth. But McNeal magnified his talents in McAleer’s eyes when he won four of his first six starts and ended the month of August as the only hurler on the Cleveland staff with a winning record.

September was another matter. After topping the Orioles’ Jerry Nops, 5-4, at Baltimore on the fourth day of the season’s final month to lift his record to 5-2, McNeal went eight days before making his next start. On September 12, in the second game of a doubleheader at Detroit, he lost a heartbreaker to the Tigers’ Ed Siever, 4-3, that was shortened by darkness to eight innings. It was his final good outing. Once again he went a long stretch between starts, this time nine days, before McAleer called on him in the first game of a doubleheader at Washington. Twenty-four days earlier McNeal had beaten the Senators, 7-4, but on September 21 the tables were turned on him. Facing fellow rookie Casey Patten, he was removed for pinch hitter Bob Wood after just one inning and replaced on the hill by right fielder Tom Donovan, who was making his lone major league pitching appearance in what became an 18-7 blowout. The following day the Washington Post reported: “The Senators relieved themselves of a long-standing grudge in the first game by an unmerciful attack on youngster McNeal, who, in his last previous game against the Senators in this city, made them look like a kindergarten class. It is hard to say what McNeal looked like after the first inning of his game. Had he been picked up in a street sweeper he couldn’t have appeared any worse disfigured.” In their seven-run first frame the Senators sent 12 men to the plate, but McNeal extended the inning unnecessarily himself when he dropped an easy pop fly off the bat of Patten.

Given only one more start before the season ended, on September 26 at Baltimore, McNeal lost 10-9 to the Orioles’ Bill Karns after allowing two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, thereby handing Karns his lone major league win in a donnybrook that saw both hurlers give up 17 hits before staggering to the finish line. It proved to be McNeal’s finale in the show. More than that, it was the first of four consecutive season-ending complete-game losses by Cleveland pitchers who were making their last big league appearances. Following McNeal out the door were, in order, Bracken, Cristall and Dowling. Only the 1890 Philadelphia Athletics have exceeded that negative achievement. The downtrodden American Association club finished its abysmal season on a 22-game losing streak that culminated with five pitchers hurling consecutive complete-game losses in their major league codas.

That McNeal had a gifted arm there is little question. Whether that gift was misused by McAleer will probably never be known for certain, but McNeal’s long stretches between starts in September 1901 and his poor showings when he made them hint that he was having arm trouble and was no longer capable of the sterling presentations with which he had begun his time with Cleveland. In all, he finished 1901 with a 5-5 slate that included nine complete games in 10 starts, plus two mop-up relief appearances that produced a composite 1.76 WHIP, 4.43 ERA and 68 runs allowed, only 42 of which were earned. At that, his marks were better than any of the five pitchers Cleveland had on its roster at the season’s close with the exception of Moore. Yet he was released when Bill Armour, who replaced McAleer at the Cleveland helm after McAleer skipped to St. Louis over the winter to grab the managerial post with the Mound City’s replacement franchise for Milwaukee, chose to rebuild his hill crew solely around Moore and jettison the rest of his inherited staff members.

On February 15, 1902, The Sporting News informed its readership that Harley McNeal, the son of a Marion, Ohio, attorney, would pitch in the upcoming season for Toledo in the newly launched outlaw American Association. Until I spoke with McNeal’s great grandson, John Woodard, in the spring of 2014, I was unaware that McNeal was neither from Marion nor the son of an attorney. My surmise is that the writer of The Sporting News item learned McNeal had come to Cleveland from a Marion team rather than one located in Warren and was taking law courses that winter and then made a pair of erroneous assumptions. Be that as it may, McNeal did toil for Toledo in 1902, and toil is the right word. It could not have been fun to pitch for the outlaw league’s doormat, so bad a team that it finished 12 games behind seventh-place Minneapolis. Clocking in at 11-24, McNeal was one of three 20-game losers on the club, joined by Homer Mock and the last 30-game loser in the majors, luckless Jim Hughey of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. The negative features of McNeal’s 1902 dossier also include surrendering the first home run in the history of the American Association, destined after shedding its outlaw status in 1903 to become Organized Baseball’s most stable minor league in the first half of the twentieth century. The four-bagger came in the opening game of the season on May 12, 1902, at Milwaukee’s Athletic Park and the culprit who victimized McNeal was Brewers left fielder Bill Hallman, a member of the Milwaukee American League club the previous year. But on the positive side of the ledger, Toledo owner-manager Charlie Strobel considered the Cleveland castoff good enough to rate the coveted Opening Day starting assignment.

Strobel recalibrated, though, the following spring after the preseason training period ended, and Sporting Life reported on April 25, 1903: “Harley McNeal, who pitched a few games for Cleveland two years ago, is booked for release by Toledo. Louisville may give him a trial.” If Louisville did indeed do so, the results could not have been good. Only a year after starting his professional baseball career at the top, McNeal’s prospects were headed sharply downward. Seemingly bent by then on a law career, he might have been expected to leave baseball at that point to pursue a more lucrative occupation to pay for his further schooling than that of a minor league pitcher. Instead, however, he signed a contract for 1903 with Schenectady of the Class B New York State League. McNeal served two years in that circuit, hurling 31 games in 1903 and appearing in 52 games the following year as a pitcher-outfielder. His batting stats reveal that he was a weak hitter (a composite .167 BA for his two seasons of duty in the NYSL) with little power. But while his mound record is still unknown it is highly probable that at least some of his initial pitching prowess had returned, for Baltimore of the Class A Eastern League acquired him for 1905 delivery.

Still just 27, McNeal in all likelihood dreamt of returning to the majors when he carved an 18-9 record under manager Hughie Jennings as the second-place Orioles lost the 1905 EL flag by a mere half game to the Providence Clamdiggers. But if he did, his dreams went for naught; he returned to Baltimore in 1906, as did Jennings, and by midseason the July 28, 1906, Sporting Life reported: “Fred Burchell, Del Mason and Doctor Adkins are doing the bulk of the box work for Baltimore, as Harley McNeal has yet to recover form.” After sagging to 9-12 in 1906 while battling arm trouble, McNeal dropped down again in 1907 to the New York State League, this time with an entry that alternated playing its home games in three different cities—Amsterdam, Gloversville and Johnstown. It was in the last-named city that at some point, either during his original 1903-04 stint in the NYSL or else in the course of the 1907 season, that McNeal met his future wife Alfraetta, the daughter of the late Abram Frederick and Catherine Adams Frederick. The couple was married in her Johnstown home on August 14, 1907. Soon after that it appears that McNeal was either released or traded to the Binghamton Bingoes of the NYSL, where he finished the season.

The November 2, 1907, Sporting Life noted that “J. Harley McNeal, the A.-J.-G. twirler, has gone to Birmingham, Ala., where he will engage in the practice of law. Mr. and Mrs. McNeal have been visiting in Johnstown.” Why he chose Birmingham would also probably never be known were it not that Southern League records in 1908 reflect that he pitched for the last-place Birmingham Barons until sometime in mid-summer when he was evidently released with an uninspiring 3-10 record and went north again to pitch a game for Wilkes-Barre of the New York State League on August 7, 1908, believed to have been his last appearance in the pro ranks. At that juncture, despite his conspicuous lack of success with the Birmingham team, he returned to that city, again for an unknown reason, but did not open a law practice there until sometime around 1910. His family believes the delay may have been because he felt he needed more education and attended the University of Alabama law school for a time, or it may have been because he could not pass the state bar exam until then.

On January 4, 1911, McNeal’s only child, a son he and Alfraetta named Harley John, was born in Birmingham. McNeal remained in that city specializing in handling personal injury cases, almost always on behalf of the defendant, until he and his wife moved to Cleveland in 1920. By the time of their relocation McNeal’s son Harley had already begun to exhibit early signs of becoming something of a pitcher in his own right. Ambidextrous when he first took up baseball, young Harley, probably at his father’s behest, settled on becoming exclusively a southpaw in the expectation that throwing from the portside would appeal more to scouts should he ever entertain professional ambitions of his own, which proved to be so by the time he graduated from high school in Lakewood, Ohio, where the family was living by then.

“A stellar amateur pitcher from 1926 through 1932,” according to Harley’s plaque in the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame, “he capped a fine career while starring at University of Michigan (where he played under former major league pitcher and longtime Wolverines coach Ray Fisher). During a university tour of Japan [after his senior year at Michigan], he won 13 games in 14 starts [the team, contrary to the plaque, won 11 of 15 games on the tour]. In 1932 he pitched in the amateur game at the [Cleveland] Municipal stadium which drew 60,000 spectators.” The plaque then concludes with this statement: “A decision to begin work toward his life’s profession in law precluded accepting professional contracts for the Indians, Red Sox and Cardinals.” But that is not entirely accurate either. After returning from Japan in the early summer of 1932, Harley signed to pitch for Cleveland’s farm team in Fort Wayne of the Central League under manager Bill Wambsganss of World Series unassisted triple play fame, and went 4-1 in nine games with a 1.87 WHIP. He then conferred with his father that fall and decided not to pursue a career in baseball, but to go into legal practice with his father .

After Harley graduated from Western Reserve law school and passed the Ohio Bar Exam in 1935, the attorneys McNeal established the firm of John H. and Harley J. McNeal in Cleveland. The following year Harley married a former University of Wisconsin student, Virginia Marie Hutzel, on February 8, in a well-appointed wedding at the bride’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hutzel had majored in drama and music at Wisconsin but left school prior to graduation to dance both on Broadway and with the Radio City Rockettes, and was also briefly a member of Billy Rose’s Aquacade with Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Her professional highlight came when she performed as Virginia Gray with Barbara Stanwyck in Tattle Tales, a musical comedy review that first appeared on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theater in June 1933. The play originated on the West Coast and co-starred Frank Fay.

Subsequent to their marriage, both Virginia and Harley continued to perform in amateur productions and became venerated members of the Bay Players, a theater group in Bay Village, Ohio, after they moved to that Cleveland suburb (which achieved unwanted notoriety in 1954 when the Sheppard Murder Case exploded onto the front pages of every major newspaper in the country). No rank amateur himself when it came to stage life, Harley at one time sang tenor for the Paul Whiteman band. Within a few years after they were married, the couple had both their children, two daughters, Virginia Marie and Sandra Jean. Meanwhile McNeal father and son had gained the reputation of being one of the leading personal injury law firms in Cleveland. To fine tune his knowledge of the personal injury field, Harley took medical courses as well as graduate courses in law.

The senior McNeal was forced to carry on the practice alone while his son served as a captain in World War II, deployed as a Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1942 to 1945. While his work ethic appears to have been unaffected during his son’s lengthy absence from the firm, his personal life began rapidly to disintegrate. John Harley McNeal’s granddaughter Virginia “Bunny” McNeal Woodard remembers him today as a taciturn man who confided his inner life to no one and recalls that for reasons her family could never discern he separated from his wife Alfraetta during the war and moved from their Lakewood home into the Auditorium, a downtown Cleveland hotel. Shortly after the separation Alfraetta suffered a fatal heart attack on February 24, 1944. Less than a year later, on January 11, 1945, John Harley McNeal put a gun to his head in his Auditorium Hotel suite and took his own life. Some obits said only that he had died suddenly and been in ill health, but those in The Sporting News and Cleveland papers acknowledged his passing had been a suicide. Whether it was the dictates of his military obligations or the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, his son Harley, who was in England at the time, was denied leave to attend John Harley’s funeral and was fated to grieve alone overseas. He and his immediate family never got over his insensitive treatment by the Armed Services in this crucial instance.

Upon returning stateside after the war, Harley John McNeal became senior partner of the law firm he and his father started. The firm eventually evolved into McNeal, Schick, Archibald & Carlson. Their offices during McNeal’s tenure were originally in the Van Sweringen Arcade, located in Cleveland at 123 West Prospect Avenue, and later moved to the Williamson building and finally to the Illuminating Company building off Public Square. The firm specialized in railroad law and always represented the defense, but took other cases as well and grew to be arguably the largest and most successful law firm in the northeastern part of Ohio. At his peak the son of John Harley McNeal was president of the Cleveland Bar Association and rated “The Number One Attorney” by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. On my “Senior Career Day” at Bay Village High School in May of 1956, three classmates and I had the privilege of lunching with Harley John McNeal at the Cleveland Athletic Club and then spending the afternoon in a Cleveland courtroom watching him act as an attorney for a railroad company defendant.

Harley John McNeal’s personal career highlight came on January 1, 1971, when he represented Dow Chemical before the United States Supreme Court and carried the day for his client when Chief Justice Harlan gave the majority opinion deciding for the defendant on March 23, 1971, saying that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the dumping of pollutants in Lake Erie. In the early 1970s McNeal also represented the Cleveland Indians in a suit brought against them by the Cleveland Indian Center to alter Chief Wahoo, the Tribe’s longstanding logo, from a “smiling dumb savage” to “a distinguished representative of an Indian.”

Harley John McNeal died on May 13, 1996, in Boynton Beach, Florida, and is buried in Ann Arbor, Michigan, beside his wife Virginia, who lived to age 98.

 

Sources

In assembling this biography I made use of selected issues of the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sporting Life, The Sporting News and the Johnstown Leader-Herald along with the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame, the History of Morrow County, Ohio, a narrative count of its historical progress, its people and its principal interests (1911) and the Michiganensian Yearbook, Class of 1932, for details of John Harley McNeal’s professional baseball career and his family history and his son Harley John McNeal’s life and baseball career. Major and minor league statistics for both McNeals came from www.baseball-reference.com, although it need be noted that this reference source misspells Harley John McNeal’s name, rendering it difficult for researchers to recognize that he was the son of a former major league pitcher.

In addition, I was the fortunate recipient of considerable McNeal family information from Virginia “Bunny” McNeal Woodard, my high school classmate, an avid horsewoman and dog lover, who is a retired dental hygienist and flight attendant presently residing in Boynton Beach, Florida, and her son and John Harley McNeal’s great grandson, John Woodard, a professor at Wayne State University residing with his wife and two daughters in Northville, Michigan. Woodard had previously been the first team neuropsychologist for the Atlanta Falcons, serving from 1998 to 2008. He was at the cutting edge of early research on concussion problems among National Football League players and left the Falcons when the team went to testing players via computers rather than face to face. Woodard also worked with the Atlanta Thrashers National Hockey League team from 1999 until the franchise relocated in Winnipeg after the 2011 season. When consulted by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the co-authors of League of Denial (Crown Archetype, 2013), Woodard attested that he was among the researchers whose complete findings were ignored when the National Football League first began undertaking an in-depth investigation of the long-term effects of concussions suffered by its players. “"I was asked to provide data on only concussed players," he was quoted as saying. “I had data for slightly more than 200 baseline evaluations. I don't know why I was not asked for them."

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