This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Over the years, the Boston Red Sox have featured a number of philosophers or other intellectuals among their ranks. They’ve had Aristotle, Archimedes, Beckett, Cicero, Dante, Darwin, Emerson, Euclides, Godwin, Jonson, Hobson, Pascal, and Webster.1 They also had someone who might have been confused with Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of Beyond Good and Evil: an outfielder and pitcher named Ernie Neitzke.
He was born Ernest Frederick Neitzke. Unlike the German philosopher who grew up near Leipzig, Ernie Neitzke was born in Toledo. The date was November 13, 1894. His parents were German natives, Albert and Anna Neitzke. Albert left off his formal education after the seventh or eighth grade2 and had a varied work experience, according to Toledo city directories–a lumber inspector in 1903, a sawyer in 1904, a laborer in 1908 and again in 1910, a teamster in 1914, a laborer again in 1916. By 1919, he was deceased and Anna was his widow. She lived for many years in the family home on Blum Street. Ernest was the middle one of five children–all boys–in the family at the time of the 1919 city directory: Charles, Emil, Ernest, Otto, and Paul. Both Ernest and Otto were in the United States Army at the time.
Ernest himself had been working as a meter reader for the Toledo Railways Light Company when he registered for the draft in June 1917. He enlisted in October and served overseas from June 1918 to June 1919 as a wagoner with the Allied Expeditionary Force, serving in a supply company for the 322nd Field Artillery. He saw duty in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Only a month after Ernest arrived, his brother Otto was severely wounded (on July 18, 1918), also in the Meuse-Argonne, while with the 329th Infantry.
He had baseball experience before the war, playing semipro ball for the Toledo Rail Lights. The team was runner-up in the 1916 National Baseball Federation championship.
As an outfielder, he was signed over the winter time to a contract with the Cincinnati Reds looking ahead to the spring of 1917.3 He was also a champion bowler and had tied for the lead in Toledo News-Bee tournament that January before coming up short after a roll-off.4 He reported to Reds training camp at Shreveport and worked out for manager Christy Mathewson until his March 29 release. He signed again to play with the Rail Lights. Then came service to his country.
The year after his honorable discharge, Ernie Neitzke placed ninth nationally in the American Bowling Congress tournament in Peoria in early April. He also played baseball, for the 1920 London Tecumsehs in the Michigan-Ontario League, both pitching and playing outfield. He was a 5-foot-10, 180-pound right-hander. Working from the mound, he threw 101 innings in 18 games and posted an 8-3 record with a 1.87 earned run average. He played the outfield in 38 games–on way or another appearing in 75 games in all. As a batter, he recorded a .260 batting average, with seven homers including a July 5 grand slam against Kitchener. London was league champion.
In 1921, Neitzke spent the season with the Boston Red Sox. He had been invited to spring training at Hot Springs. Though manager Hugh Duffy was “not impressed with the caliber of the recruits as a whole,” Neitzke survived the initial cut near the end of March, as did fellow London teammate, pitcher Clarke Pittenger.5 Neitzke threw a complete game win over the Regulars on March 24.
His first regular-season action was on June 2, throwing the final four innings of the game against Cleveland. Starter Allan Sothoron had been touched for four runs in 1⅔ innings, and reliever Elmer Myers gave up another two runs, pitching through the fifth. It was Cleveland 6, Boston 3 when Neitzke was summoned to relieve. He faced 17 batters and gave up single runs in the seventh and eighth, and the Sox lost, 8-4.
One week later, to the day, the Sox were still at home and facing the St. Louis Browns. With two outs in the top of the sixth, Neitzke took over for starter Hank Thormahlen. The Browns had a 6-3 lead; he allowed three more runs and the final was 9-3. Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald wrote that “although the record shows that the Browns made five hits and three runs off Neitzke, it is a fact that he did well and that most of the hits were fluky.”6
Those were his only two pitching experiences, other than throwing batting practice and a disastrous 12-hit exhibition game start against the Brooklyn Robins on June 19, leaving him with a career 6.14 ERA. He had walked four and struck out one. He did commit an error while pitching, the only one he made in the majors.
Neitzke appeared in nine other games, and in the process played all three outfield positions. He accumulated 29 plate appearances, with six hits and four walks, for a .240 batting average and .345 on-base percentage. An Associated Press story in late July reported that he had set a major-league record by striking out five times in succession, but his career stat line today only shows four strikeouts all season.
On August 20, the Red Sox crossed the border and played an exhibition game in London, and lost 5-3. Both Neitkze and Pittenger played in the game, which drew 4,000.
On February 18, 1922, the Red Sox sent Neitzke to the Pittsfield, Massachusetts ballclub under an option agreement. Most of his work for the Eastern League’s Pittsfield Hillies was as a pitcher (14-14, 2.95 ERA), having started the season well but then developing a sore arm which limited his effectiveness. It had been reported that the Red Sox were going to give him another look in the spring but on the last day of February, they released him from his option.7 It might have been a little satisfying for him when he pitched Pittsfield to a 5-4 win over the Red Sox during an August 10 exhibition game.
For the next three seasons, Neitzke played in the Michigan-Ontario League again–in 1923 for Saginaw and in 1924 and 1925 for Hamilton. He pitched some, with a 15-9 overall record for the three-year stretch. Mostly, he focused on offense, playing in over 100 games each year and seeing his average gradually increase–.289 to .297 to .335 (with 14 homers in 1925). In August 1925, his contract was sold to the Birmingham Barons.8
Starting in 1926, he headed south, back east, and then out west. The 1926 season was spent with Nashville and then Birmingham, both in the Southern Association. It was A ball, a step up from the Michigan-Ontario League. He hit .293 in 1926. Though he was finished with pitching, it’s not as though he wasn’t called on once or twice. As Birmingham pounded Nashville on June 2, Neitzke was brought in from center field to stop the Barons from adding to the seven runs they’d already scored in the eighth inning “and stopped the run orgy.”9
In 1927, he again worked for two teams, Hartford in the Eastern League and Jersey City in the International League. We lack comprehensive batting statistics for both teams.
In 1928, he began playing for the Pueblo, Colorado team in the Western League and stayed with them for five seasons. The first season was probably the best one–a .340 batting average and a career-high 21 home runs. But he never hit below .300–going .316, .301, and .343 in 1929-31. In 1932, he fell off just a tad, down to .292, beginning with Pueblo but being dealt to the Wichita Aviators during the season.
In July 1931, he’d been traded to Omaha but flat out refused to report and the trade was annulled, “and that was that.”10 This didn’t make him persona non grata; in fact, when the Pueblo manager resigned the following June, Neitzke was named manager pro tem.11
He was variously on Cleveland Indians, Brooklyn Robins, and Chicago Cubs contracts over the years, but the one and only season he spent in the majors remained 1921 with the Red Sox.
In 1933, he played outfield, at least briefly, with the Zanesville Greys of the Middle Atlantic League.12
Neitzke’s final season in organized baseball came in 1934, still in the Western League, a final 20 games with Topeka. He hit for a .315 average, leaving him–pending further research of the historical record–a lifetime .300 batter. In April 1935 he wed Catherine Sutter.
At the time of the 1940 census, Neitzke was living in Toledo with his wife Catherine, two teenaged step-daughters (Thelma and Naomi Maloff), and a son, Ernest Jr., age 3. Ernie Neitzke was working as a bartender in a “beer and lunch tavern.” Shortly afterwards, he became bartender and manager at the VFW, retiring in 1962. He continued to bowl throughout his life and was said to have averaged over 200. He died on April 27, 1977, in Sylvania, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Neitzke’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 To be precise, they have had Aristotle “Harry” Agganis, Arquimedez Pozo, Josh Beckett, Joe Cicero, Dante Bichette, Danny Darwin, Emerson Dickman, Euclides Rojas, John Godwin, Butch Hobson, Earl Johnson, Ben Paschal, and Allen Webster. (In recent years, they have also had Boof Bonser and A. J. Pierzynski. Make of that what you will.)
2 Ernie Neitzke player questionnaire completed for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He completed two questionnaires over time and on one he reported seven grades and on the other, eight. He had attended Lutheran School in Toledo.
3 Cincinnati Post, January 23, 1917. The signing was reported in the February 1 Post.
4 Cincinnati Post, January 27, 1917.
5 Boston Herald, March 22, 1921.
6 Boston Herald, June 10, 1921.
7 Springfield Republican, March 1, 1923.
8 Miami Herald, August 4, 1925.
9 New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 3, 1926. By September, he was on the Birmingham team.
10 Omaha World Herald, July 19, 1931.
11 Omaha World Herald, June 3, 1932.
12 Zanesville Signal, April 24, 1933.