This article was written by Chris Rainey
Neb Stewart loved baseball. The Greensboro Daily News remarked on April 15, 1941, that Stewart “runs around centerfield like he owns the place.” On his Hall of Fame questionnaire his response to whether he would play ball if he had the chance again was “harder than before.” After a farming accident cost him one and a half fingers, he fashioned a grip so that his hitting was not affected. Nearing death he remarked that he hoped “there was golf and baseball in heaven.” His most lasting advice to his sons, Bruce and Steve, was “if you can touch it, you can catch it.”1 Spoken like a true center fielder, this simple statement had meaning in every aspect of life, not just on the ball field.
The Stewarts trace their ancestry back to Glasgow in 1590. Family members first came to America in 1740 and settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After the Civil War, Oscar Nesbitt Stewart purchased farmland and moved to Clark County, Ohio, near the small town of Selma. It was on this family farm that Neb was born to Walter Sr. and Olive on May 21, 1918. He was later joined by brothers Bob and Jack. Walter Stewart Sr. played baseball in the county and passed the love of sports onto his sons. At 6’ 2”, 175 pounds and with good speed, Neb excelled at Selma high school (graduating class of 6) in sports and was named all-county in basketball in 1936. He was the team center and helped lead the team into tournament play, but was injured and played very little in an overtime loss that eliminated Selma. He went on to attend Ohio State with the intention of playing football and basketball. Under the collegiate rules of the day, a freshman could not participate in varsity games. He did see action on the freshman football and basketball teams. Not prone to talk about his career to his sons, he did mention that in a freshman football game, an opponent spit tobacco on him. Neb left school after his freshman year to return to the farm, never seeing any varsity action.
Clark County had an extensive summer baseball sandlot program. There were numerous leagues for all ages. In the late 1930s young adults played in the Clark County League and/or the Springfield City League. Back from college in the summer of 1938, Neb played for Hustead in the County League and the Kibler squad in the city. In March 1939 a local baseball promoter, Roy Cozier, arranged for three Kibler players, Don Prather, Ken McKee, and Neb, to sign with the South Boston, Virginia, Wrappers in the Class D Bi-State League. The trio traveled to southern Virginia for spring training on April 7. Neb got a chance to play in an exhibition against Waterloo, Iowa, on April 23 and poked a single in his only at bat. He pinch-hit unsuccessfully in the season opener the next day. Neb got his first start on May 2 at Mayodan, North Carolina, versus the Millers. He played right field and went 1-for-4. That was the only real action Neb saw for three weeks as the Wrappers struggled, losing 11 of 14 games. Prather, who had previous minor league experience was inserted into the lineup before Neb, but starting on May 22, Stewart became a fixture in the South Boston lineup. He played right field for a couple weeks and eventually moved to center field. On June 14 in Reidsville he clubbed two homers and got three RBIs. By the end of July he was in the number three spot in the lineup. Hitting at a .330 pace, Neb was sold to Oklahoma City in the Class A Texas League on August 13. He joined former Wrapper and future major leaguer Charlie Fuchs and played center field on August 27 when Fuchs spun a no-hitter. The huge jump showed in Neb’s statistics, as he hit only .160 for the Indians.
Stewart and Prather returned to South Boston in 1940 and set the league on fire with their bats. This time Prather, who was hitting .360, got the call to Oklahoma City. Neb played the entire season in South Boston, where he flirted with the Triple Crown. On July 17 he clubbed a homer, double, and two singles and drove in five. This started a torrid streak when he hit home runs the next three days. By August 10 he was batting .390, led the league in homers and was battling Clyde Vollmer of Bassett for the RBI title. The Wrappers suffered a late season slump, losing 6 of 7 and dropping out of the playoff picture. Neb saw his average drop off to .371 and he was passed by Danny Amaral of Mayodan in the batting race (.387) and teammate Orville Nesslerode for the home run title (25). Neb’s 23 homers tied him for the runner-up spot. He was named to a spot on the league all-star team and sold to the Phillies on September 6.
Neb debuted in Philadelphia on September 8, 1940, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Bees. He entered the game as a pinch hitter and then played left field, going hitless. Bobby Bragan, who became one of his best baseball friends, was the shortstop for the Phillies that season. Years later when Bragan was a manager of the Pirates and later the Braves, Neb would take his sons to Crosley Field in Cincinnati and visit with Bragan. On September 10, Neb got his first start, playing both ends of a doubleheader versus the Pirates at Shibe Park. He hit a single in each game. Neb played in 10 games, all at Shibe, and hit .129. He was retained and eventually signed a contract for 1941 at $200 a month. This was a major jump over his salary in South Boston, which he listed on census records at $412 for the year.
Neb went to spring training with the Phillies, but was sent to the Sanford Spinners in the Bi-State League after the first week of exhibitions. He was selected to play in the league all-star game on June 15, but did not make an appearance. He took his feelings out on Mt. Airy the next day by going 4 for 6. Sanford flirted with the league lead, but ended the season in fourth place and the playoffs. They beat the league leaders, Martinsville, in a tense eight game series (one game was tied). They faced Danville in the finals. In front of a crowd of 3,500 in Sanford, the Spinners rallied in the bottom of the ninth to win their fourth game on September 14 and claim the league title in their inaugural season. Neb was sent up to Allentown in the Class B Interstate League, where he closed out the season playing in 11 games. The Phillies retained his rights, but Stewart refused to report and was placed on the suspended list and remained there throughout the war years. Over time his rights were sent on to the St. Louis Cardinals organization and eventually the A’s. 2
The police chief in South Boston was William Lewis. He was a big supporter of the Wrappers and had season tickets. He also ran a small boarding house. One of his tenants was a young hairdresser from Granville County, North Carolina, named Bettye Williams Cole. She occasionally used the chief’s tickets and attended the Wrappers’ games. It was in this way that she and Neb met. The relation blossomed and survived Neb’s return to Ohio in the winters and his season in Sanford. One of the reasons Neb did not return to the Phillies in 1942 was Bettye, the other was the onset of World War II. Because Neb was a farmer he was classified 2-F (draft-exempt as an essential agricultural worker) by the Selective Service. He fulfilled his military obligation by staying on the farm. After a long-distance courtship, Neb and Bettye wed on June 3, 1943, probably in Oxford, North Carolina. They returned to the 300-acre family farm in Selma, Ohio. Bettye worked as a hairdresser in South Charleston, bringing in extra money that allowed the couple to buy a car. Their first child was born on August 6, 1945, and they named him William Lewis Stewart after the colice chief. Sadly, he passed away two weeks later.
Bettye gave birth to Bruce in 1947 and then Steve in 1948. Shortly after, the family left Selma and moved east into Madison County. They became caretakers for a farm owned by a widow named Nellie Bostwick. The boys grew up there and attended Madison South High School. Neb and Bettye never wanted their sons to be farmers. Both boys attended college. Steve earned eight letters in baseball and basketball at Urbana College, and both went on to be educators. Bruce eventually became superintendent of the Southeastern school district which included the original Stewart farm in Selma. Steve had a lengthy career as a scholastic coach.
Out of professional baseball and back in Ohio, Neb joined his brother Jack playing sandlot ball. In 1942 they played for Kibler in the Springfield City League. The next year they wore the uniform of Chakeres-Warner Theatres. When the season was over, Neb was recruited by the Coca-Cola team from the county to play in the state semi-pro tournament. They won easily, but did not go on to the national tourney because too many of the players had work commitments in the national defense. Neb suited up again with Coca Cola in 1944 and 1945, but his ball playing in 1945 was cut short by the finger injury and the birth and subsequent death of his son.
The baseball leagues in the county had dwindled during the war and even with the return of so many veterans the County League ceased to exist. More and more young men were choosing to play softball, either fast pitch or slow. Neb was forced to look elsewhere for a team. He was not alone. Harvey Haddix and three his brothers, Don Prather, and two teammates from the Hustead days joined Neb on a team from Jeffersonville, Ohio in the South Central Ohio Baseball League. In fact 12 players from the Springfield area made the 15-20 mile trek to Jeffersonville and formed the starting lineup of the ironically named Jeffersonville Townies.
The Townies were an excellent team. Neb and Prather were the veterans with professional experience, Harvey and his brother Ben would turn pro in 1947. Harvey was the star of the pitching staff as the team piled up a 16-3 record and won the state semi-pro title. The players loaded into automobiles and made the drive to Wichita, Kansas, in mid-August for the National Baseball Congress Semipro Championship. They beat a team from Portland, Oregon, 5-1, behind Haddix’s 16 strikeouts, but then lost to Wichita’s Boeing Bombers(11-3) and the contingent from Norman, Oklahoma (8-3).
That was Neb’s final appearance on the national stage. He played a few more summers and then turned his attention to raising a family, farming, and playing golf. In the 1950s and 1960s Harvey Haddix sponsored a fall rabbit and pheasant hunt on his farm in nearby South Vienna. Neb was a fixture at these events and kept in touch with his baseball friends that way. When the widow Bostwick passed away, she left the farm to the Stewarts. Neb continued to farm into the 1970s and then found it to be more cost effective to rent out the land. He passed away on June 8,1990, in London, Ohio, and is buried, along with Bettye, in the Kirkwood Cemetery on the western edge of the city.
Interviews with Bruce and Steve Stewart in the summer of 2013.
The Greensboro (North Carolina) Daily News
Danville (Virginia) Bee
Springfield (Ohio) Daily News
The Sporting News
Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch
1 Interview with Bruce and Steve Stewart
2 The Stewarts have a printout from the Baseball Hall of Fame that shows Neb’s contract history.