This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Norm McNeil was Babe Ruth’s teammate (and roommate) for a few months, the last months Ruth was with the Red Sox. After the 1919 season, Ruth was sold to the Yankees and McNeil was sold to Toledo. McNeil was Boston’s third-string catcher, behind Wally Schang and Roxy Walters, and he didn’t get much work. Though he was with the Red Sox out of spring training, he didn’t appear in a game until June 21, against the visiting St. Louis Browns, the 45th game of the season. Walters had a 1-for-3 day, raising his average to .220, but was taken out for pinch-runner Frank Gilhooley. McNeil came on for defensive purposes and caught the top of the tenth. The game ended after the tenth in a 3-3 tie.
Nearly two months later, on August 14, McNeil got into his second game, during a 15-6 blowout against the White Sox in in Chicago. He came in late for Schang, and again had no appearance as a batter. Schang was batting .309 at the time. On September 5 in Philadelphia the Red Sox again scored 15 runs and Schang was already enjoying a 3-for-4 game with a single, a double, and a triple. He wasn’t to have a chance at the cycle, however. McNeil had two at-bats and singled in one of them. The very next day, Boston had a 9-1 lead and so McNeil took over for Schang again. This time he had three at-bats but no hits.
McNeil’s final game of the year, and in major-league baseball, came in the second game of a September 24 doubleheader in New York. The Red Sox’ Sad Sam Jones had shut out the Yankees, 4-0, in the first game. The second game saw the Yankees hold a tight 1-0 lead from the second inning through the eighth. McNeil had started the game, and was 2-for-4 at the plate. In the top of the ninth, Babe Ruth hit a prodigious home run over the right-field roof of the Polo Grounds and into adjoining Manhattan Field. It was his 28th homer of the year, setting the single-season home-run mark at the time. The game was tied, and McNeil was replaced by Schang in the 11th. The game was finally won by New York in the bottom of the 13th, 2-1.
On January 31, 1920, the Red Sox sold three contracts to Toledo of the American Association: those of Joe Wilhoit, George Dumont, and Norman McNeil.
Because he was 3-for-9 in the major leagues, McNeil sported a lifetime .333 average. He had one run batted in. Behind the plate, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound catcher made two errors in 11 chances, a poor .818 fielding percentage.
And his 2-year-old son had Babe Ruth for a godfather.1
McNeil was born in Chicago on October 22, 1892. His parents were John McNeil and Sarah Kelly McNeil. According to grandson Paul McNeil, John McNeil left his native Scotland in the later 1800s and sailed to Nova Scotia. He later came to the United States and settled in Chicago, perhaps working as a butcher. Norman’s younger brother, Percival, was born in Chicago as well, sometime around 1894.2 Norman played for St. Bonaventure’s College and for two semipro teams from Buffalo – the Pullmans and the Simon Pures. The McNeil family had moved to Buffalo when Norman was about 10. He reportedly first broke in with the Lansing Senators in 1911, though he’s not found in existing records of the club.3 McNeil caught 26 games with the Saginaw Trailers in 1912, batting .178. His brief obituary in The Sporting News indicates stints – which must have been brief – with Syracuse, Scranton, Peterboro, Terre Haute, Lynchburg, and Portland (Maine), all before joining the Red Sox.
The first team for which we can truly find good records was the 1914 Erie (Pennsylvania) Yankees in the Class B Canadian League. In 88 games, McNeil hit .259. The team’s classification stayed the same (B), but Erie changed its name in 1915 (to the Sailors) and changed its league (to the Central League). McNeil didn’t get in as much work, appearing in 63 games and hitting .208. In 1916, he remained in the Central League, catching for the Muskegon Reds and batting .252 in 95 games.
McNeil’s .982 fielding percentage as a catcher with Muskegon was one of the best in the league. He signed with the Reds again in March 1917 but wound up playing for the Providence Grays in the Double-A International League. He got into only 24 games and he hit for a .309 average.4 The Grays were his team in 1918, too. During the war-shortened season (Providence now in the Eastern League, and “downgraded” to Class B), McNeil appeared in 56 games and hit .271. That year he also helped build ships (and played for the company team) at the Baltimore Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company.
There followed McNeil’s 1919 season with the Red Sox. He had married Ann Coleman, who came from a musical family in Pennsylvania. The couple had two children, Norman and Eleanor. The younger Norm, godson to The Babe, was – his own son Paul reported – also very good at baseball. He may well have had a tryout with either Boston or New York, but “he had a radical conversion at 16 when he met Jesus Christ personally as his Savior and did not believe it was right to play baseball on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, so it never materialized. Norm did play baseball in high school against Warren Spahn, another Buffalonian, and their church softball teams always won the championship.”5
After the Red Sox, McNeil in 85 games for Toledo in 1920, batting .240. Another year, another team in 1921: McNeil was back in the International League, playing for the Jersey City Skeeters, and having another .271 season in 80 games.
The Reading (Pennsylvania) Aces were his team in 1922, a different International League team, but he appeared in only four games, apparently due to unfortunate struggles with the disease of alcoholism.
McNeil, 30 years old, was named manager of the Frederick Hustlers in the Class D Blue Ridge League for 1923. The Hustlers finished in fourth place out of six, 24½ games behind Earle Mack’s Martinsburg Blue Sox. McNeil was also listed as appearing in two games for the International League’s Baltimore Orioles. Just one game for the Toronto Maple Leafs appears to have been the sum total of his 1924 season.
He is found managing in the Middle Atlantic League in both 1925 and 1926 as skipper of the Johnstown Johnnies, and of Pittsfield in 1927. The Johnstown team included future major leaguers Joe Cronin and Ripper Collins, and finished first in the six-team league in 1925 (no playoffs were held) and second, by two games, in 1926. Playoffs were held in ’26 and the Johnnies prevailed over Fairmont, winning the best-of-seven series in six games.
McNeil returned to the Johnnies in 1929, but for just the first part of the season. There were eight teams in the league, and Johnstown finished dead last. He’d been replaced as manager by Marty Fiedler and he retired from baseball.
Though he’d worked as a butcher, in his later years McNeil became a clerk in a printing company.6
McNeil died on April 11, 1942, of peritonitis due to a perforated peptic ulcer, 12 days after surgery at Sisters Hospital in Buffalo.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed McNeil’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com. Thanks to grandson Paul McNeil for supplying important family information in e-mails on March 9 and May 14, 2012.
1 Boston Globe, November 12, 1921
2 The New York Department of Health’s certificate of death provides their names, but McNeil’s widow, Ann, acknowledged that she didn’t know where either of Norman’s parents had been born. Paul McNeil provided important family information in an e-mail on March 9, 2012.
3 The Sporting News, April 16, 1942
4 Another Norman McNeil, also a catcher, was the captain of the baseball team at the US Military Academy at West Point in April 1917, but he was from Georgia.
5 E-mail from Paul McNeil, March 9, 1912. The younger Norm became a highly decorated World War II veteran who took part in the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, climbed the cliffs of Normandy on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge under General George S. Patton. At one point he played some baseball about 60 miles from Berlin while the Russians, per the agreement of the Big Three, were allowed to capture the German seat of power.