Watlington, Neal

Primary Positions: Catcher, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Yanceyville

First, Middle Names: Julius Neal
Date of Birth:  Dec. 25, 1922  Date and Place of Death: Dec. 29, 2019, Yanceyville
Burial: Yanceyville Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Yanceyville

High School: Bartlett Yancey High School, Yanceyville
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0. 195
Debut Year: 1953       Final Year: 1953          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Athletics, 1953

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
21        44        7          4          3          0        .159     .213     .182     -0.3

Neal Watlington went off to war in 1943. Unlike other ballplayers of his generation, Watlington actually fought the enemy. He didn’t play ball to entertain the troops. He was one of them who slogged through France and Germany. He went back home to Yanceyville in Caswell County when it was all over with a Purple Heart for wounds he would always pass off as mere “nicks.” He later played a few weeks in the big leagues and then settled in to become a pillar of his hometown. He died in 2019, a few days past his 97th birthday, as one of the oldest-living ballplayers.

Born on Christmas Day in 1922, Julius Neal Watlington was the only son among Julius and Laura’s seven children. As a teenager, he worked in his father’s general store and played baseball and football for the local high school.

He signed his first professional baseball contract with the Mayodan, North Carolina, Millers of the Class C Bi-State League. “Back in 1941 when I was 17 and just out of high school, a team of the old Bi-State League ran out of catchers,” Watlington explained later. “They asked if I’d catch a few games. I caught two games, got my release and forgot about it. So did everybody else. But a couple of years ago somebody went through some records, discovered those two games and added six years to my career.”[I]

That career was interrupted by war. Watlington joined the Army in 1943 and arrived in Europe with the 89th Infantry Division two years later. He spent six months on the front driving a Jeep and operating a machine gun as the division fought its way from northern France into Germany. He was hit in the hands and head by artillery shrapnel but told an interviewer in 1953 that the wounds were “nothing worth talking about.” Patched up, Watlington was wounded again but never applied for a second Purple Heart. “What do I need two for?” he once told his son.

Stuart Watlington, his only child who became a lawyer in Yanceyville, once offered to take his elderly father to Europe to revisit the battlefields. “I was so glad to get home,” Watlington said, “why would I want to go back?”[II]

When he arrived home in 1946, he worked at Caswell Knitting Mills in Yanceyville and played amateur baseball. A local fan recommended him to New York Giants’ scout Herb Brett, who signed him a year later to play with the Giants’ Class C Danville, North Carolina, Leafs. He hit .328 with 21 doubles and was one of the team’s offensive leaders.

Watlington was also the pride of Yanceyville. The local Rotary Club sponsored a Neal Watlington Night in Danville and hundreds of his Caswell County neighbors showed up to present him with a pocket watch.

He spent the next five years playing for the Giants’ Triple A farm clubs. He was a tobacco auctioneer in the offseasons and delighted his teammates with demonstrations.

The Philadelphia Athletics acquired Watlington before the start of the 1952 season. Manager Jimmy Dykes called him up from the Class AAA club in Ottawa, Canada, when the starting catcher, Joe Astroth, was injured in the middle of the season. The 30-year-old rookie debuted on July 12 against the Boston Red Sox and singled in his first at bat against Hal “Skinny” Brown, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native.

Watlington appeared in only 21 games and was used mostly as a pinch hitter, ending his only big-league season with a .159 batting average. “Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290s that season,” he explained. “Both of them had good years, and there just wasn’t any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”[III]

After five more years as a solid Class AAA catcher, Watlington retired from baseball in 1958 and returned home to run the department store that he and his wife, Katherine, had bought five years earlier. Watlington’s on the Square was a downtown fixture for more than 50 years.

During that time Watlington became one of the most-respected men in town. He coached youth baseball teams and was the president of the Rotary Club, a board member of the Chamber of Commerce, an elder at the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church, and a charter member of the local Veterans of Foreign War post.

At 75, Watlington decided to plant a few fruit trees in his back yard. Within two years, he planted more than 200 apple, peach and pear trees and worked the orchard until his late 80s.

At the time of his death, he and Katherine had been married for 67 years. She died about six months later.

[I] Obituary: Neal Watlington (1922-2019).” RIP baseball, https://ripbaseball.com/2020/01/06/obituary-neal-watlington-1922-2019/
[II] Ibid.
[III] Diunte, N. “Neal Watlington, Former Philadelphia Athletics Catcher Dies at 97.” Baseball Happenings, January 6, 2020, https://www.baseballhappenings.net/2020/01/neal-watlington-former-philadelphia.html