I could tell you about baseball.
I could tell you that Douglas Neff – or D.W. Neff, as he was called from time to time – was a star athlete at the University of Virginia, played 33 big league games in 1914 and ’15 for the Washington Nationals, then retired, fought in a war, and faded into the much-less-documented world of ordinary life.
I could tell you about Harrisonburg, Virginia where Neff, the son of a prominent local doctor, was born in 1891.
Harrisonburg is on the “other” side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the western edge of Virginia.
I could tell you about Boboko, Harrisonburg’s tiny Indonesian restaurant and its delicious food, which you will find just across the street from the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.
Neff’s childhood home is gone. But, I can show you where it once was.
… where this parking lot is now – also across from the Farmers Market.
Harrisonburg is home to James Madison University, with 21,000 students, and Eastern Mennonite University, with 1,100 more. Add another 54,000 residents, and Harrisonburg has sprawled so big and so wide that it now has two – two! – Walmarts.
Like this – only sprawlier.
I had it all planned out – to tell you about Neff and baseball, and Harrisonburg and Boboko, the tiny Indonesian restaurant.
But, some things don’t go as planned.
I didn’t expect Douglas Neff’s life to take such a mysterious and sad turn that led here to Orange.
Baseball’s history is well documented. Hundred-year-old box scores and recaps of ancient games are everywhere.
But, what about after someone’s playing days are through?
Are those years important, too?
What if you died alone, because you wanted to be alone, done with things on your own terms and in your own way, and, then, nearly 90 years later someone digs up your story – your secret – and writes it down?
Is it wrong of me to tell it? Or, is it wrong of me not to?
It’s a long story.
I just don’t like people to be forgotten.
PART 1: Harrisonburg, Virginia
Harrisonburg was formed on two and a half acres of land, donated by Thomas Harrison, in 1779.
In 1892, the year after Douglas Neff was born, the city annexed an additional 1,082 surrounding acres, which tripled the city’s population to about 2,000.
Court Square, Harrisonburg. 1907.
(Today’s Harrisonburg covers about 11,000 acres and its 54,000 population, not including university students, makes it the 12th largest city in Virginia.)
It was, for awhile, simply called Rock Town, because it was the county seat of Rockingham County. (This is both not very creative and super-duper cool.)
Did someone say “Rock Town”?
Harrisonburg tagged itself “The Friendly City” sometime in the 1930s, and it takes its friendliness seriously.
Today, it is known for its widely diverse population and its dedication to being a refugee resettlement community. In 2016, Harrisonburg Public Schools taught students from 46 countries.
And, these signs? Maybe you’ve seen them in your neighborhood. They say, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in English, Spanish, and Arabic.
They were created by Harrisonburg’s Immanuel Mennonite Church who say: “We encourage you to join us in welcoming the stranger, getting to know your neighbors, hosting and being hosted, reaching out across divides, providing shelter, seeking justice, and sharing love with friend and stranger.”
The church has created a multitude of variations, with welcoming messages in Farsi, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Somali, and more.
This is one of my favorite things about Harrisonburg, but it is not the only thing, and it’s time we got to Douglas Neff and baseball.
PART 2: Virginia’s Baseball Star
Douglas William Neff and his older brothers, John and Michael, were athletes and scholars at Harrisonburg’s high school, and all three ended up at the University of Virginia. John studied medicine (and coached Virginia’s 1909 football team), Michael studied law, and Douglas, engineering.
At some point, their father John closed his medical practice in Harrisonburg and moved his family to Charlottesville in order to teach his sons at UVa. (I’m not sure how that worked, but that’s what he did, and that’s where he died, in 1912, while Douglas was still in school.)
Douglas, just 5’7” – small even by the standards of the day – captained the Virginia baseball team in 1913 and ’14. In 1914, the Richmond Times-Dispatch called him “the best shortstop in college baseball. … [and] one of the best all-around men ever at Virginia.”
(Neff played at Virginia with future National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Eppa Rixey, which make these “best ever” accolades even sweeter.)
University of Virginia baseball team, 1914
Each year the Washington Nationals held their spring training in Charlottesville, scrimmaging with the college team, and Neff quickly caught manager Clark Griffith’s eye. In 1912 and again in 1913, Griffith offered Neff a contract. Neff turned him down.
Neff was Virginia’s regular shortstop/third baseman and he was a good pitcher, too, with an occasional peculiar underhanded delivery.
While playing in the off-season of 1913 at the Blue Ridge Camp, in Ivy, Virginia, he joined a pick-up game with a prize of three apple pies to the winning team. Neff broke his leg on an errant slide into second.
His team lost the game – and the pies.
But, Neff healed up fine. In 1914, his final college season, the university presented him with its “Golden Baseball” award, in recognition of his role as team captain and for having the highest batting average and scoring the most runs on the team.
The broken leg didn’t deter the Nationals either – three weeks after the injury, Neff told his family that he would sign with the Nats in June 1914, following graduation.
PART 3: The Nationals
“Neff is a great ball player. … a wonderful fielder, fast on the bases, and a dangerous hitter.” ~ The Washington Post, 6/8/1914
Neff joined the Washington Nationals on June 8, 1914.
(The team was officially the Washington Senators, but everyone called them the Nationals. I’ll stick with Nationals here. And, Neff is often called “Douglass,” but Douglas is correct.)
“I am glad to be with Mr. Griffith,” Neff told The Washington Herald upon arriving in St. Louis, where the Nats were playing. “I don’t know whether or not my work will come up to the required American League standard, but I am going to do the best I can.”
Neff plays in just one game in June 1914, before contracting typhoid fever. He returns to Charlottesville to recover.
He appears just briefly again in October as a pinch hitter in two meaningless games, going 0-for-2. Reporters believe he is still weak from the typhoid.Embed from Getty Images
1915 Washington Nationals. (Neff may be just to the right of that post in the middle of the photo, but I’m not sure.)
Neff returns in 1915, appearing in 30 games, the bulk of them in July.
“Harrisonburg baseball fans are wild over the brilliant entry into professional baseball made by Douglas Neff.” ~ Richmond Times-Dispatch
Neff gets off to a fast start, but his bat quickly grows cold and his fielding falters. By July 24, he’s out of the lineup.
He doesn’t turn up again until September 29, in the second game of a double-header, where he comes in as a pinch hitter and records a hit in the Nats 20-5 win over the Philadelphia A’s.
He plays in the second game of another double-header against Philadelphia on October 6. He goes 0-for-2 in a Nats loss.
It was his last major league game.
In 33 games, he has 49 hits, five of them doubles, for a career batting average of .161. He records 4 RBIs and has one stolen base.
“Neff did not come up to expectations. He realizes this better than any one else, for he believes that he did not play as good ball with Washington as he had shown with the Virginia college team. … [H]e realizes there is not much of a chance for him ever to make a major league player of himself.
“It is to be regretted that Neff could not make good, for he is one of the grandest fellows personally that ever broke into the major leagues.” ~ The Washington Evening Star.
Instead of pursuing an engineering career, Neff enrolls in a Virginia seminary.
I guess you could say he left baseball and found God.
PART 4: War
Neff left the seminary for World War I in 1917, serving as a First Lieutenant in the Army’s 80th Infantry – nicknamed the “Blue Ridge Division” because its draftees were made up of men from Virginia and neighboring states. He fought in the Battle of Saint Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
The Meuse-Argonne campaign went on for 47 days and Neff’s division saw more days of continuous combat than any other American division. It was the largest offensive in U.S. military history – and the deadliest. More than 26,000 Americans died in the long battle.
After his death, more than one news report noted that Neff had been seriously gassed in battle.
The Staunton News Leader wrote in his obituary:
“His war injuries are held by friends to be responsible for his rather queer actions in recent years.”
I hesitate to even write this, because discussing one’s “queer actions” isn’t what an obituary is supposed to do.
But, it is a reminder that a soldier does not easily shake off the horrors of war simply because he or she is one of the “lucky ones” who returned home. And, as you have probably already figured, Neff’s “queer actions” were likely what we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder today.
PART 5: Back To Church
Neff returned from war to finish seminary and became the Rector at two parishes in Gloucester, Virginia, serving there from 1921 to 1925.
Playing on a local Gloucester team in 1925. (Seated, center.)
In 1927, he arrived in Orange, Virginia as the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, where he also served as the chaplain at Woodberry Forest, the private boys school just outside of Orange.
Unmarried, Neff boarded with a local family.
PART 6: May 23, 1932
I know much more than I ever thought I would know about one single day – the last – in Douglas Neff’s life.
When I contacted local historians, no one knew. They could see from old church records that Neff was indeed once the rector at St. Thomas. They knew he died in 1932. But, that was all they had. Nothing else. No photo.
He seemed fine, his friends insisted, before he went missing on May 23, 1932.
But, something was not fine.
Here’s what I have pieced together from news reports of the day.
On the morning of Monday, May 23, 1932 Douglas Neff went to the local bank in Orange and withdrew $225. He placed a document in a safe deposit box.
He dropped off a check at a local business, the only place where he had an outstanding bill.
He drove to Richmond and while there dropped a letter in the mail.
From Richmond, he boarded a train to Norfolk, arrived there, and boarded the Robert E. Lee steamer on the Old Dominion line headed for New York.
He was the first passenger to board, shortly after 5:30 p.m. A porter showed him to his stateroom – #77.
The ship sailed, on time, at 7:30 p.m. and arrived in New York at 3:30 p.m. the next day.
Twenty-eight passengers boarded the ship in Norfolk. Twenty-seven disembarked in New York. Neff was not among them.
He was gone.
The crew entered his stateroom and found his bed had not been slept in but, The Orange County Review reported, “the covers were rumpled as though someone had laid down to rest for a time.”
The crew found Neff’s hat, a key ring, $1.60 in change, and a pencil.
That was all he left behind.
Jumped or Fell.
The document he left in the safe deposit box in Orange was his will.
The day after his disappearance a letter, postmarked Richmond, arrives in Orange, addressed in Neff’s handwriting, to William Shepherd, a local black workman and the sexton at St. Thomas. The envelope contains two one-dollar bills, but nothing more.
It’s another three weeks before Neff’s body is found off Cobb Island on the Eastern Shore, about 50 miles from Norfolk. His is not the only body recovered that day by the Coast Guard and the local coroner determines that the body, which is badly decomposed, cannot be identified and it is swiftly buried.
It’s a Coast Guard official who hears about the body and recalls the missing Reverend from Orange.
Neff’s brother John, now a professor at the University of Virginia, is notified and the body exhumed.
Douglas Neff is identified by the bits of clothing still found on the body – including his name embroidered on the inside band of his shirt collar – and by the contents of his jacket pocket, which still contain the keys to the car he abandoned in Richmond and an engraved fountain pen that a local Orange businessman confirms belonged to him.
A funeral takes place in Charlottesville, and Douglas Neff is buried on June 22, 1932 at the University of Virginia cemetery.
He is 40.
PART 7: The Story Should Be Over, But For This …
There is a peculiar postscript.
It is Douglas Neff’s older brother John who is the only family member mentioned during the search for Douglas.
Dr. John Neff, 1912
In 1932, John is a highly regarded urologist and a member of the University of Virginia faculty. And, that’s where he still is when, on the evening of November 9, 1938, he, like his brother Douglas, simply disappears.
He seemed fine, his friends insisted, before he went missing.
But, something – again – was not fine.
His body is discovered the next day in Payne’s lake, a few miles east of Charlottesville.
He left his hat, watch, wallet, and car keys by the banks of the lake. Near them, searchers also discover a bottle of morphine. In his car are two letters – one for his wife and one for the university’s president.
His death is ruled a suicide.
PART 8: The Next-To-Last Part
Douglas Neff’s death in 1932 is ruled “accidental drowning.”
It seems likely that Douglas Neff’s death was not accidental. It was, instead, something he planned and carried out.
“The whole nervous system of individuals changed during and since the War,” Dennis Geffen wrote in The Causes of Suicide, a medical paper issued after World War I.
Following Neff’s death, family and friends noted that his war injuries haunted him – specifically his exposure to gas during battle.
Was that it?
Something else? What about the eerie similarities of his brother’s death six years later?
Douglas Neff was privileged, smart, a gifted athlete.
So, then what?
We look to ministers and religious leaders as counselors – they bring us comfort, support, and guidance when we are in need. But, who does a Reverend in a small Virginia town talk to when he needs help?
Douglas Neff has troubled me from the moment I uncovered the stories about his death. Does he want this to be his story? Is this how he wants to be remembered?
I’m not sure.
But, I am sure that I don’t want to end his story that way.
PART 9: June 28, 1915
June 28, 1915, a Monday, was a not-bad day as far as Washington, DC summers go. The skies were clear and the day’s temp topped out at 81. If you know Washington, you know that any summer day that stays in the 80s is a good day.
President Woodrow Wilson was up early in New Hampshire. It was the first day of his summer vacation and he started it with a round of golf.
Not much was going on in Washington. The War, now a full year old, was in all the papers, but the U.S. wouldn’t be directly involved for two more years. It was just a quiet Monday.
The Washington Nationals were set to play the Philadelphia A’s that afternoon at Griffith Stadium.
Nationals second baseman Ray Morgan had been injured the day before when his car swerved off the road near Baltimore. Manager Clark Griffith immediately suspended him – without pay – and announced that Douglas Neff, 23, his rarely used infielder, would take Morgan’s place in that day’s game.
Neff could become a permanent replacement, Griffith hints.
The game was a match between two not-so-hot teams. The Nats, with a 28-27 record, were in the middle of the AL pack. The A’s, with just 22 wins, were dead last.
Future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson pitched that day for the Nationals, shutting out the A’s on just six hits.
The Nats knocked out seven hits and two runs to win. Neff had three of those hits and scored one of those runs.
Washington Times sportswriter Louis Dougher was there. Let’s let him tell it:
“Rise, Sir Douglass Neff. You are the goods. You defeated the Mackmen, with the assistance of that blond shrapnel, Walter Johnson, 2 to 0. You cracked out three hits, almost half of your team’s work. You figured in a neat double steal. You made a pretty barehanded stop of a drive behind the cushion, and you did it to the [manor] born. Rise, Sir Douglass, you are the goods.”
Neff’s first hit was a double in the second off the first baseman’s glove. The next batter walked and a passed ball got Neff to third. On a double steal (!!!!) Neff slid under the catcher’s glove at home, scoring the game’s first run. The Nats scored again later in the inning.
Neff singled in the fourth and again in the sixth.
“Had it not been for Doug Neff there is no telling what the outcome would have been.” ~ The Washington Post.
(Editor/Husband, as always, would like me to inform you that this game took exactly 90 minutes.)
In a game that saw a stellar pitching performance by Walter Johnson – still considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time – Douglas Neff, on June 28, 1915, was the star.
Let’s remember him like that.
Thank you to Jeff Poole, editor of the Orange County Review who found the microfilm of the paper’s 1932 editions and kindly let me sit in the paper’s lobby for a morning to scroll through them. Thank you to Frank Walker, Martha Roby, and Abigail James for their guidance.
And, thank you to Editor/Husband, who read this story many more times than you can imagine.
Read more from the Virginia-Born Baseball Project here.