- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

GENOA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - If there were a special section in the Baseball Hall of Fame for extraordinary fans, Art Neff of Genoa Township would be in it. Not only is he a walking encyclopedia of baseball knowledge, with loads of stories and stats on the tip of his tongue, in August he completed his goal of visiting all 30 current Major League Baseball stadiums, plus 27 more that don’t exist anymore or are no longer in use.

“If you want to do a count from day one, it took me 69 years,” Neff said.

Neff was 10 years old when he first began to pay attention to baseball. It was 1945, and the Detroit Tigers had won the World Series that year. The following year, in 1946, he attended his first big-league baseball game, watching the Tigers play at Briggs Field. It was also his first stadium visit.

Neff checked the last stadium off his must-visit list in August, when he watched the Tigers play the Yankees at the new Yankee Stadium, the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (http://bit.ly/11oi6Ra ) reported.

Ironically, the first away game he attended was at the old Yankee Stadium in 1951.

“I started in Yankee Stadium and I ended in Yankee Stadium,” Neff said.

Along the way, he’s seen a lot of great baseball - and a lot of baseball greats, like Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays.

Some trips stand out for Neff, like his first one back in 1951.

“I still remember that first game in Yankee Stadium,” Neff said. “Casey Stengel was the manager there, and they brought out a big cake with a hi-lo. I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ and the guy next to me said (with a heavy New York accent,) ‘It’s Stengel’s boithday.’ I asked my brother-in-law, ‘What did he say?’ and he said it again.”

The mystified Michigan teen didn’t understand the New Yorker was talking about a birthday cake until his brother-in-law translated.

Then there was the game itself.

“The next day, the paper said Joe DiMaggio made what they thought was the only mental mistake he’d ever made in his career,” Neff said. “George Kell was on second with one out. The batter hit the fly ball to DiMaggio, and he caught it for the second out, but he lost track and thought it was the third out and trotted in to the infield. They waved George Kell around, and he scored from second base while DiMaggio was trotting in with the baseball.”

“I ran into George Kell at a book signing 10 years ago and brought it up,” Neff said. “George said, ‘You were at that game?’ Of course he remembered it, because it was Joe DiMaggio making a mistake like that.”

On that same trip in 1951, five years to the day after he’d seen his first Tigers game, Neff saw his first National League game at the home of the New York Giants.

“The Giants were way back in the pennant race at that point, and everybody had given them up for dead,” Neff said. “They were playing the Dodgers, and they were at the beginning of the streak where they won a whole bunch of games in a row, where they had the famous playoff in 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit the ‘shot heard round the world,’ hitting a three-run homer to win it. The game I saw on Aug. 15 was the beginning of that streak.”

“Willie Mays was a rookie at that time, and he made probably the most fabulous play I’ve ever seen,” Neff said. “The score was tied 1-1 in the eighth inning with a Dodgers man on third with one out, and Mays caught a fly ball going away from home plate, and after the catch, Mays threw on the fly. He made a perfect throw to the catcher, who nailed the runner to end the inning. The Giants (ended up winning) the game 3-1. To put it all in context, it was the beginning of that famous streak. That game I saw on Aug. 15 was very critical.”

Another story involves a trip to St. Louis in 1963 to see Stan Musial’s last game.

“He was one of the all-time greats,” Neff said. “At that time, he owned a restaurant in St. Louis, and the night before the last game, we had dinner there and met Stan Musial. That was certainly at the top of the list of my ballpark visits even though it wasn’t in the ballpark. I wanted to have my picture taken with Stan, and I couldn’t get my camera to work. Stan said, ‘Just play with the levels. See if you can get it fixed, and I’ll come back.’ Twenty minutes later, he came back and I got the picture.”

Then there was the 1961 trip to Crosley Field in Cincinnati, where Neff found himself in the public men’s room with Leo Durocher.

“The original ballparks all dated back to prior to 1920, and they were pretty old when I was there,” Neff said. “The way the layout was at Crosley, the visiting team had to go through the home team dugout to get to their locker room. Before the game I was in the men’s room, and all of a sudden next to me is Leo, in a full uniform. He was manager of the Giants when I saw him in ‘51; at this time, he was a coach with the Dodgers.”

“It was hardly the time to strike up a conversation,” Neff added dryly. “We didn’t exchange pleasantries.”

Neff didn’t set the goal of visiting all 30 big-league stadiums until he had already seen a good many of them.

“I don’t think I really thought about seeing them all until sometime in the last five years, when I only had 10 to go,” he said. “Along the way, I had opportunities to see stadiums I hadn’t been to that I didn’t take advantage of, like Toronto. The old Toronto stadium is a miserable ballpark. It’s a converted football stadium. I didn’t feel any urge to see a game there. Back then, that wasn’t my goal.”

“I counted them up a short while ago, the stadiums I could have seen but didn’t,” he said. “There were 13. If I had been able to go to them, my count would have been an even 70.”

As Neff has wrapped up his tour of big-league baseball stadiums and word of his fan bona fides have spread, he’s gained a certain kind of notoriety. At a tour of Denver’s Coors Field in May, he was treated like a celebrity. He’s quoted in the October/September edition of Michigan History Magazine about his reaction when the Tigers traded hometown hero and famous slugger Hank Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s (“He was the hometown hero, the famous slugger. I was devastated,” Neff said.)

When Neff concluded his tour of major-league stadiums in August, Yankee Stadium put his name and achievement on the scoreboard for all to see. Friends and fellow baseball aficionados Bob Fuchs and Dave Moore of Brighton, who’d traveled with him to see the game and celebrate the milestone, had made the arrangements without telling him.

“I was astounded!” Neff said. “We were at Yankee Stadium, a billion-dollar stadium, and there I am on the scoreboard!”

What’s next for Neff now that he’s achieved his goal of seeing all 30 current big-league ballparks?

He said he hears Atlanta’s building a new stadium. It should be done in 2017.

___

Information from: Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, http://www.livingstondaily.com

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