The evil truth about professional baseball is that not everyone makes it to the Major Leagues.
In a country where hard work and dedication is so profusely admired, Major League Baseball serves as the dark example where things do not always turn out like butterflies and rainbows. The cowboy cannot always ride off into the sunset aboard his trusted steed.
Countless players that no one has ever heard of, have been drafted and developed all over baseball, playing in the lower throngs of minor league ball, but never sniffing the greenest grass on this earth at the Major League level.
Carlton Nebel is no different.
Nebel’s initial claim to fame has nothing to do with baseball whatsoever. Private Carlton A. Nebel from Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, served in the United States Army during World War II.
My grandfather, Ralph Borek, also enlisted at the same time. The two men may never have met one another, but they are inextricably linked by their service to our nation’s military. Not to mention, my grandfather also lived to play baseball in the same way Nebel did.
The year was 1947. With his military service up, Nebel was able to live out his dream of playing professional baseball. The team to sign him? The Cincinnati Reds.
Assigned to the Austin Pioneers of the Big State League at the ripe age of 20 years old, Nebel took advantage of his opportunity. The skill level for the league at the time is nearly impossible to determine, but anyone who has ever stepped on a ballfield knows that hitting .329 over the course of 300 at-bats is quite the achievement.
Alternating between catcher and shortstop, Nebel proceeded to bounce around the complex and highly unorganized minor league systems that existed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In just a four-year span, he saw himself playing in; Saginaw, Michigan, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Charleston, West Virginia, Columbia, South Carolina, and finally, Duluth, Minnesota.
There is no fairy tale ending to this story. Nebel would not continue to hit at the blistering pace he did during his age 20 season, flaming out in 1952 at just 25 after hitting only .236 at Duluth. Like many who made it that far, he was not willing to give up the baseball dream.
Nebel is now the oldest active umpire in the state of Missouri. At just 87 years young, (Although, I’d be stunned to find any umpire older than that still crouching down behind the plate anywhere in the country) Nebel is still taking in the sights and sounds that can only be encompassed on a baseball field.
His story is one of harsh reality, but also adaptation. If you cannot succeed at what you desire most, you find a way to never leave the game you love.
It reminds us that time eventually catches up to us all, but if you’re lucky enough, you get to live your life beyond the restrictions that age sets for you.