PITTSBURG — The playograph ticked through another round of plays. John T. McNeill looked down at the sea of faces gathered on the corner of 7th and Broadway. He took a deep breath and began calling out the plays through his megaphone — his voice booming through downtown.
It was 1925, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were about to come back from a 3-1 World Series deficit against the Washington Senators. And back in Pittsburg, Kansas, McNeill stood on a platform right outside the plate-glass windows of the old Pittsburg Headlight and Sun building, calling the play-by-play for all who would listen.
“There was a man who was wrapped up in baseball,” Robert Gibson, McNeill’s grandson, said. “Back then, the play by play would come in on a ticker tape — sort of like a telegraph, I suppose — and my grandfather would climb up on this platform and announce it to folks on the street.”
Pittsburg has a long history with baseball, and John T. McNeill was a large part of it. Before he manned the megaphone, McNeill served as business manager for the hometown Pittsburg Pirates Semi-Pro team.
According to old Headlight and Sun articles, McNeill managed the Pirates around 1914 to 1916, a time when Arcadia’s Carroll Jones pitched for the Detroit Tigers, and Otis Lambeth pitched for the Cleveland Indians. Both players for the Pirates with McNeill — Jones is second from the left in the front row in the photo above, with Lambeth on his right.
He also worked with Pittsburg coaching great Nonie Baker.
Gibson said he believes the photo is around 100 years old — and he’s right. The photo is from a 1914 edition of the Pittsburg Headlight. The photo was passed down, along with the story of family history, to Gibson when his uncle, John McNeill, Jr. — and bat boy in the photo — passed away.
“It’s a great piece of the baseball history of Pittsburg,” Gibson said. “Pittsburg was a baseball town, and I think it was more prominent back then than today.”
Gibson grew up in Pittburg and worked here for Kansas City Southern before moving to Texas to work for Santa Fe and Union Pacific before his retirement. His uncle lost a leg in World War II, but served for many years in the Water Department for the City of Pittsburg.
And John T. McNeill? Even outside of baseball, he was as Crawford County as they come. When he wasn’t standing on a diamond, he was pulling coal from the ground, working as a strip coal miner most of his life.
After he left his position as business manager for the Pirates, McNeill would still be called on at least once a year to call out the World Series. The Pittsburg Headlight and Sun reported that the crowd during the 1925 series was one of the biggest to hear a sporting event.
An article in the paper following his death read:
“John McNeill, who managed the old Pittsburg Pirates in semi-pro games had a good knowledge of baseball, and clear voice that carried well to the assembled fans and an intense interest in the game. He was always ready to help out when World Series time rolled around.”
— Chance Hoener is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. He can be emailed at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ReporterChance.