In the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, people have a saying: “It’s not that the mountains are so tall; it’s that the valleys are so deep.” Neal Vance was reared in one of those valleys in Jefferson Township, now known as Valley Springs. While the community lies along a major highway today, in the late 19th century, like all of the Ozarks, it was secluded and inaccessible. Those who scraped out a living in this area of the country were hardened souls. So it might have been expected Neal would have a bit of a mean streak in him.
Despite a reputation in baseball circles, whether deserved or undeserved, he seemed to be on his best behavior Texas. Still, when newspapers turned on Vance for alleged on and off-field actions, they placed the blame on Texas and its poor influence. Thus, Vance became one of the most traveled professional ballplayers in the early 20th century. His ballad reads like the log book of a trans-continental airline pilot.
Neal Hendrix Vance, also known as “Neil Vance,” “Gimbert” Vance, and “James G. Vance,” is born in Boone County, Arkansas, on October 10, 1884. Vance is the fourth child and first son of Morris David Vance and his second wife, Terry Hicks. Neal’s father operates a dry goods store in Jefferson Township, a wise choice as opposed to those of frontier Arkansas farmers attempting to scratch out a meager subsistence in the shallow rocky soil surrounding the community. Before entering the mercantile business, M.D. Vance had served as a Confederate Soldier, named a captain in the 11th Arkansas Cavalry when he was only 18-years old. Captain Vance must have impressed, as by war’s end, he is a 20-year old Colonel. Later in life, he informally becomes a General when he is involved in organizing Confederate veteran affairs at the state level in 1920s Arkansas.
Terry Vance dies when Neal is just five-years-old. Having already been married twice, M.D. does not remarry, leaving Neal’s raising in the hands of his three daughters. As Neal grows older, his father enters the insurance business and moves the family to the less rugged but still secluded terrain of Springdale, Arkansas. Exactly where and how Neal becomes involved in baseball is unclear as is most of his career. Record books show Neal Vance playing only three seasons of professional baseball, two in Texas and one in California. Additional research, however, reveals a far more complicated capsule of his career. Neal Vance, to say the least, becomes a well-traveled player, signing with several teams he never plays for under at least four different aliases.
1905: Vance debuts with the South McAlester/Fort Smith of the Missouri Valley League. He plays sparsely and is shipped to the Tulsa Oilers. His 1905 pitching record is an unimpressive 1-4.
1906: Vance arrives in Temple, Texas, to play for Con Lucid’s Boll Weevils. Temple’s season is cut short when Greenville ceases operations and the league drops Temple to allow for even scheduling. Vance leads the Boll Weevils to eight of the team’s twenty wins. It is not documented in Texas newspapers, but later in Vance’s career he is accused of threatening to kill Con Lucid’s replacement, Fred Moore.
1907: Vance moves to Houston and posts a 9-8 record in 22 games. He also plays in the Oklahoma-Kansas League with Bartlesville and Muskogee. As 1908 approaches, Vance’s reputation and legends of the Texas League’s influence send the young pitcher on an eight-year roller coaster ride through baseball.
1908: Vance signs with Waco before Toledo of the American Association purchases his rights. His time in Toledo is short. On April 13, Vance pitches miserably for Toledo’s second team in an exhibition matchup in Fort Wayne. When pulled from the game, the Fort Wayne News reports Vance “went through a few stunts of a highly illuminating nature.” At the hotel that evening, Vance attempts to attack his manager with a steak knife and threatens him with a pistol. Toledo releases Vance, and he is reportedly picked up by Springfield of the Ohio State League. Instead, he plays the season in Green Bay of the Wisconsin-Illinois League.
The incident in Fort Wayne and the newspaper accounts cement public view of Vance’s difficulties having arisen from his time in Texas. Reporters inaccurately state Neal Vance spent “almost his entire life” on the “Texas frontier where he probably picked up his wild and wooly ideas.” Toledo’s owner notes Vance’s “Indian warfare ideas” as intolerable. Neal begins playing under the alias, “James G. Vance.”
1909: Vance begins the season with York and Johnstown in the Tri-State League but moves to California and pitches with Vernon of the Pacific Coast League. He posts a 6-13 record for the last-place team in a league that plays over 220 games on the season.
1910: Vance signs with the Detroit Tigers of the major leagues, but never plays a game. He does play in Rochester, Minnesota, and is hospitalized after being hit in the head with a pitch. He returns to play with Green Bay for several games. Detroit sells Vance’s rights to the Cleveland Naps for the maximum price, $1,500. Cleveland recognizes an error in the transaction that saves them $700. Detroit balks, and Vance travels to Albany and the New York State League. The Decatur, Illinois, newspaper piles on Vance, noting he is so disruptive no club wants to sign him. The same newspaper reveals the incident with Fred Moore in Temple several years earlier. Vance does not appear with Albany and instead pitches in the Virginia League for Norfolk, his most successful season to date, posting a 16-7 record.
1911-13: Vance returns to New York, winning 7 games for Syracuse. Mid-season, he moves back to the Virginia League, signing with the Petersburg Goobers. Here, Vance has his greatest success. He posts a perfect 11-0 record in is first season. Vance remains in Petersburg the next two seasons, sans a brief move to Roanoke. He leaves Petersburg in late 1913 and returns to Texas, playig a few games with Bonham in the Texas-Oklahoma League.
1914-16: Vance plays for Georgetown of the East Texas League in 1914, takes 1915 off, and finishes his career with Crockett in 1916.
After 11 tumultuous years playing, and sometimes not playing, in cities from California to New York, Neal Vance, “James G. Vance,” and “Gimbert Vance” retires from baseball, likely along with some other alias Vances. For those keeping score, over the course of Vance’s 10 year active career he plays for or is signed to play for 24 franchises in 14 leagues.
Soon after Neal Vance’s baseball career ends, he accepts an honest job with a Tulsa oil company, reportedly as a “chemist.” His career has come full circle as he works in the oil industry in the same city he began his baseball career as a member of the Oilers franchise. But like most everything about Neal Vance’s life, his time in the traditional workforce is short. On the cold evening of February 10, 1919, Vance retires to his room in Tulsa and turns up the gas furnace. The following morning, he is found dead. Reportedly, after just a few hours of exposure to toxic fumes from the furnace, Vance’s body advances to a state of decomposition rendering identification difficult. Officially, the cause of death is listed as “asphyxiation,” something we’d likely consider carbon monoxide poisoning today. In any event, Neal Hendrix Vance dies at the age of 34.
Neal’s father, now working as a janitor in the Central Arkansas town of Conway, brings his son’s body back to his home state where he is buried in Conway’s Oak Grove Cemetery. For 21 years, Neal rests in an unmarked grave until General Morris David Vance dies at the age of 95. The grave marker erected for General Vance recognizes Neal as well.
And so ends the ballad of Neal Hendrix Vance, a man who deserving or not, is labeled as a baseball pariah, thus earning him a hesitant designation as a Texas League “Bad Boy.”