Just like many high school players in the Pittsburgh area, Pine-Richland alum and former Pittsburgh Pirate Neil Walker played American Legion baseball. But not every player has received the highest honor American Legion baseball has to offer.
In the middle of May, Walker was named the 2019 American Legion Graduate of the Year, an award given to a former American Legion baseball player and current major leaguer for his character, leadership, playing abilities and community service.
“I was excited,” Walker said about how he felt after he heard the news. “I’ve seen the list before, and it’s humbling. American Legion baseball is such a good program from teaching kids the right way to play and learning valuable lessons through the veteran’s program, I was really excited to know that I was a part of the list.”
The first graduate of the year award was given to Sherman Lollar in 1958. Since, players such as Ted Williams, Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Justin Verlander, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Carlton Fisk and Albert Pujols have received the award.
In 2004, Walker was the Pirates’ first-round draft choice. He spent seven years with his hometown team and since has played for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees and, currently, the Miami Marlins.
His father, Tom Walker, who also played Legion ball and is a member of the American Legion, specifically remembers games in which Neil hit a home runs from both sides of the plate.
“For his teammates and his opponents to see him do that, they were kind of in awe,” Tom Walker said. “It was like he was a man playing among boys back then.”
That season in 2002 put Neil on the map for the Pirates. He was named to the All-West American Legion All-Star team and earned an opportunity to play at PNC Park.
“I think that definitely helped,” Walker said. “I was still a sophomore or junior at the time, and I was playing Legion and Palomino ball and I got that opportunity to play against the best players in the area. To have my talents showcased, to gain that exposure and to be seen by a major league team in my backyard was pretty important.”
In order to be eligible for the award, players must be nominated by their respective posts. Neil’s former manager, Bob Schleiden of American Legion Post 548 in Gibsonia, nominated Walker. But it didn’t happen the first time around.
In 2018, Schleiden, with the help of Walker and his father, put together a portfolio displaying Neil’s community service work and nominated Neil for the award. Walker came in second behind former Chicago Cubs pitcher Brian Duensing.
Undeterred, Schleiden nominated Walker again this year. Schleiden was elated with Walker’s honor.
“For American Legion members, we’re all veterans, and Neil now represents, to us, all the qualities and expectations that we have for each other as veterans,” Schleiden said. “We hold each other to a higher standard because of our love of country and each other, and we consider each other family.
“Neil now represents that, and he is the essence of that on the field. So he carries a little extra visibility for us now, and we are extremely proud that he is the one that represents us.”
Graduate of the year winners can choose when they are presented with the award. Walker isn’t sure when he will receive the award and, with the MLB trade deadline approaching, wants to see if anything happens before making plans.
If he stays in Miami, the Marlins have a three-game series at PNC Park the first week of September that Neil said he would love to take advantage of.
This wasn’t the first time Walker was honored by the American Legion. In 2017, he was elected into the Pennsylvania American Legion Sports Hall of Fame.