The gentleman above is Cristobal Torriente, a Cuba native and African-American baseball — or beisbol — legend who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2006, the after which the Hall once again officially and unjustly its doors to segregation-era African-American players.
As I discussed in this previous blog post, in 2016 I’m going to try to sharpen Home Plate Don’t Move’s focus to advocating for two goals: one, to, with your help, get the BHOF to acknowledge its ignorance bigotry and once again allow Negro Leaguers into its hallowed halls; and two, try, again with help, to bring attention to the possibility that Cristobal Torriente, the “Cuban Babe Ruth,” is now the only Hall of Famer buried in an unmarked grave.
What’s worse, said burial location could be a mass grave in which Torriente — who, by the time of his death in 1938, was in all likelihood a penniless pauper (which was tragically the fate of many former Negro League stars — was unceremoniously laid to rest (if you could call it rest) with 16 other anonymous souls at the prestigious Calvary Cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens.
And that discovery right there — that Torriente’s remains are in Queens, not Cuba — represents a stunning and monumental development that completely rewrites what we know about the fate of this outsized beisbol legend. (For example, the esteemed Find A Grave Web site still lists, mistakenly, that Torriente is interred in Cuba.)
Right off the bat, I’m to to credit three baseball researchers/historical enthusiasts with each doing a yeoman’s job in getting the ball rolling on identifying the exact location and status of Torriente’s remains.
The first is John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, who is arguably the leading light in the area of baseball research. The second is Gary Ashwill, whose incredible — and incredibly researched — blog, Agate Type, is located here. Gary specializes in Negro Leagues and, perhaps more importantly, Cuban beisbol.
The third person is Ralph Carhart, a SABR member and driving force behind the massive Hall Ball project, which is dedicated to criss-crossing the landscape with a baseball to as many Hall of Famers — both living Hallers and the graves of deceased ones — and take pictures with each man or burial location.
It’s a massive, remarkable, and incredibly admirable effort, one that has been underway for several years and one that continues in energetically full force. (Ralph has launched a Go Fund Me effort to help finance his work in this project. If you’re interested in helping out, go here.)
Now that relations between Cuba and the U.S. have thawed a bit, Ralph has zeroed in on bringing the Hall Ball to that once-prohibited island and visit the graves of multiple Hall of Famers from the Caribbean country, such as player, manager and owner of the famed New York Cubans Jose Mendez, and multi-tooled player Martin Dihigo.
Ralph sailed to Cuba last year, one of numerous baseball historians who have been itching for the chance to study the storied Cuban League, which has spawned countless beisbol stars over the years, a voyage I discussed in this blog post.
In his journey to Cuba, Ralph was able to visit Cristobal Colon Cemetery, which includes a towering monument honoring dozens of Cuba’s past baseball legends, including the nation’s Hall of Famers in Cooperstown.
The majestic baseball memorial in Cristobal Colon Cemetery (photo courtesy of Ralph Carhart)
Correspondingly, Cristobal Colon Cemetery is the burial location of such beisbol luminaries, including Hall of Fame members Dihigo, Mendez and Cristobal Torriente.
Or so almost all of the baseball history community of researchers and fans thought. But, in a blockbuster revelation, Ralph firmly believes that Torriente is not, in fact, buried there, in his native Cuba, as previously believed.
After a gargantuan amount of research — largely on-site in Cuba and Ralph’s current domain in New York City — Ralph has determined, almost conclusively, that Cristobal Torriente is actually interred at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, one of 17 unknown former NYC residents who died in anonymity.
And, crucially, several historians believe that Torriente is sadly now the only Baseball Hall of Fame inductee buried in an unmarked grave. (Organizations such as SABR’s 19th-Century Baseball Grave Marker Project and Jeremy Krock’s Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, have diligently and tireless worked to place markers of dozens of late players’, managers’ and owners’ graves including several HOFers.)
Ralph chronicled this titanic endeavor on his Hall Ball Web site. (If you scroll down a ways to the February 2015 blog entries you’ll find it.)
As that post chronicles, Ralph attempted to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops — including speaking with staffers at Calvary Cemetery — to determine two things: one, if Torriente was, in fact, buried there; and two, if he is, if it would be possible to place a grave marker on the burial site honoring Torriente.
I spoke with Ralph earlier today to ascertain the status of the answers to both of those questions. As to the first query, Ralph said he is as sure as he can possibly be, given the strict rules employed by Calvary Cemetery and the steep financial necessities of the situation, that Torriente is indeed buried there in Queens, a finding that, at least in the Negro Leagues community, is simply gargantuan.
“I think it would be impossible to determine with the research resources we have at our fingertips now,” he said.
What would it require to definitely determine that Torriente is there? Ralph said, quite simply, that the mass grave must be unearthed and all the remains buried there to be DNA tested to identify which one, if any, is Cristobal Torriente.
Understandably, such an undertaking — especially without the official blessing of the cemetery itself — would require a massive amount of financial and logistical resources, as well as the backing of a hugely influential political, governmental or political figure who could throw his or her weight behind the effort.
And right now, Ralph says, that’s simply not the case, unfortunately.
“I certainly don’t have the resources for that, and I don’t know anyone who does,” he says.
Ralph has contacted and conferred with Jeremy Krock, the founder and driving force behind the nationally-known Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, to see if Krock and the NLBGMP could help out at this point.
Ralph says Jeremy is definitely willing and eager to do anything the NLBGMP can. But, given all the aforementioned limitations, what can be done to properly honor this towering baseball luminary?
“We likely can never but a stone at the grave,” he says, “so our best option would be a marker or memorial in the general area of the grave site.
“I’m going to give it a shot.”
At the moment, Ralph encourages anyone who might be interested to pitch in do so, with the best way to help being simply spreading the word about this deplorable situation.
“Advocacy,” he says. “Advocacy will help with that, just making people aware of this.”
But another question remains, one that may never be solved conclusively — why and how did Cristobal Torriente end up buried in an unmarked mass grave in Queens instead of, like other Cuban baseball legends, in a prestigious memorial in an historic cemetery in his homeland?
That, my friends, is a query I’ll attempt to address, however humbly, over the next few weeks and months. It seems to be an intricately woven and at times disheartening tale of governmental inertia, political intrigue, historic economic realities, and racial and ethnic mystery and fluidity.
It involves a brutal dictatorship, the rise and fall of the island’s massive sugar industry, the perhaps undo influence of a handful of American business and political kingpins, and the interweaving of racial and cultural definitions that combine to muddy the picture and prevent us from discovering both Torriente’s familial, geographic and ethnic background, as well as the intricate machinations that took place in the days, months and years after the beisbol great’s all-too-soon passing in 1938.