Who holds Cristobal’s fate?


Over the past week, I’ve been trying to keep several pots simmering on burners in an effort to churn out a bunch of posts about two primary subjects — opening the doors of the Hall of Fame once again to Negro Leaguers, and addressing the likelihood that Hall of Famer Cristobal Torriente is buried in a mass, unmarked grave in Queens.

Those multi-pronged efforts are starting to bear fruit, so hopefully I’ll have at least a post every other day through the end of next week. That’s a hefty goal, but I’m trying to keep at it.

Today, though, the focus returns back to Torriente, whose situation I addressed, with valuable help from a few others, in these posts here and here, with the latter being very heavily researched-base.

But beginning last week, I went on an all-out, investigative-journalist blitz to pin down as many officials and media relations folks as I could to see if anyone in New York City might be interested in trying to bring a greater focus to Torriente’s sad situation in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Hence, a week ago, I sent out a flurry of emails to various NYC offices and agencies — including the City Council — as well as the Archdiocese of New York. And, after a week of waiting and follow ups, the news ain’t good. It ain’t good at all.

I’d ideally like to start off with the response I got from the City Council, but, unfortunately, I haven’t received any such answer. I sent emails to three officers of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus — Co-Chairs Rosie Mendez and Andy King, and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito — and heard precisely bupkis back.

I also dashed off an email to the Council’s press office, but after several days of waiting, my overture bounced back as undeliverable. So I called the Council press office today, when a staffer there asked me to send an email to her personal address, something I will do later today.

I had a little more luck with the City’s Health Department and with the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., a non-profit agency formed roughly 45 years ago to administer the city’s 11 public hospitals and other health-care services open to the public.


Ramiro Ramirez, who reportedly claimed Torriente’s body (from Seamheads)

But before we get into the input from those two agencies, let’s go back a bit and recap what we do know about Cristobal Torriente’s last years, his death and his burial, much of which was uncovered by the Herculean research efforts of friend and fellow SABR member Ralph Carhart of the Hall Ball Project, as well as researcher extraordinaire Gary Ashwill

Somewhere in the mid- to- late-1930s, Torriente, who had settled in NYC after spending much of his playing career there with various teams and (apparently) retiring around 1933, checked into what was Riverside Hospital on the city’s North Brother Island on the East River in July 1937.

Torriente passed away at the hospital on April 11, 1938, with the coroner listing the primary cause as pulmonary tuberculosis. It was thought at the time and for many decades after that Torriente was originally interred at Calvary Cemetery — a massive, sprawling but densely packed (365 acres) Catholic facility owned by the Archdiocese of New York and that today contains the remains of an astounding 3 million people, the most interments of any cemetery in the U.S. — but was disinterred by the Cuban government a short time later and reburied with pomp, circumstance and high honors at the baseball shrine in Havana’s Cristobal Colon Cemetery.

That, though, now appears to be a huge fallacy, one likely originated and fabricated by a dictatorial Cuban government as a PR move to help retain power. Thanks to Ralph Carhart’s efforts, we are know almost positively certain that Torriente’s body was never disinterred from Calvary at all.

The truth is that Torriente, who by his death was, heartbreakingly, indigent and penniless, and was a ward of the state while at Riverside, which seems to have been basically a sanitarium designed to house massive of poor New Yorkers who were suffering from grave diseases and were most likely going to die pretty soon.

(In fact, one of Torriente’s co-residents was Mary Mallon, a.k.a. the infamous Typhoid Mary, patient zero in the typhoid fever epidemic that swept through the city in the first decade of the 20th century. In effect, Riverside was a gigantic hospice/warehouse for sick, poverty stricken people the city deemed unfit to be anywhere near the rest of society. In other words, a very dismal, terrifying place.)

To discern what happened from there, it’s partly a matter of studying Torriente’s death certificate, a copy of which was secured by Gary Ashwill. The record states that the informant of death was, somehow, Torriente himself (not sure how that’s possible, at least in a legal sense), and that the body was claimed by Ramiro Ramirez, a fellow Cuban who, like Torriente, also starred and managed in the Negro Leagues for many years.


Cristobal Torriente’s death certificate (courtesy Gary Ashwill)

The certificate states that Ramirez, who took charge of the body with his signature, was Cristobal’s “cousin” and nearest next of kin. However, no proof has yet to be uncovered of any familial connection between Torriente and Ramirez, although they were teammates on occasion, I think. (Maybe Gary can confirm this.) That mystery — why Ramirez claimed the body, why he apparently lied about his connection to Torriente, and what Ramirez might have known about this whole situation — is something I’ll explore in an ensuing post.

Anyway, the funeral home in charge is listed on the death certificate as A.R. Hernandez, Inc., a long-time mortuary in Brooklyn that seems to have catered to local Latinos and African-Americans. (I’ve tried to look into why Hernandez was chosen, whether the proprietors have any link to Torriente, and whether the company’s history could uncover any keys to finding descendants or relatives of Torriente. More on that in a while, too, hopepfully.)

Then, crucially, we look at the line on the death cert indicating place of burial — the word “CITY” is crossed out and “Calvary Cemetery” is scribbled in its place. Ralph believes this means that Torriente’s body was originally intended for a city-owned cemetery but that Calvary stepped up and offered to house the remains at their facility. Again, what exactly went down between Torriente’s stated death at 9:20 a.m. on April 11, 1963, at Riverside Hospital and his listed interment date on April 15 is unclear, and it could stay that way.

But here’s the twist — despite what the Batista regime ballyhooed about bringing the Cuba legend back to his own country, Calvary staffers confirmed to me and Ralph that they have no record of Torriente’s remains ever being disinterred, which means he’s still there. Hence yet another question, and perhaps the biggest of all — why was such a legendary, admired baseball hero apparently spurned by his own country and left to tragic anonymity thousands of miles from his beloved hometown of Cienfuegos, Cuba? I’m trying to investigate that as well.


Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista

Those Calvary staffers have also said that there’s nothing anything can be done to disinter any of the remains in that grave, an effort that would be necessary to do the required DNA testing on all 18 bodies in it to see which one is Torriente. The cemetery told me — and this could be a very key point — that mass graves like this one are “owned by the city” and, therefore, it’s the city and not Calvary (and, by extension, the Archdiocese) that would have any say on what happens to it and the remains located there.

So … I was hoping that a few inquiries to various NYC agencies and offices might help uncover any details about Torriente’s last days and his fate — as well as work toward hopefully bestowing recognition to the final resting place of a baseball legend.

My inquiries and conversations (both via email and over the phone) with these staffers answered some questions, but they also heaped on a bit more confusion, with the resulting conundrum being this — who controls the fate of that mass, unmarked grave and the body of a Negro Leagues star contained in it?

I managed to communicate with staffers from both the NYC Department of Health and the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp., and from both of those conversations, this is what I gleaned …

That, one, there’s a gargantuan problem right off the bat — that all of this is ancient history, and therefore, will always remain a mystery. Why? Because no one knows of the existence, let alone location, of any records pertaining to Riverside Hospital.

In fact, neither of the people to whom I talked had even really heard about Riverside before my queries, with the NYCHHC rep saying he wasn’t sure who or what owned Riverside at the time and added that he couldn’t venture a guess as to “who made the decision to shut it down or know where to tell anyone to go from here.” That, he said, definitely precludes any possibility of locating hospital records from 1938.

Because no one I’ve spoken with or any online information I’ve researched has been vague, I haven’t been able to discover conclusively who owned and operated Riverside Hospital. North Brother Island is located in the East River between the Bronx and Riker’s Island, where the city’s famous jail is.

Over its century-plus existence, Riverside Hospital/North Brother Island have housed a smallpox facility, an infectious/quarantibable diseases holding bin, and, in the mid-20th century, a treatment facility for teenagers with chemical dependencies, especially heroin addicts. So, again, definitely not a fun place to be.


The remains of Riverside Hospital

Riverside was shuttered for good in the ’60s, thanks to alleged corruption and a general  inability to rehabilitate its young patients. Today, the 20-acre North Brother Island is a bird sanctuary and is completely off-limits and inaccessible to the public, or pretty much anyone. The remains of the hospital are crumbling, heavily deteriorated and completely obscured by dense forest growth.

One has to wonder … might there actually be hospital records contained in the rubble? Could documents, or any evidence, exist among the crumbling brick and mortar that shed light on a Hall of Famer’s final weeks? Due to likely exposure to the elements over at least a half-century, the likelihood of that is quite slim, but it’s still a tantalizing possibility …

But I digress, and back to the health officials … Here’s the email response I received from a source at the City Department of Health about Riverside’s records and the state of Cristobal Torriente:

“The Health Department does not maintain these records. The death record from 1938 is old enough to have been transferred to the New York City Municipal Archives; it is now a public record available through the Archives … You may check with Calvary Cemetery – it is an active cemetery and should maintain records.  We do not have information on Riverside Hospital [my emphasis].

As to your question about mass unmarked graves in New York City, the City has used many burial sites throughout its history. It currently uses Hart Island as its potters’ field, which is maintained by the New York City Department of Correction.  … there is a searchable database available.”

As to the first paragraph, we already have the Torriente’s death record, and we’ve already talked with the cemetery. The last paragraph, though, is quite intriguing … Was Hart Island — where penniless, indigent and/or unclaimed remains in NYC now go — where Torriente’s body was originally supposed to go, and would that online database — which, believe me, I’ll search soon — hold any clues about this mystery?

As a final note, I add that I’ve tried to reach out to the Archdiocese but haven’t had any success yet.

So what is the upshot of aaaaaaalllll this? Here’s a few concluding thoughts, based on my interviews, inquiries and research discussed herein:

• The New York City Council hasn’t gotten back to me about whether it might care about the sad state of a baseball Hall of Fame player.

• There’s in all likelihood no records or other physical documents, aside from the official death certificate that we already have, that could provide any clues about the fate of Cristobal Torriente’s death.

• That includes any conclusive evidence revealing the mechanism and chain of events — commitment to a sanitarium, the claiming of the body by a fellow ballplayer who lied on the record, original designation of the body to a city-owned potters’ field, the change of designated burial spot to a Catholic institution that stands as one of the largest cemeteries in the world, and the reason why Torriente wasn’t brought back to Cuba as previously thought — that landed him in a communal, anonymous grave with 17 other individuals.

We aren’t sure who, exactly, has charge of that grave today — does the grave belong to the city, or to the cemetery and archdiocese — and, subsequently, who would have the theoretical power to do something about it.

Now, any or all of those bullet points could change pending future inquiry and research. One key here is whether we can find any living relative, descendant or other human source who could shed any light on Cristobal Torriente’s death — and who might have the legal and emotional authority to demand something be done. That’s something else I’m working on, and something else I’ll yet again try to detail in later posts.

So, here we are. If anyone has any information, additions, corrections suggestions and/or leads that could help clear this up, please let us know!

2 thoughts on “Who holds Cristobal’s fate?

  1. Pingback: Interested in contributing? I want you! | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: The grave marking effort soldiers onward | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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