Courtesy Jeremy Krock
For the next couple posts I want to give an update on the status of the various efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project. In addition to the sterling projects recently wrapped up by the NLBGMP (some of which I’ll discuss further down), right now, according to Dr. Krock and Larry Lester, there’s only a couple currently in the pipeline.
One of those is Billy Francis, a third baseman/manager from the deadball era/early 20th century who starred for influential teams like the Philadelphia Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Chicago American Giants, the Hilldale Club, the Detroit Stars and the Bacharach Giants, as well as clubs in Cuba.
Francis is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Ill., where numerous other blackball figures are also interred, including past NLBGMP beneficiaries like Bruce Petway, Walter Ball and Ted Strong. The Francis project has been in the works for several years now, but the light at the end of the tunnel is shining — the finishing touches are being made to the epitaph to be engraved in the stone (a task I was proudly in on), and Dr. Krock says there will hopefully be a dedication ceremony by the end of this year. (Finding a quality photo to use for the marker has been tough as well — like many of these legends, Francis was rarely photographed, or at least what’s currently known.)
The other endeavor currently gestating is the resting place of much-lauded, legendary journalist (and personal hero) Sam Lacy, longtime editor and writer for the Afro-American and inductee into the Writer’s and Broadcaster’s Wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sam, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 99, is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md. However, we’re still trying to sort out what exactly is on the grave currently as well as working to contact family members before we can get down to business.
(I made a few calls to the cemetery recently, but unfortunately I can’t find my notes about the calls and I can’t remember the results of the conversations.)
Other famous figures also interred in Lincoln Memorial are seminal black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, football Hall of Famer Len Ford, tragic basketball prodigy Len Bias, medical pioneer Dr. Sarah Marinda Fraser, civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, trailblazing TV broadcaster Max Robinson, suffragist Mary Eliza Terrell, playwright Joseph A. Walker Jr. and, last but absolutely not least, the great Cyclone Joe Williams, who, frankly, I consider the best pitcher in history, any color or any era.
Naturally, given Lacy’s importance to and impact on my career, I’d like to contribute to this one, even though I’m 1,100 of miles away.
And, on that note, I should probably offer an explanation of where exactly my role is with the grave marker project. For a few years I reported on several of the NLBGMP’s efforts (including William Binga, Sol White and Olivia Taylor), but Dr. Krock and I talked a bit about a possibility of a conflict of interest for me if I was both helping with and making money from covering the project’s efforts.
So I decided to step back from covering the project for other publications — aside from this here blog — and focus on working for the NLBGMP itself for the time being. Aside from clearing up any ethical dilemmas, I’m really enjoying trying to give back to Negro Leagues and baseball history communities for all they’ve done to help, support, encourage and inspire me.
Tangential to that, then, are my efforts to locate graves of various blackball figures here in the Crescent City and surrounding parts and assess with of them could maybe benefit from the NLBGMP, such as Ducky Davenport and John Bissant. In the ensuing months, I’ll try to blog about and chronicle the progress I (and anyone else who wants to help!) make in that arena.
I also want to celebrate the recent successful attempts to honor Louisiana legends, including Gentleman Dave Malarcher, who recently received a gorgeous head stone in Convent, La. Much to my embarrassment, I have yet to make it to St. James Parish to check it out myself, but I promise I will do that soon and report back.
Also mixed in there is situation of Hall of Famer Cristobal Torriente, who remains buried in a mass, unmarked grave in Queens, N.Y., and at this point (we think) the only HOFer left without his or her own headstone. Ralph Carhart has done a great deal of work with the Torriente situation, and I’ve tried to research/report/write/blog about as much as a can (like here, here and here), but the effort has kind of slacked off a bit as I’ve attended to other stuff and Ralph nears completion of his fantastic Hall Ball project. However, hopefully we can get back to Torriente’s plight very soon.
There’s also the slew of possible unmarked graves in or near St. Louis, a locale that largely has been untouched by the NLBGMP up to this point. However, Dr. Krock says the group has been in touch with officials at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis to determine how many players might be buried there, and then discover how many of them might need markers.
“That will probably be the big project of 2017,” he told me in an email.
Finally, possibly the most tragic, murky and complex story of all is that of Fred Goree, as covered by Ron Auther and Logan Jaffe. Goree was killed by police officers under still mysterious circumstances on an Illinois backroad in 1925 while driving with his semipro team to a scheduled contest.
OK, now for some of the recently completed NLBGMP projects. One is Weldy Wilberforce Walker, the second openly African-American in the Major Leagues (after his brother, Fleet), who triumphantly received a stone in Steubenville, Ohio, thanks to the persistence and Herculean efforts of Craig Brown.
Courtesy of Craig Brown
One of the coolest recent success stories is that of Topeka Jack Johnson last October, another deadball star who strove tirelessly to create organized black leagues in the Midwest in the decades before the founding of the Negro National League in 1920. Not to be confused with heavyweight boxing champ of the same name, Topeka Jack toiled as a boxer himself but also worked as a police officer and firefighter.
To this day, Topeka Jack remains one of the most overlooked and underappreciated figures in blackball history, something Todd Fertig discussed in this excellent article for the Topeka Capital-Journal about the dedication ceremony last fall in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Topeka. I also wrote a blog post last year about Johnson’s involvement in the 1910 Western Colored League.
What’s especially cool about the recent Topeka Jack Johnson ceremony is that organizers and historians couple it with formal recognition of the nearby memorial to the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which in 1954 cracked the walls of segregation to arguably become the most important action of jurisprudence of the 20th century.
Topeka Jack Johnson
Sooooooo … there’s still much to be done, in terms of both legwork and financial donations. For more information, to help or to donate, check out the contacts info on the sites I linked to in the first paragraph of this post.
I want to conclude this post by pointing you to a top-notch article from The Hardball Times from February of this year by Shakeia Taylor, who offers a comprehensive rundown of the NLBGMP’s history and mission, including photos of new markers and thoughts from Dr. Krock. So check it out if you can.
Next up for Home Plate Don’t Move — two grave projects in particular, Gus Brooks and Dan Burley.
I would be remiss if I didn’t laud the efforts of my Malloy Conference roomie Ted Knorr toward honoring his personal hero and fellow Harrisburger Rap Dixon, a process that included raising funds for an installing this amazing head stone!
Courtesy Ted Knorr