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09/28/2004 Archived Entry: "3 Negro League players finally get their due"
3 Negro League players finally get their due
By Michael Toeset
“I am an invisible man. … I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
– Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
For 11 years, people unknowingly trod over the grave of Jimmie Crutchfield. No one set bouquets of flowers on his headstone, no one paused in midstride to acknowledge the four-time Negro Leagues All-Star.
As he had been invisible to multitudes of Americans during his lifetime, so Crutchfield was invisible in his death.
Until Sunday, that is, a day when Crutchfield and fellow Negro Leaguers John Donaldson and James “Candy Jim” Taylor finally received their due.
The three black baseball greats are buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. – but no one knew it until Jeremy Krock, a baseball fan from Peoria, Ill., came searching for the grave of Crutchfield, a legend in his hometown of Ardmore, Mo., a hamlet also home to Krock’s grandparents.
Krock had discovered that Crutchfield was interred at the Chicago-area cemetery, but when he arrived in 2003 to pay homage to his favorite ballplayer, he found nary a trace of the man. Crutchfield had been buried in an unmarked grave, and a cemetery worker had to pace off the site in the snow.
Krock set about to right the inequity, setting in motion a fundraising campaign that took on a nationwide effort. In the process, Krock was informed by Burr Oak that Donaldson and Taylor also lay in unmarked graves, and as that was reported, funds in excess of the $1,600 needed for Crutchfield’s headstone flooded in, so Krock decided to erect memorials for the other two greats as well.
At the Sunday dedication ceremony, bronze Hall of Fame-style plaques for Crutchfield and Donaldson and a granite marker for Taylor were unveiled. About 60 fans – some there for the history, some for the baseball – were on hand to see the trio step out of the shadows of anonymity.
Former Negro League players Dennis Biddle (American Giants, 1953-54) and Johnny Washington (American Giants and Houston Eagles, 1948-51) spoke at the ceremony, alternately telling tales that had the audience breaking into laughter and sharing stories of the hardships black baseball players had to endure because of racism.
“I’m honored to be able to stand here today and talk about … some of the great pioneers of the Negro Baseball League, men that played many years before I did, men who made baseball what Americans call today the greatest national pastime,” Biddle said. “These men never had the opportunity to display those tremendous talents they had in the major leagues because of the way things were. Society was cheated out of an opportunity to see some of the greatest ballplayers.”
Despite being denied those opportunities, Crutchfield – a player in the mold of Ichiro Suzuki – was never bitter. As it says on his headstone, “We didn’t have time to hate people, we had ballgames to worry about.”
Crutchfield and other black ballplayers may have been invisible to major league owners, ballplayers and myriad fans, but they knew that their skin color had nothing to do with how they could play the game. As Ted Williams said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, “I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”
Williams’ dream came true – today 11 Negro League players are in the Hall of Fame (not including players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays who spent the majority of their careers in the majors).
But there should be more than only 11, for as Satchel Paige said in his Hall of Fame speech, “Oh, we had men by the hundreds who could have made the big leagues, by the hundreds, not by the fours, twos or threes. We had a lot of Satchel Paiges out there – men who could throw the ball as hard as me. Ain't no maybe so about it.”
Despite a recent trend to recognize Negro League players (mini-museums have been built this past year in Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo.), history is still largely ignorant of the sacrifices and triumphs of players like Donaldson, Crutchfield and Taylor.
As Krock said in his speech at the dedication, “These markers have dates – when they were born and when they died – and then a hyphen in between, and that was their life. And these guys deserve great big hyphens.”
It is Krock’s hope that overlooked ballplayers get their due one way or another, and he is working to ensure that the public knows the locations of players’ final resting places.
In some cases, that may be hard to do, for as Larry Lester, co-author of the book “Black Baseball in Chicago” and co-chairman of the Negro League Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, said, unmarked graves were “a common fate for Negro Leagues players. Despite being great ballplayers, many men died destitute because they had no pension to rely on. There was no money coming in after their productive years.”
Biddle is doing his part as president of Yesterday’s Negro Leagues, and in his upcoming book, “Secrets of the Negro Leagues,” he talks about such issues, including the little-known fact that the term “Negro Leagues” was never copyrighted.
“This is great what (Burr Oak) has started, and I hope it continues on,” Biddle said. “I’m hoping the Negro Leagues will never be forgotten.”
Washington, a Marine war hero with two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, talked at the dedication about the realities of being a baseball player at a time when society was segregated. At one point in his playing days, “I wanted to come home (because of the racial climate), but my dad told me, ‘It’s not gonna last forever. Things’ll change.’ And it did change.
“I felt the change not from the players first, but from the fans. The fans turned the players toward us. You’d hit a home run, going around the bases; instead of being called the ‘N’ word, the fans were cheering you. I knew the end of the hard days was near.”
Burr Oak and its parent company, Perpetua Inc., organized the Sunday ceremony and pitched in by donating labor, the granite monuments that hold the players’ plaques and a companion headstone for Crutchfield’s wife, Julia, who is buried next to him.
The cemetery – also home to African-American luminaries like Dinah Washington, Willie Dixon, Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott and civil rights icon Emmett Till – will further recognize the former ballplayers in its Emmett Till Historical Museum and Mausoleum, for which the cemetery will break ground next year.
“We have so much history here, and we want to highlight all the prominent African-Americans buried at the cemetery. We’re very excited about it,” said Carolyn Towns, the director of operations for Burr Oak.
The cemetery also recently learned there are nearly 20 former Negro Leaguers buried on its grounds (see list below), eight of whom are still in unmarked graves. But Krock and the cemetery are working to raise funds to install markers on those graves as well, Towns said.
“We’ve got eight more (gravesites) that we know of, and I’d like to continue until we have all eight taken care of,” Krock said. “We’re working to preserve the rich history of Negro League baseball.”
* Want to visit? Burr Oak Cemetery, 4400 West 127th Street, Alsip, Ill., (708) 239-0521
* For more information on Crutchfield, Donaldson, Taylor and the many other Negro League players, check out the pages on this website or others like www.nlbm.com (the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum), www.negroleaguebaseball.com or www.nlbpa.com (the Negro Leagues Baseball Players Association), or the book “Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues” by James A. Riley.
* The players buried at Burr Oak:
Daniel Gardner Burley
William McKinley Cornelius
Elwood “Bingo” DeMoss
Paul J. Hardy
William J. Marshall
James McCurine Jr.
Othello L. Strong
James “Candy Jim” Taylor
Armand C. Tyson
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