Speak Their Names

The marker on Pete Hill's grave in Chicago's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

The marker on Pete Hill’s grave in Chicago’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

Fred Goree was murdered on a hot summer night in 1925, just 12 miles from Ferguson, Mo. The cause of death listed on his death certificate is “justifiable homicide by gunshot wound.” Mainstream media published multiple stories, but couldn’t seem to agree on the details surrounding Goree’s murder. On Aug. 7, 1925, a weekly African-American newspaper, The St. Louis Argus, published a story with the headline “Deputy Slays Colored Baseball Manager.” It continues, “Eyewitness Story Show It Was a Case of Cold-Blooded Murder. Daily Papers’ Story Misleading. NO CAUSE FOR CRIME.”

Goree, a Louisiana native and the eldest of 12 siblings, migrated in the 1910s to Chicago, where he found work as a brick mason and started a family with his wife, Sarah Beth May. His place in Negro Leagues baseball history is shrouded in mystery. No real record of his team, the Chicago Independent Giants, has been found anywhere; all that remain are stories passed down to his grandchildren, and newspaper articles detailing his death. What is known of Goree is that he managed a barnstorming team during the ‘20’s, and was murdered by police along a stretch of highway between Chicago and St. Louis as he passed through “sundown towns” on his way to a baseball game in 1925. His killer, Officer Clarence Patrick Bennett, was exonerated less than 36 hours later.

While not totally anonymous, Goree was close. Had he died in a more peaceful manner, he may have become entirely anonymous. This is not uncommon among Negro Leagues players—many of them lived and died in anonymity. It’s been a long time now since the Negro Leagues were operational. The Negro National League folded after the 1948 season and the last Negro Leagues All-Star game was held in 1962. The integration of major league baseball in ‘47 hastened its demise. A once popular pastime for African-American, and, to a certain degree, Latino players, was over. Some of its players were legends without proper acknowledgement, but their stories have been passed on through baseball enthusiasts and their loved ones for years. For many reasons, players often died destitute.

“A person dies three times,” Dr. Jeremy Krock says. “First when their body stops functioning, second when they are buried, and finally, the last time someone says their name. My goal is to keep the names of Negro Leagues ballplayers and others connected to it alive.” Krock, an anesthesiologist in Peoria, Ill., grew up listening to relatives’ stories of Jimmie Crutchfield, an outfielder who began his career with the Birmingham Black Barons, and fellow resident of Ardmore, Mo. His family spoke proudly of Crutchfield, a Negro Leagues player who “escaped the hard, dangerous life of the coal mines to play baseball.”

During a trip to Chicago’s The Field Museum, Krock picked up a book written by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller and Dick Clark titled, Black Baseball in Chicago and in it stumbled upon photographs of Crutchfield. Krock discovered that, after his retirement and before his death in 1993, Crutchfield had worked in a Chicago post office. It seemed natural to Krock to visit the man he had heard so much about.

The book had no details of Crutchfield’s passing or where he was buried, so Krock contacted Clark, co-chair of the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). Clark provided the name of the funeral home that handled Crutchfield’s service, and with that information, Krock tracked down Crutchfield’s final resting place. Later that year, Krock traveled to Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., to pay his respects. There, Krock found that Crutchfield and his wife, Julia, had been buried in unmarked graves, a disappointing ending to the story. It was then that the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project was born.

In 2009, The FBI and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department uncovered a grave-selling scheme at Burr Oak Cemetery. Carolyn Towns, its former director, had ordered cemetery workers to remove remains from grave sites and resell those plots. Some of the remains were dumped in an uncovered lot. Some bodies were found double-stacked in existing graves. Towns was convicted of keeping the cash payments of grieving families totaling $100,000 from the scheme. Law enforcement officials said that at least 200 graves had been desecrated. The paperwork for the graves was apparently destroyed, making it difficult to know if there were more. The scandal rocked the African-American community, and many whose loved ones were interred there were left wondering if their remains had been disturbed.

Burr Oak carries special significance in the black community; it is the final resting place of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was killed by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. At least 25 Negro Leagues players are buried in Burr Oak. To the best of his knowledge, Krock says, no players’ remains were disturbed in the scandal. He plans to visit Burr Oak again this summer in search of the status of six more graves. Despite the controversy, the cemetery remains special for him.

Bringing closure to any of these cases can bring about a special feeling. Take Pete Hill, for example. John Preston “Pete” Hill, a posthumous 2006 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, was a star outfielder for several black teams, including the Chicago American Giants. He also served as a player-manager for the Detroit Stars, Milwaukee Bears and Baltimore Black Sox. Hill died at a bus stop in Buffalo at age 69. His body was shipped to Chicago and while for years it was believed that he was buried at Burr Oak, not even Hill’s family knew where his body was. Some searched for his gravesite among the other Negro Leagues players buried at Burr Oak and never found it. They worried that his remains had been disturbed in the grave-selling controversy.

When Krock decided to check other little-known Chicago area cemeteries in 2010, the mystery was solved: Hill was in an unmarked grave at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, the same Irish Catholic cemetery where Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was buried in 1976. When Krock located him, Hill’s plaque at Cooperstown was recast with his correct name and birthplace. He had been incorrectly named as Joseph Preston Hill, born in Pittsburgh on Oct.  12, 1880. Research had shown that Pete Hill’s birth name was John and he was born in Culpepper County, Va., on Oct. 12 of 1883 or 1884. The grave marker committee had not only solved the mystery, but brought Hill’s family closure.

Since 2004, the committee has been involved in the purchase and placement of 32 grave markers. Through donations, it fulfills its mission to “provide proper grave markers to players of the Negro Leagues to honor their contributions to history and the game of baseball.” The project has placed headstones on the graves of Connie Morgan, John Donaldson, Candy Jim Taylor, Theodore “High Pockets” Trent, Guy C. Ousley, William James “Jack” Marshall, Roosevelt “Rosey” Davis, Paul James Hardy, Othello L. Strong, Steel Arm Johnny Taylor, Franklin Mann, Lester Lockett, Gabriel Patterson, Robert Gaston, Sam Bankhead, Bobby Robinson, Bill Gatewood, James Edward “Sap” Ivory, Robert “Fuzzy” Garrett, Frank Grant and Dink Mothell. You can see a table at the bottom of the article with more details.

Krock is motivated by a number of things, but chief among them are the preservation of history and the sense of doing what’s right and humane. For over half a century, Negro Leagues baseball provided an opportunity for players of color and held socioeconomic significance to the black community. While preserving baseball history, the project is important in preserving black history.

“Banning black players is an embarrassment for baseball history,” Krock says. “By the time integration happened, many Negro Leagues greats were simply too old to play in the majors, but the history here should be a source of pride for African-Americans.”

Researchers have created a list of former players, officials, sportswriters and owners affiliated with the Negro Leagues and their burial sites. Volunteers—and sometimes, Krock himself—then visit cemeteries to locate the graves and find out whether the the player has a grave marker. Usually, the families of recipients are not involved with the process, but those who are have been incredibly supportive. Krock says the project’s mission has been embraced by local communities and the baseball community alike. When he’s been tasked with calling cemeteries, the employees have been enthusiastic to help his cause.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
The marker on Olivia Taylor's grave in Indianapolis' Crown Hill Cemetery. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

The marker on Olivia Taylor’s grave in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

Not much help was needed to find the grave of Olivia Taylor. When her husband, famed second baseman, manager and executive C.I. Taylor died, the baseball community raised money for his headstone. Upon her death at age 50 in 1935, she was buried next to him in an unmarked grave in Indianapolis, her place in baseball history mostly unknown.

Olivia Taylor, born Olivia Harris sometime in 1884, inherited controlling interest of the Indianapolis ABCs after the death of her husband in 1922, more than a decade before Effa Manley managed the Newark Eagles, making Taylor the first female owner of a Negro Leagues team. Taylor owned the team for three seasons, despite facing constant pushback from men around the league, especially her brother-in-law, 2006 National Baseball Hall of Famer Ben Taylor. (The Taylor family, including “Candy” Jim Taylor and “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor, was prominent in Negro Leagues baseball.) In 1925, the league kicked out the ABCs due to financial difficulties. Despite being accused of ruining her husband’s legacy, Olivia and the team remained associate members. She was elected president of the NAACP’s Indianapolis chapter that same year and went on to become the first woman to chair its national convention.

The marker on Gus Brooks' grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Adrian, Mich. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

The marker on Gus Brooks’ grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Adrian, Mich. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

Gus Brooks, a Page Fence Giants center fielder, died of a heart attack while running out a fly ball during their inaugural season. Black baseball teams often performed acts and hijinks during games to attract crowds. Because of this, many in attendance did not realize Brooks had died; they thought his collapse was part of the entertainment. His was the first death associated with black baseball. Brooks’ family was unable to claim his body, and in 1895 he was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Michigan.

Brooks, Hill and Taylor (and her brothers-in-law Candy Jim and Steel Arm Johnny) have all received grave markers. A custom plaque was placed on Fred Goree’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Alsip, with the support of his granddaughters. It reads, “A respected brick mason and manager of the Chicago Independent Giants baseball team. A life stolen too soon.”

The marker on Fred Goree's grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

The marker on Fred Goree’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. (via Dr. Jeremy Krock)

In 1909, 23 year-old Cuban Giants second baseman William Bedford was struck by lightning on the field at Inlet Park in Atlantic City, dying instantly. According to the Paducah Evening Sun from Aug, 27, 1909, “the players were practicing before the game at Inlet Park and in the presence of nearly a thousand spectators the negro was struck down by lightning. The bolt struck the ground close to the ball player and ran through the spikes in his shoes and into his body.”

Bedford was one of two Cuban Giants players killed in on-field incidents during that time. According to Krock, his body was sent to his hometown of Cairo, Ill. Cairo, the state’s southernmost city, sits at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Its low elevation prevented cemeteries from being built within city limits, so the body was shipped again, this time, just north of the city. However, there is no record of Bedford’s burial. The Evening Sun refers to Bedford as a “Paducah negro” and lists his wife as a resident, but his family, as well as the local historian, feel strongly that he was buried on the Illinois side. Krock and the Negro Leagues committee continue to search for his final resting place.

Stories like those of Goree, Crutchfield, Hill, Bedford and so many others are gaining new attention as the grave marker project attempts to acknowledge and honor members of a part of baseball mostly, and undeservedly, forgotten. The recipients of the grave markers are given a second life, and interest in the Negro Leagues is renewed. A dignified resting place and commemoration means that all who pass by can see the story of a life forgotten, a footnote in history. By researching and chronicling the lives of Negro Leagues players and owners, Krock and his team are giving us a history lesson, one that encompasses American history, black history and baseball history.

Donations to the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project can be made here.

Dedication Date Player Name Cemetery City, State Notes
Sept. 26, 2004 John “Jimmie” Crutchfield Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
Sept. 26, 2004 John Wesley Donaldson Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
Sept. 26, 2004 James Allen “Candy Jim” Taylor Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 18, 2005 Robert Garrett Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill. Umpire
June 18, 2005 Theodore “Ted, High Pockets” Trent Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 18, 2005 Daniel Gardner Burley Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill. Sportswriter
June 18, 2005 Guy C. Ousley Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 18, 2005 William James “Jack” Marshall Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 18, 2005 Roosevelt “Rosey” Davis Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 18, 2005 Paul James Hardy Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 18, 2005 Othello Strong Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
May 6, 2007 Jonathan Boyce “Steel Arm” Taylor Springdale Cemetery Peoria, Ill. Organized by Pekin Coalition for Equality
June 2008 Franklin L. Mann Burr Oak Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 2008 Lester Lockett Oak Wood Cemetery Chicago Courtesy of Chris bohus
July 2009 Gable Patterson Greenwood Cemetery Pittsburgh
July 2009 Robert Gaston Greenwood Cemetery Pittsburgh
July 2009 Sam Bankhead Greenwood Cemetery Pittsburgh
June 2010 William “Bobby” Robinson Restvale Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 2010 William Miller “Big Bill” Gatewood Memorial Park Cemetery Columbia, Mo.
July 2010 James “Sap” Ivory Elmwood Cemetery Birmingham, Ala.
Feb. 2011 Frank Grant East Ridgelawn Cemetery Clifton, N.J. Hall of Famer
June 2011 Carol Ray “Dink” Mothell Mount Hope Cemetery Topeka, Kan.
2012 King Solomon “Sol” White Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Staten Island, N.Y. Hall of Famer
2012 George Walter Ball Lincoln Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
2012 Bruce “Buddy” Petway Lincoln Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
2013 Pete Hill Holy Sepulchre Cemetery Alsip, Ill. Hall of Famer
2013 Olivia Taylor Crown Hill Cemetery Indianapolis Owner, Mrs. C.I. Taylor
2013 Ted Page Allegheny Cemetery Pittsburgh Murdered with baseball bat
2013 Ted Strong Lincoln Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
2013 William “Billy” Frances Lincoln Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
June 24, 2014 Grant “Home Run” Johnson Lakeside Cemetery Hamburg, N.Y. Funding efforts led by Henry W. Henry, Jr.
2014 Connie Morgan Mount Lawn Cemetery Sharon Hill, Penn.
2014 Fred Goree Lincoln Cemetery Alsip, Ill.
2016 Clarence E. “Waxey” Williams Atlantic City Cemetery Pleasantville, N.J. Coordinated with the Friends of Waxey Williams
2016 John Thomas “Topeka Jack” Johnson Mount Auburn Cemetery Topeka, Kan.
2016 Weldy Wilberforce Walker Union Cemetery Steubenville, Ohio
2016 Gus Brooks Oakwood Cemetery Adrian, Mich.

References & Resources

Shakeia Taylor is a writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on the intersection of Black culture and sport in America.
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Reynold Starnes
7 years ago

This is excellent – thank you.

7 years ago

Great read, and I had no idea about this. Thanks!

Pete Gorton
7 years ago

The list omits 2014 – William Binga – Crystal Lake Cemetery – Minneapolis, MN
The work of this group is outstanding! The stories of these men and women need to be told.

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