Video: Paying tribute to the Negro Leagues

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/20/2011 12:20:33 PM ET 2011-07-20T16:20:33

Amid headstones of chiseled and polished granite at a Topeka, Kansas, cemetery lies a new tombstone. With a baseball and the figure of a baseball catcher etched in stone, it is dedicated to “Topeka’s ‘Super Substitute’” — Carroll Ray Mothell, better known as “Dink.”

He died on April 24, 1980; but his grave just got a tombstone on June 20, 2011. 

Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, African American baseball players were segregated from white players and played in the Negro Leagues.

After their baseball careers ended, many of the Negro Leagues' greatest players went on to work menial jobs and were buried in unmarked graves.

Jeremy Krock, the founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, is trying to change that.

“They played in anonymity and I don't want to see them buried forever in anonymity,” said Krock. 

Eight years ago Krock, an Illinois anesthesiologist, discovered that one of his hometown heroes, John William “Jimmie” Crutchfield, was almost forgotten in death.

Crutchfield was from the same small mining town as Krock’s grandparents, Ardmore, Mo., and was a source of pride for the town as someone who escaped the hard life of a coal miner to play baseball.

“I went out there to visit his grave site — remember this was the most famous guy from Ardmore Mo., made it big in the Negro Leagues … I was hunting a monument. And it was an unmarked grave,” Krock recalled. “So at that time I felt this was something that wasn't quite right and should be corrected.”

Since then, Krock has made it his mission to make sure that Crutchfield and other Negro league players are not forgotten — one grave at a time. Twenty-two grave markers have been dedicated so far, with more to come.

Of course, not all Negro Leaguers played in the shadow of obscurity. Players like Satchel Paige enjoyed great fame in the major leagues. But for every Paige or Robinson, there are many more players like Crutchfield and Mothell.

“It's important for people to realize that many of these ballplayers when they left professional baseball, they were forced to take menial jobs such as custodians and security guards. Many of them had to work for minimum wage,” said Larry Lester, chairman of the Negro League Committee for the Society of American Baseball Research. 

Lester works with Krock on the grave marker project.

“I keep a database of roughly 3,600 ball players and we try to track their birth date, death date, where they're buried and, of course, if they have headstones," he said. "Based on that database we try to identify unmarked graves and from there we solicit donations and try to purchase headstones for those players who are buried in unmarked graves.”

For Lester, the Negro Leagues players were early leaders in the civil rights movement who helped changed race relations in the U.S. for the better.

“These Negro League players were pioneers in the civil cause ... They were professional ballplayers who gave a professional game on the field, dressed properly off the field and always of the highest standard. Many of 'em were role models before we could understand what a true role model was,” said Lester. “These ballplayers truly played for the love of the game and they wanted to show all of America that they were of equal talent as their white counterparts and they did so on a daily basis.”

“Their contribution to the game was more than just baseball. It also had a social impact on what makes America what it is,” said Lester.

For Lester and Krock, recognizing these great players in death is the least they can do.

“We want to honor these great pioneers of the civil rights movement because they came along before there was a movement,” said Lester.

With one grave at a time, they are doing just that.

NBC's Leo Juarez contributed to this report.

For more on the project, see the organization's web site:  
Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project
Negro League History 101

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Photos: Forgotten Negro League greats honored

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  1. Carroll Ray "Dink" Mothell

    Mothell was a catcher and utility player in the Negro Leagues from 1920-1934, mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs. Though described as a player of All-Star caliber, when his baseball career ended due to injury, he did odd jobs, including custodial work. He died in 1980 and was buried in an unmarked grave. As part of the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project to honor many of the unsung heroes of American baseball who died in anonymity, a grave marker for Mothell was dedicated in Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka, Kan. on June 20, 2011. (Negro League Baseball Museum) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. William "Bobby" Robinson

    Known as “the Human Vacuum Cleaner” for his excellent fielding at third base and shortstop, Robinson played for various baseball teams in the Negro Leagues from 1925 to 1942, beginning his career with the Indianapolis ABCs. Robinson retired from baseball in 1942 and became a bricklayer and died 60 years later at the age of 98. His tombstone was dedicated at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., in June 2010. “Having a marker placed on my dad’s grave was really closure, for not only his children, but the grandchildren, just the family, period,” said Patricia Hawkins, Robinson’s daughter. (Robinson family) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. William Miller “Big Bill” Gatewood

    Gatewood pitched and played outfield for 15 different teams in the Negro Leagues during a 24-year career that started with the Leland Giants in 1906. He managed the St. Louis Stars and the Birmingham Black Barons in the final years of his playing career and helped to develop the skills of famed pitcher Satchel Paige. He died in 1962 and was buried in an unmarked grave until the one seen here was dedicated to him in June 2010 at Memorial Park Cemetery in Columbia, Mo. (Chicago Historical Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Lester Lockett

    Lockett played in the Negro Leagues from 1938 to 1950, most notably with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Baltimore Elite Giants. A strong-hitting outfielder and versatile athlete who also played third base, Lockett was selected as an All-Star three times. His grave marker was dedicated at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, Ill., in June 2008. (Negro League Baseball Museum) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. James Allen “Candy Jim” Taylor

    Taylor’s playing and managerial career spanned 45 years, starting in 1903. A good hitting infielder as a player, he was a member of three Negro Leagues championship clubs: the St. Paul Gophers (1909), the Chicago American Giants (1912), and the Indianapolis ABCs (1916). A disciplinarian and a good judge of talent as a manager, he skippered the St. Louis Stars (1928) and the Homestead Grays (1943 and 1944) to championships. He died in 1948 at the age of 64. His gravestone was dedicated at Burr Oak Cemetery, in Alsip, Ill., in September 2004. (NoirTech Research, Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. John William “Jimmie” Crutchfield

    Crutchfield played outfield for eight teams during a 15-year career that began in 1930. Due to his excellent bunting, fielding, and base running, he was selected to play in four All-Star games, three with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and one with the Chicago American Giants. After his baseball career ended, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He died in 1993 and was buried in an unmarked grave alongside his wife until a marker was dedicated at Burr Oak Cemetery, Alsip, Ill., in September 2004. (Negro League Baseball Museum) Back to slideshow navigation
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