TOPEKA, Kan. — 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.
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