Historians’ goal: headstones for all Negro League players
For decades, the “Black Babe Ruth” lay in an unmarked hillside grave at Allegheny Cemetery.
Josh Gibson’s friend and former Negro League teammate Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Page made it his mission to install the red granite headstone that reads “Josh Gibson, 1911-1947, Legendary Baseball Player.” Yet, when Page died in 1984, no one made sure he was buried in a marked grave in the Lawrenceville cemetery.
A group of historians wants to change that. The Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project would memorialize all Negro League players, including Page and others with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays.
“I know we will take care of Ted Page’s grave here in the next year,” said project founder Jeremy Krock, 53, an anesthesiologist from Peoria, Ill. He needs to raise $1,500 to cover the expense of moving Page’s cremated remains from a community vault to a grave with a headstone.
Krock will visit Pittsburgh on Saturday for the Josh Gibson Centennial Negro League Celebration to receive the 2011 G.I.B.S.O.N. Award for community service.
“I think what he is doing is phenomenal,” said Sean Gibson, 41, the baseball legend’s great-grandson who heads the Josh Gibson Foundation in the Hill District.
He believes his great-grandfather’s grave lacked a headstone for 30 years because of a mix-up. But neither he nor others know why Page isn’t buried in a marked grave.
“There’s a lot of guys out there who don’t have them,” Gibson said. “I think a lot of people take it for granted that everyone has a grave marker.”
Professional leagues for black ball players started in 1920 and lasted until 1960, although numerous “colored” professional teams played on barnstorming circuits dating to the 1800s, according to the Negro League Baseball Players Association.
Krock began his quest in 2003 after finding the grave of Jimmie Crutchfield near Chicago. The all-star outfielder once played with Gibson and Page on Gus Greenlee’s Crawfords.
Krock said burial sites are known for about 550 of 3,600 Negro League players identified in a database that Kansas City historian Larry Lester maintains.
The project has provided granite markers for 22 players, including Gable Patterson, Robert Gaston and Sam Bankhead in Greenwood Cemetery in O’Hara. Markers typically cost $750 to $1,000, Lester said.
“It’s something that needs to be done,” said Lester, 61, who helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and co-chairs the Negro Leagues Research Committee.
In an Irish Catholic cemetery south of Chicago, Krock last year discovered an unmarked grave for John Preston “Pete” Hill, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who grew up in Homewood.
“What they are doing now is very outstanding. They don’t have to do that,” said Ron Hill, 62, of Penn Hills, great-nephew of the man who played for the Pittsburgh Keystones and eight other teams. It would mean a lot to have a marker for his great-uncle’s grave, he said, noting that it could cost $2,300 because of cemetery requirements.
Page, a fast and scrappy right fielder, was born in Kentucky in 1903 and played for a dozen Negro League teams from 1923 to 1937, when he retired with a lifetime .335 batting average. He is a member of the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and the Western Pennsylvania Hall of Fame.
After baseball, Page became a public relations consultant for Gulf Oil Corp. and wrote a sports column for the Pittsburgh Courier. He co-owned bowling alleys, including Meadow Lanes in Homewood.
In 1975, Page and Pedrin “Pete” Zorrilla, owner of the Santurce baseball club in Puerto Rico, located Gibson’s burial plot in Section 50, Lot C, marked by a small plaque inscribed with grave number 232.
Page sought help to buy a granite marker. Pirates legend Willie Stargell donated the first $100, and Bowie Kuhn, then Major League Baseball commissioner, paid much of the rest.
“Ted was one of the few fairly prosperous old-timers, and I know he was interested in doing right by Josh,” said William Brashler of Chicago, who wrote a book about Gibson. “… It was a cruel irony as to what happened to Ted.”
On Nov. 30, 1984, an intruder severely beat Page with a baseball bat at his Bryn Mawr Road home. Page, 81, died the next day. A 20-year-old man that Page tried to help by hiring him to do household chores told police he struck Page and stole his television because Page owed him $50 or $60.
More than 150 people attended a memorial service for Page at Warren United Methodist Church in the Hill District, the Courier reported. Stargell and Pirates commentator Bob Prince were among those delivering eulogies.