CBS News reporter Brook Silva-Braga joined Ralph when he took the symbolic photo of Monte Irvin at Hinchliffe Stadium in April, 2017. Watch the story here.
The Hall Ball was featured in the New York Times on October 4, 2016. Go here to read about Corey Kilgannon’s trip with Ralph to the grave site of Cristóbal Torriente.
Fished from the small creek that runs next to Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, NY, a simple baseball has turned into an epic quest spanning across the United States of America and beyond. Since August 2010, The Hall Ball has criss-crossed the country on a journey to have its picture taken with each member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, both living and deceased. Now, The Hall Ball is in its final stages before I attempt to donate it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The stories that accompany its journey are as varied, funny, moving and powerful as any in the history of the game. Please explore to learn more about The Hall Ball Project, the members of the Hall and to discover what you can do to contribute to the completion of the first crowd-sourced artifact donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
To find out about the history of The Hall Ball, go here.
To see all of the photos at once, visit our flickr page.
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September 26, 2017-This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the grave marker dedication ceremony for Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, held at Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Galvin’s original stone, placed when he died in 1902, bore only his name and no other information. It had two cracks running the full length of it from top to bottom. When I took over the 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project from the late Bob Gregory, I knew early on that Galvin was going to be a target. I am pleased with the finished project, which includes a ceramic image of Galvin originally painted by famed artist Dick Perez.
Over twenty members of the Galvin clan were on hand to celebrate, including his great-great granddaughter Amanda Nespoli Minardi, who was my family liaison throughout the process of installing the stone. She, and all of the Galvins, were both gracious and grateful.
Also on hand was Pittsburgh Pirates President Frank Coonelly, who addressed the gathered crowd. He then invited a number of the Galvins, along with myself and SABR Forbes Field Chapter President George Skornickle, to that night’s game. The family was introduced on the field prior to the start and then we all watched the contest from his personal suite at PNC Park. I had the pleasure of spending virtually the entire game next to Mr. Coonelly, with our conversation topics ranging from The Hall Ball, to protective netting in the stands, to the cost of college for our children. I also mentioned that I thought a squad as old as his really needed a team historian. A fine evening topped with an 11-6 Pirates win.
A few weeks ago, when I knew I was going to Pittsburgh, I decided I was going to also visit the grave of Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson while I was there. Jackson was a co-owner of the Homestead Grays and I had written his biography for the SABR publication, Bittersweet Goodbye, which tells the stories of the participants of the 1948 Negro League World Series. While researching him I had become fascinated with the charismatic entrepreneur/criminal (read the book for his whole story) and I wanted to pay my respects before I left town. He is buried at Homestead Cemetery, the same place as his business partner and Hall of Famer Cum Posey.
I had first visited Homestead in August of 2011, when I photographed Posey for The Hall Ball. It is an unusual cemetery in that a large percentage of the graves are located within the sides of a steep hillside, making it difficult to even access some of the locations. When I was originally there it was well-maintained and respectable, despite being in one of the poorer areas of Pittsburgh. There is a Civil War monument there, built in 1891 and “Erected to the Memory of the Country’s Defenders.” The ethnic background of those buried there is varied, from Swedish to German to Native American. Black and white lie side by side on the 35 acres of Homestead.
It is also the final resting place of three men who died during the “Battle of Homestead.” On July 6, 1892, a labor strike by employees of Carnegie Steel turned deadly when Pinkerton Detectives, hired by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick to end the dispute, clashed with striking workers. Seven people died. Three of them, John Morris, Joseph Sotack and Silas Wain, rest at Homestead. Oscar and Tony winner Mark Rylance is actively developing a show about the battle.
Having trouble sleeping after the festivities on Saturday, I began to do a little research to see if anyone else was buried at Homestead that I would want to visit. The Homestead Grays were one of the most successful and historically noteworthy teams in Negro Leagues history. There was a decent chance that one or two of those who donned the uniform stayed in the area after their playing days were over. Rather than finding a list of other notables at the cemetery, I discovered something far more unsettling.
In July of 2015, roughly four years after I last visited Homestead, the cemetery filed for bankruptcy. According to court documents, the unsettled debt totaled less than $10,000 on a property that was valued at $504,000. Despite this seemingly surmountable amount on a property with such value, according to the lawyer who represented the cemetery the cost of perpetual care was too much for them to manage. Homestead stopped taking new orders for burials and simultaneously left people who had already purchased plots to their own devices when it came time to actually bury their loved ones. For a short time, a chain was strung across the entrance to the cemetery for fear of potential lawsuits that would have no direct defendant, since there was no longer a board to answer any claims. People were forbidden from even entering the cemetery to visit. The chain was later removed after sufficient public outrage.
For the next two years, Homestead was maintained by a group of volunteers, called Help Homestead Cemetery. They did their best to care for the 35 acres, including its imposing hillsides that your average push mower would struggle to handle. Then, just a month ago, the group disbanded, citing too few volunteers and too much work to landscape the site. Now, gravesites are maintained solely by the loved ones who come to visit. The rest of the cemetery has been given over to mother nature. A number of the graves have already been swallowed by the tall grass and encroaching soil. If there is no resolution by next summer, much of the cemetery will be impossible to traverse by the height of the season.
The symbolism was not lost on me. On a weekend in which we celebrated the long overdue stone of one Hall of Famer, another is at risk of being absorbed by the earth. I have taken on the role of head of the 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project because I believe in its mission. It is impossible to encapsulate the story of a life in eight square feet of granite, but it’s the best system we have come up with to assuage the grief of those left behind and assure future family and historians of a corporeal link to the past. There is a certain Sisyphusian quality to the job, however. For every grave I help to mark, another one in need seems to emerge.
It took some hunting, but I eventually found the gravesite of Jackson. He’s buried in one of the flatter sections of the cemetery and his grave was recently mowed. His stone is understated, especially considering that at the time of his death he had a decent amount of wealth. His wife, Helen Mae, lived another 41 years after Jackson died. She is buried by his side with an identically designed stone.
I look forward to returning to Pittsburgh. I really am fond of the visually striking town. I hope when I do, I’m able to visit Cum and Sonnyman, and that their stones can be found beneath the ever growing earth that threatens to engulf these final reminders.
August 29, 2017-It has been far too long since I have posted on the site and I come to you today with a story that is a little outside of the norm for The Hall Ball. But, it is a story so bizarre, so coincidentally surreal, that I could not wait to sit down and tell it.
The good news is that the reason I have been so lax at posting here is because I have been extraordinarily busy working on the final stages of the project. Once again I went to Induction Weekend, where I was able to photograph the four members of this year’s class that I still needed: Iván Rodríguez, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig and Jeff Bagwell. I had been able to shoot Tim Raines a few months prior. I also made a connection in Cooperstown that ultimately got me the photo of Henry Aaron (a story for another day). Only eight living members remain for the project to be complete. They are: George Brett, Ken Griffey Jr., Doug Harvey, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.
The biggest reason that I haven’t been publishing on the site is because I have been dedicating writing hours to finishing the book that tells the story of the project. On August 3, while sitting in the Bart Giamatti Research Center at the Hall of Fame, I completed the first draft. To be 100% clear, the book won’t actually be FINISHED until the project is complete. There is still one more chapter left to write, after I get those final eight guys. Oh, and I still need a publisher (details). It will be a while until you can go to your local library and pick up a copy. Completing the first draft was an accomplishment in itself, however, and I am optimistic that it will ultimately find its way to bookstore shelves.
One of the most exciting parts of finishing The Hall Ball book is that now I can start exploring other ideas. Since I started writing the book, I have had literally dozens of inspirations about the next baseball tome I want to write. A biography on Sol White. A look at all of the female owners in baseball history. An exploration into the history of the game in New York State (not just the City), from the pre-professional days to the present. These are just a few. I have many more, including one that is particularly exciting to me and may just be the winner. I’m going to keep that one under my hat for the moment, though.
As part of my ongoing research for potential ideas, I have been listening to recordings of radio broadcasts of games from yesteryear. There is an extensive catalog of games dating as far back as the 1930s that are available online from various sources. The bulk of those recordings come from The Miley Collection. As a boy in Evansville, Indiana, John Miley was given a reel-to-reel recorder by his parents. He started using it in 1947 to record baseball games. Since then he has amassed the definitive collection of game recordings, which is now housed at the Library of Congress.
Miley didn’t only record games himself, but he also collected games that were recorded by other people. One of those individuals was a gentleman by the name of Pat Rispole. Rispole was from Schenectady, NY and he recorded thousands of games broadcast on WOKO from the late 1950s until the late 1970s. It was one of those recordings that I was listening to last night when I heard something that stopped my heart. One moment I was hearing Phil Rizzuto talk about the players gathering at the top step to honor the ten-year anniversary of the death of Babe Ruth, and the next I heard something that made my blood run cold. I have edited the recording to just play the relevant parts and posted it below. Before you listen there is one important piece of background information. I grew up near Albany, NY, about a half an hour away from Rispole in Schenectady. My branch of the Carhart tree first settled in the area in the mid-1700s and many of them never left. Armed with that knowledge, give it a listen.
I listened to the recording over and over again. At first I thought I had misheard. But, there was no mistake. Smack dab in the middle of the August 16, 1958 broadcast of a contest between the Yankees and the Red Sox, a game that featured Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, there was a program interruption announcing a murder/suicide perpetrated by a Mr. Carhart. Within seconds I was on Newspapers.com.
At first I couldn’t find anything. Searches for Carhart at the Albany address mentioned in the broadcast brought up nothing. Other searches from those dates for the keywords “Carhart,” “estranged” and “murder” were equally unsuccessful. Then, I looked up only the name and the general date of August 1958. I sifted through multiple advertisements. The Carhart name was a popular one in manufacturing at the time, a legacy that exists today in the famous rugged clothing line that added the extra “t” just to make their business stand out from the other Carhart industries.
It was in the August 18 edition of the Kingston Daily Freeman where I finally got the whole story. I also found the same article in papers from Binghamton, Wellsville, Amsterdam and Canandaigua but not, interestingly, in any of the Albany publications. Here it is:
The twisted version of the story that was broadcast on WOKO was clearly breaking news with little fact-checking. Either the press or the police spoke to the surviving children in the immediate aftermath, assumed that they belonged to Radley and that their name, Carhart, was also his. There could be any number of reasons as to why Milton was living with Catherine Radley. The most obvious is that they were lovers. Considering that the Radleys had only been separated for two months, it is likely they had been before she even left her husband.
If that is the case, there are two curious points. It is striking to me that Kenneth Radley did not attempt to kill Carhart’s children, just his own. I am also curious as to the claim that one of them said “daddy just shot mommy.” If the statement was made by the Radley’s youngest son, Ronald, it makes sense. However, if it was one of the other children either that statement was fabricated by an enthusiastic reporter or the relationship between Carhart and the Radleys is even more complicated than the surface explanation.
I have not been able to confirm Milton in the family tree, although he is certainly a relation. There is one I can locate, Milton E., who was born in 1915 making him approximately the same age as the Radleys. However, he was born in New Jersey so it will take a little more digging to confirm this is the same man. If it is him, he is a seventh cousin, twice-removed. Not a close relation to be sure.
One final, coincidental bit of weirdness. When I was ten-years old I kissed a girl for the first time. We were playing hide-and-seek behind my house and we had both chosen a spot near the raspberry bushes. We took that opportunity to express our blossoming crush and awkwardly smashed lips together. She was a foster child who was staying with the family across the street, so her history was a bit of a mystery to me. I never wanted to ask any upsetting questions. As a result, I never learned the story of her biological family. Her name, however, was Cher Radley.
It is not often that a person hears their own name, especially one as relatively unusual as mine, attached to such a horrific tale. I consider the fact that I heard it while listening to a baseball game (of all things) from six decades ago as another one of those signposts that I have discovered in the last seven years. I am on the right path.
I just hope the next sign isn’t quite so macabre.
April 19, 2017– This past Monday, April 17, marked the 197th birthday of Alexander Cartwright, the final Hall of Fame grave that I needed to photograph for the project. I was in Hawaii to take the picture and was asked by the Friends of Alexander Joy Cartwright to talk about the Hall Ball at their annual celebration held at the Oahu Cemetery. The following is the text from that speech.
When I decided 6.5 years ago to take a photograph of a single baseball with every member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, living and deceased, I could not have possibly imagined this moment. Here I am, standing in paradise, with a group of people listening to me tell the story of what brought me to this place, on this day, while those people who love me most stand close by. I just thought it would be a fun thing to collect. I had no idea that this project was going to change my life in such a fundamental way.
I loved baseball as a kid. I played little league. I collected baseball cards. I grew up in upstate New York, so I was a Yankee fan, like my father, until 1984. Then, two things happened. The Mets started to get good and I hit puberty which, to me, meant rebelling against everything my father stood for. I remained a fanatic until 1994, when I graduated from college to pursue a career in theatre and the infamous player’s strike happened. I stopped paying attention to the old game.
Then, in 1998, I was working for Calvin Klein as the manager of their mail room (I was still having trouble getting that theatre career to take off), and the owner of the company gave me tickets to his box at Yankee Stadium. That warm July night, the day after David Cone had pitched a perfect game on Yogi Berra Day, I sat only ten feet from the field. The smell of the grass, a luxury in New York City, was intoxicating. The sheer sense memory thunderbolt of all those hours spent at Shea Stadium, and the fields of the Hudson Valley Little League, was a transformative experience. My love of the game was rekindled.
That very night I started studying the history of baseball. I watched Ken Burns epic documentary on constant repeat. I read every book the New York Public Library had to offer. By the summer of 2010, I considered myself to have a pretty solid background in the story of baseball and how it came to be the sport it is today. For example, I knew that it was not invented by Abner Doubleday and that we owed a much greater debt to Alexander Cartwright’s New York Knickerbockers.
But what The Hall Ball has taught me is that the amount of what I knew about baseball at that point in my life was the barest drop of the great depths of its rich history. So much of what we know about baseball is myth and legend. But the true story of how it came to be the game we play today is unknown to most people. This summer the Hall of Fame will induct 5 more members, bringing the current total to 317. Even the most ardent fan would be hard pressed to name 100 of them. And the Hall is just a microcosm. A total of 18,951 men have played major league baseball, plus countless thousands more men and women have played professional ball in the Negro Leagues, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in Japan, Mexico, Cuba and over twenty nations across the globe.
There is so much out there to know. How does one person begin to even comprehend the vast sum of it all? For me, that answer was The Hall Ball. I didn’t know that in August 2010. But that is what it has become. A crash course in the history of baseball. Since then I have become a member of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and been active in its efforts.
I have become the head of a committee called the 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project, dedicated to placing stones at the previously unmarked graves of the game’s pioneers. We placed our first last fall, for James Whyte Davis, who joined the Knickerbockers the year after Alexander Cartwright left to seek his fortunes West. Our next will be for Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, whose Pittsburgh grave features only a cracked, ground-flush stone bearing his name and nothing else.
I have had the honor of holding the game books of the Knickerbockers, one hundred and seventy-year old documents, in my hands. As a contributor to the Protoball Database, a web-based effort to chronicle every instance of the game before it became a professional enterprise in 1870, I have been transposing the Knick Game Books into digital format so that future historians can understand how the game evolved from a loose collection of guidelines to the 172-page document that constitutes the current Major League Baseball Rulebook.
I have discovered that the great Cuban slugger Cristóbal Torriente is not buried in his native country, as the historical record has stated for over fifty years. I learned that he is, in fact, buried in Queens, a short drive from my own home in Brighton Beach.
I have befriended some of the greatest historians in the game, whose stores of knowledge keep the true story of our game’s history alive. They are the keepers of truth and I consider it an honor that I get to learn at their sides. Just as I consider it an honor that I am standing before you today.
And I owe it all to the Hall Ball.
The journey that brought me here today started in Staten Island, just six miles from my home at the time, with a visit to the then-unmarked grave of Sol White, the great Negro League player, manager, executive and historian. Since then I have traveled over 40,000 miles. I have seen 34 states and almost 200 hundred cities and towns. I went to Puerto Rico and Cuba. I am on this very day standing in a place that has always had the unreal quality of nirvana to me.
I have stood by the graves of giants, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and seen first hand how a stone can tell the story of a man. Ruth’s marker is gigantic, ten feet tall, eight feet wide, a stone carving of Jesus with his arms wrapped around a little boy in a baseball uniform adorning the front. Gehrig’s is in a different cemetery that shares a border with the one where Ruth lies for all eternity. His stone is small, discreet, adorned with only a small copper door within which the ashes of the Iron Horse and his beloved wife Eleanor are placed. The markers, in their stark difference, are perfect symbols of these men.
I have paid homage to some of the lesser known names of the game. Men like Jack Chesbro, whose league leading 41 wins in 1904 remains a record to this day, but whose story is mostly lost to history. His marker is not one of the finely carved geometric works like you see around you today, but instead is a giant boulder that looks as though it just rolled out of the Berkshire Mountains where he is buried. Or men like Arky Vaughan, who was raised a country boy in Arkansas and then moved to the remotest part of northeastern California after his days of being one of the best run scorers of the 1930s and 40s were over. He moved there for the fishing, and that’s where he died, just four years after he played his last game. He fell out of his fishing boat and drowned. Today, his grave is the most isolated of the Hall of Famers, located six hours from San Francisco to the south and six hours from Boise, Idaho to the north.
I have visited the cemetery in Los Angeles where two of the game’s most influential owners both lay. Walter O’ Malley, who became a villain to the people of Brooklyn and a savior to the people of Los Angeles (and Hawaii) when he initiated the great migration west and brought the Dodgers to California. Buried just a few hundred yards away lays Effa Manley, the sole woman in the Hall of Fame. Co-owner of the Newark Eagles, with her husband Abe, it was she that was the real driving force behind the team, proving that women can love the game with just as much passion as a man.
I’ve been to the cemetery in Baltimore which has the distinction of being the burial ground of the most Hall of Famers. Ned Hanlon, who led the National League incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s, and his three protégés, Joe Kelley, Wilber Robinson, and the legendary John McGraw, are buried in nearby plots of New Cathedral Cemetery. These four men, each raised in the northeast, formed connections amongst each other and the city they came to call home. Now, because of lifetimes each spent pursuing the craft of baseball, they lay there together, forever.
I have stood in places meant to symbolize those who have chosen not to be buried. I went to Springfield, Illinois to find the last remaining physical structure of the Peabody No. 59 coal mine, a shaft a tenth of the mile off the road in the middle of the woods. It was at that mine that Al Barlick started his career when he umpired his first game for the company team. I have stood on the beach of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the wreckage of the plane carrying the legendary Roberto Clemente washed ashore after it crashed on New Year’s Eve in 1972. I have gone to the cryonics facility in Scottsdale, Arizona where, contrary to urban legend, the entire body of Ted Williams patiently waits for science to catch up with his son’s dreams. I stood on the mound of Progressive Field in Cleveland where Early Wynn’s ashes were spread and I stood on the third base line of Wrigley Field where Ron Santo had his remains forever interred within the Friendly Confines.
I have looked at enough graves to know that at this point in history, when the stars of the 1940s and fifties are quickly leaving this earth, the inscriptions on their stones are more likely to mention the military career of the player than their baseball exploits. This is especially true if they starred in the Negro Leagues, and likely needed the assistance of the US government to provide a stone after they passed.
I have seen the graves of two men who have come to symbolize the story of the Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson, who died penniless, intoxicated and raving mad, has a simple, small stone which contains his name, the years of his birth and death and the words, “legendary baseball player.” It was placed years after his death by a local church in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, there is the mammoth three tiered structure that is the marker for Gibson’s sometimes battery-mate, sometimes opponent, Satchel Paige. Paige would live to 76 years of age and, despite his spendthrift ways, would make enough money from his time as the biggest draw in black baseball to die in comfort. He would pass during a blackout in Kansas City, on June 8, 1982, the day my wife was born.
I have seen the final resting place of two men whom history has labeled the game’s vilest racists, and discovered that there is always more to the story. When I visited Royston, Georgia, I saw a small town with a state of the art medical system funded by a legacy that was left by the business-savvy Ty Cobb. I would learn soon after, when I read Charles Leerhsen’s brilliant book, A Terrible Beauty, that everything I had been taught about Cobb was a lie. The legend of the racist, hateful Cobb has been corrected by historical research. But, before that book, my journey had already shown me a man whose wisdom and generosity still provides college scholarships to the poor youth of his community to this day.
Similarly, I drove down a hidden, overgrown road, whose “no trespassing” sign and closed gate I ignored because my satellite map had shown me that Rogers Hornsby was at the end of it. Hornsby, too, was known for a hateful streak. His body lies in a small cemetery that is on family land in the small town of Hornsby Bend, TX. Adjacent to it is a Mexican cemetery, land donated by the Hornsby family to the local Mexican church to assist its poor, immigrant members with a place to put their loved ones. There is always more than one side to the story.
I’ve seen the cemetery in Chicago that contains two of the individuals whose influence and truly racist natures actually contributed to the prevention of black men playing major league baseball between 1887 and 1947. Cap Anson, one of baseball’s first superstars, refused to allow his teams to play against any team that featured a black player on their roster. And Kennesaw Mountain Landis who, as baseball’s first commissioner, had it within his power to end the “gentlemen’s agreement” that barred blacks from the majors. Instead, he insisted there was no such agreement while simultaneously assuring that it would take his death before Jackie Robinson was allowed to set foot on a major league diamond. In a poignant irony, Oak Woods Cemetery, where they both lay, is currently almost entirely staffed by African Americans.
I have gone through the heavily Amish land of Peoli, OH to find the legendary Cy Young and I have stood 100 yards from where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address to take a picture of the grave of the much lesser known Eddie Plank in Pennsylvania. I have visited the grave of Old Hoss Radborne, in a cemetery in Bloomington, IL where, in a bizarre twist of fate, the father of Abner Doubleday is also buried in an unmarked grave.
I have visited Henry Chadwick in Brooklyn, whose grave resembles a baseball diamond, with stone bases marking the four corners of the plot. I have visited Paul Waner in Bradenton, Florida and Lloyd Waner in Oklahoma City. Harry Wright in Bala Cynwyd, PA and George Wright in Brookline, MA. Three-Finger Brown in Terre Haute, IN, Ray Brown in Dayton, OH and Willard Brown in Houston, TX. Eddie Collins in Weston, MA and Jimmy Collins in Lackawana, NY. Rube Foster in Blue Island, IL and his half brother Bill in Claiborne Co., MS. Walter Johnson in Rockville, MD, Ban Johnson in Spencer, IN and Judy Johnson in Wilmington, DE. King Kelly in Mattapan, MA and George Kelly in Colma, CA.
I’ve met living members, over 65 of them so far. I’ve met Bobby Doerr, who played his first game in 1937, ten years before my own father was born. And I’ve met Greg Maddux, whose rookie card was part of my own collection, with a career that began concurrent with the time when my youthful love of the game ran its hottest. I’ve met tender souls like Ernie Banks and Yogi Berra who have, since I photographed them, gone on to the other side. I’ve met hard men like Bob Gibson and Jim Bunning, whose pictures for the project felt more like work than fun.
I have traveled to Cuba, a country that for my entire life was a forbidden land. There, I found a culture that embraces baseball with a single-minded fervor that America has not experienced since before World War II. I saw games in five provinces of the strong-hitting, weak-pitching Cuban Series Nacional, their version of the major leagues. I visited the Monument to Baseballists in Havana, where over fifty Cuban heroes, including Hall of Famer José Méndez, are buried. It was in this cemetery that the previously mentioned Torriente was thought to lay, but my visit proved something else to be true. I also hired a driver to take me three hours outside of Havana to visit the tiny town of Cruces, where I got to share a Buccanaro Beer with Martín Dihigo Jr, before we drove to his father’s grave and played a game of catch by the body of the only man to be elected into the baseball halls of fame of five different countries.
Which brings me to today. As exotic as Cuba was, it was a mere 1300 miles from my home. Today, I stand in a place that is 5000 miles from where I live. I heard lots of stories about Hawaii as a kid, because my upstate New York, Italian-American Uncle fell in love with a Hawaiian woman. Their wedding was a luau. Everyone wore leis and at one point the groomsmen came out in grass skirts. Hawaii was a mythical place that I always swore I would see someday. Today is that day because of this baseball.
For a theatre guy such as myself, there is tremendous beauty to Alexander Cartwright being the last grave I needed to visit to complete my project. It is the alpha and the omega. Cartwright is the first born member of the Hall of Fame. He remains, to this day, the first person in the Hall of Fame to have ever picked up a bat. Recent research has proven that Cartwright is not responsible for those things with which he is credited on his plaque in the Hall. As a historian, it would be irresponsible of me to ignore that. But, as most of you know, Cartwright was more than that. As a member of the Knickerbockers, he likely umpired the first game they ever played. And though he did not author the modern rules, he was a member of the 1848 rules committee. His civic contributions to the state of Hawaii have made him beloved in his adopted home.
And he has, since his election into the Hall of Fame in 1938, served as the sole reminder to those who view the game through the lens of the Hall, that there was a time before it became America’s Pastime. A time when we were just putting the pieces together to make something different from cricket, and rounders, and “one cat, two cat,” and town ball, and all the other bat and ball games that came before baseball came to be. We owe Cartwright and his family a debt for keeping that door open. For encouraging new research that lets us continue to find the true story behind the creation of baseball.
And thus it is a fitting place that this part of The Hall Ball comes to an end. With the man who represents baseball’s beginning. Because the story of baseball carries on. More men will be elected to the Hall, and I have no idea if the ball will continue to join them. The Hall Ball itself is such a tiny piece of the story of the game. But it’s my piece, and I am honored to be able to share it with you today. Thank you for listening.
March 31, 2017-Things may have been quiet here at the website, but the Hall Ball has been far from idle. Since I last blogged back in October, I took a trip to Burlington, Massachusetts (along with Hall Ball booster Mel Schmittroth and her two little boys) to photograph Carl Yastrzemski. I caught up with Yaz before his signing session, as he was standing outside having a smoke. I was pleased to be able to hand him a copy of the New York Times article as I did my rap. As is commonly the case, he was uncertain as to why I would only want a photo and not an autograph, but he gamely complied, even when I asked him to turn around and shift his position because the sun shining brightly behind him was making the shot impossible.
Tony Milito made another trip for me, driving all the way to Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, to photograph Bill Mazeroski. I was moving from my long-time home on Staten Island to Brooklyn the day after Mr. Mazeroski was available. Tony continued to come through for the project by making the 320-mile drive from his home in New Brunswick so that I could pack up a decade’s worth of life and put it on a truck.
I then made the final extended road trip for the project, down to the deep South. Over the span of a week, I visited Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi (with a brief stop in Memphis, Tennessee to visit Sun Records and eat a little barbecue). Numerous times on the journey I was struck by the fact that this was the last time I was going to spend hours on the road for the project, watching the miles and miles of America pass me by. Any attempts to express the profound impact seeing this much of the country, in such an intimate way, has had on me would be insufficient. I do okay with words, but there don’t seem to be enough to truly describe the transformative experience the Hall Ball has been.
I was alone for most of the trip, which gave me plenty of time with my thoughts. Those imaginings were filled with a mixture of sadness and elation. The sadness, real and poignant, is because I have been working on this project for so long that I know that once it is complete I am going to feel a little empty. I have been on a mission and once the mission is ended, I will be stuck with the eternal question: What’s next? It’s an hollow feeling when your driving purpose, a thing you have dedicated yourself to for so long, is no longer a part of your life.
The elation was equally powerful. I am close. The closest I have ever been. Yes, it has been epiphanic seeing all of the various nooks and crannies of our complicated, divided, giant nation. But, it’s also been exhausting. So far, with one more trip left to make to photograph one final grave, I have driven 19,243 miles. I have flown 17,933. That is over 37,000 combined miles. For reference, the circumference of the Earth is 25,000. I have traveled enough to circle the planet at the equator one-and-a-half times. Plus, I still have the longest flight of them all left to do, to get that final grave in Hawaii. I am ready to be done and the sense of accomplishment I can feel bubbling inside each time I consider that finish line is like nothing else I have ever experienced.
Anna and our dearest Amelia joined me in New Orleans to take the final picture from that penultimate trip, of Mel Ott, and to enjoy the vibrant excitement of NOLA. I visited Shrine on Airline, formerly known as Zephyr Field, current home of the New Orleans Baby Cakes, the triple-A squad of the Miami Marlins. I ate jambalaya and crawfish. I danced and sang (and had a drink or two) and enjoyed quiet nights in the backyard of our adorable Airbnb. I had the most fun I have had on any Hall Ball trip, and that seemed an appropriate way to wrap up this phase of the project.
I am not done traveling. Thirteen days from now I get on a plane and fly thirteen hours to Oahu, to photograph the final resting place of the first-born member of the Hall of Fame, Alexander Cartwright. I have saved him for last for two reasons. First, he is the lone member of the Hall whose career took place entirely in the pre-professional era. The claims on his plaque in the Hall are dubious, but Cartwright was a founding member of the New York Knickerbockers. He was present when his teammates had the incredible foresight to write down the details of their inter-squad contests, clarifying many of the early rules of the sport for historians for years to come. Completing the portion of the quest dedicated to the deceased players with the first member to ever pick up a bat seemed an appropriate piece of symbolism.
I have also saved him for last because he is the most distant. One does not typically think of Hawaii and baseball in the same breath. It is, admittedly, an unusual setting for me to visit my final grave. But, this is an unusual project. I still do not know if it will be accepted by the Hall of Fame. I may, in the end, simply have spent seven years creating something that will sit in my living room, starting conversations with new friends about this crazy thing I did during my late-30s and early-40s. One thing that cannot be taken away, however, is that I have seen more of this land than I ever would have without the inspiration of this little baseball, so innocently “fished from the small creek that runs next Doubleday Field,” all those years ago.
October 23, 2016-The Hall Ball has evolved numerous times in its life. At first, it was just an idea to visit the graves of the members of The Hall of Fame. Then, I added the photos and the ball, quickly followed by the idea to include the living players as well. As time passed and the project started to get noticed by others, I began to realize that it could have more meaning if it stopped being so personal and became something that I shared with others. With the assistance of the folks at Sportspalooza I created a web presence. I made the website and started a Facebook. I got a twitter, too, although I am terrible at using it. I even created a gofundme, in the hopes of getting some support to tackle the mounting debt that the project has created.
Since then, The Hall Ball has inspired a small but loyal group of individuals who pay close attention to its travels. Some of them are friends I knew before the project even began. Some are friends of friends. And some I know only because of The Hall Ball. Tony Milito was one of the latter. Tony is a guy who is a fan of virtually every baseball Facebook page in existence, so The Hall Ball was right up his alley. When I put out an early plea for writers to help me complete the bios I wanted to create for the website, he was one of the first to volunteer. As of today, he has probably written more of them than I have. Every time someone on Facebook posts about a Hall of Famer, Tony is sure to comment on the ball’s visit to that player and post a project photo.
I met Tony in person for the first time in May of 2014 when he drove to Staten Island from his home of New Brunswick, NJ to join in the celebration of the marker I assisted in installing for Sol White. By that time, he had donated financially to the project and was sending me emails letting me know when living players were passing through. I was so humbled to meet someone whose love for the game was so evident, and whose respect for what I was doing was so genuine, that it remains one of my favorite memories from the day. I even took Tony’s picture that day, holding the ball. He had earned the right.
Since then he has been the project’s greatest advocate. Besides making sure that nary a Facebook post goes by without a nod to the ball, it was Tony who wrote the letter to Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times telling him of the project. I owe the small fifteen minutes of fame that has landed in my lap over the last three weeks to him. It would not be an exaggeration to say that even before today, the project would not be as far along as it is without Tony’s help.
I only met Tony’s wife, Kathy, once. After I returned from Cuba, I wrote about a new collection I wanted to start of the rookie cards for every Cuban who has ever spent time in a major league uniform. Tony promptly dug into his card collection, found every duplicate he had of a Cuban player, and he and Kathy made the drive up to Staten Island to bring me this very generous gift. Kathy was originally from Staten Island and still had family in the area. If memory serves, I think they were even on the way to her high school reunion when they paid their visit. Kathy loved square dancing, fireworks, frogs, baseball and Tony. Anyone who knew them knew just how much they were in love.
I spent the next year watching Kathy’s continued battle with cancer from the safe remove of the internet. Tony would post the up and down updates of her struggle. I knew that he retired and they went down to the house in Florida they had purchased. I knew their wish was for her to finally conquer the disease in the dream home they had always wanted. And so I knew, just days after they settled into their Cape Coral nest, that their visits to hospitals were not over. Kathy persevered for seven more months, but on June 12, the cancer finally ended Kathy’s life and broke Tony’s heart.
Since then, Tony has written about his grieving. About the continued signs Kathy seems to keep sending him, including a frog that moved into their yard the day after she died. About the junk mail that still keeps coming to their mailbox with her name on it. About the echoes that are left behind when a loved one is gone forever and how hollow the things that remain feel. I don’t think he even realizes what a reminder he has served for me, to love and live and never hesitate to embrace those that mean the most to me.
I have also watched him manage his grief in a way that I myself can fully appreciate, and have used in times of hurt in my own life. That tool? Why, baseball, of course. He has spent the months since traveling to games and stadiums and museums and special events commemorating the sport that has meant so much to him, to me, and to generations of people for the last 160 years.
He watched his beloved Mets make it all the way to the Wildcard game, where he and I sat in section 501 of Citifield and witnessed this year’s dream fall to Conor Gillaspie’s unlikely ninth-inning home run. He’s gone to a sports collectible show in Atlantic City, and watched multiple vintage baseball games played by the rules of the 1850s. He’s witnessed the Trenton Thunder play the Akron RubberDucks and saw big league games in Atlanta and Philadelphia. He climbed the lone remaining structure from the Polo Grounds, the John T. Brush stairwell, and he went to Yogi Berra’s museum in Little Falls. Last weekend he visited the Forbes Field Wall to join in the celebration of the 56th anniversary of Bill Mazeroski’s historic home run.
And then there was today.
Those of you who are paying attention to the project know that I put out a plea this week to try and raise some last minute capital in order to photograph Red Schoendienst in St. Louis. I’m thrilled to say that we were able to raise over three hundred dollars which, while certainly not enough to cover the whole ticket, was enough to justify the remaining expense. The only problem was that this weekend was one of the infrequent times in which my job required me to work on a Saturday. I had the funding, but I myself could not go to St. Louis. What to do?
Other than my beloved Family, there is really only one person I trust with the ball at this point, and that’s Tony. So, I asked him to do something unprecedented in the history of the project. I asked him to take it to St. Louis and get the photograph for me. The ball hasn’t really been out of my possession since it was created and when I gave it to him on Thursday it was with no small amount of nerves. But, Mr. Schoendienst is 93 years old. My chances were running out.
To be clear, there are already three photographs in the Project that were taken by other people. Both the Reggie Jackson and Cal Ripken, Jr. photos were taken by their respective handlers with me standing nearby. Mike Schmidt’s photo was taken by Sean Morgan with Fanatics Authentic, who was leery of my intentions and would only agree to the photo if he got to take it. But, I have never not been on site when the picture was taken. Today, the Ball became bigger than me. Today, the 288th photograph was taken while I was 972 miles away, tucked in the corner of a darkened theatre.
I have always wanted the ball to be thought of as a communal project. I have wanted the people who have donated their money, the ones who wrote bios for the site, the blogs and podcasts that helped spread the word, and even the people that took the split second to hit “like” on Facebook, to feel some sense of ownership in the project. Today, Tony truly became one of the creators of The Hall Ball. And, hopefully, for just a little while, his beloved baseball masked the pain of missing his beloved Kathy.
There has been a lot of good that has come from the ball already. It led me to Sol White and now Cristóbal Torriente. It has helped educate me about the game and made me a better historian than I was six years ago. It has brought me and my family to locations exotic and mundane, opening up the great expanse of America to us in a very special way. It took me to Cuba, where I had one of the most transformative experiences of my life. And now, it has given this kind, loving man a chance to meet a baseball legend and to be a part of something unique. Thanks, Tony, for the picture, and for being there all this time. It has been an honor getting to know you.
August 30, 2016-Summer presented its usual challenges when it comes to working on the Hall Ball. While the rest of the world vacations, people in theatre dive into the all-consuming world of summer stock or, in my case, summer camp. The low-tech setting and demanding hours make even listening to that day’s game an after-thought. It’s not an easy gig for a baseball fan.
But, that does not mean the project has been completely idle. At the end of May and beginning of June, I took a trip to the middle of America, visiting Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Kansas City-area. I photographed twelve more graves along the way, including Warren Spahn, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Satchel Paige. Visiting Alexander’s grave with Loren Studley, one of founders of the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball was a special treat. So was exploring the home of Satchel Paige in Kansas City. The house itself was boarded up and dilapidated, a sad reminder of how quickly things can be forgotten. I chatted with Paige’s old neighbor while we toured the property, and he shared a few racy details about Satch (and Leroy’s daughter). I took home a brick from the crumbling front porch stairs.
Induction weekend netted two more living Hall of Famers, Craig Biggio and John Smoltz. Both of them were charming and cooperative. I even had enough time with Biggio that I was able to tell him a little bit about the 19th Century Grave Marker Project. I was denied by Randy Johnson. This marks only the second time I have been turned down by a Hall of Famer. I did eventually photograph the first one, Bob Gibson, who, like Johnson, was a menacing force on the mound. I haven’t given up hope. There’s still time.
There are potentially eight more photos being shot in just a few weeks. I will be traveling to St. Louis in mid-September where four more Hall of Famers are buried, plus an additional three in the surrounding suburbs. One photo, of cremated umpire Al Barlick, will hopefully be achieved on a detour through a former Springfield, IL coal mine.
As of this writing, the project stands at 279 completed photos, leaving just 33 more to take. Thirteen of those players are alive, including Johnson, Red Schoendienst, Doug Harvey, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Bill Mazeroski, Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Geroge Brett and Ken Griffey, Jr. Of the twenty others that remain, Barlick, Earl Weaver and Monte Irvin have no burial site and Lee MacPhail remains a mystery, though Stew Thornley has at least tracked him as far as Scarsdale, NY. All of that means that after the trip to St. Louis, there will be only nine more graves to visit.
It’s humbling to be so close. Six years. For the last six years I have been envisioning the completion of this project and what it would mean, the grandiose thoughts of a man who has been behind the wheel for thousands upon thousands of miles, chasing a foolish dream. I still don’t really know how I’ll react. But it is clear that the end is coming. I will finish my little piece of history. If the Hall takes it, I will consider it a job well done. If not…well, I guess I’ll have a baseball with a hell of story to leave my kids.
May 17, 2016-Mike Piazza becomes number 265 in the project, thanks to the amazing people at Steiner Sports. A special nod to George De Jesus, Eric Levy and Nicole for making it possible. Look for the photo tomorrow!!