For Christmas of 2009, my father-in-law gave us a book he had been compiling for a while. It was a history of his family line, on his mother’s side, that went back to the 1400s. Among other revelations it proved how Anna was a first cousin (14x removed) of William Shakespeare. Those who know me know that my sacred trinity consists of the three “Bs”: Baseball, the Beatles and the Bard. I had married into literary royalty.
My curiosity whetted, I began to dig into my own family history and before I knew it I was (once again) embroiled in a full-blown obsession: discovering the story of my family. I spent countless hours poring over documents and photos, trying to find out as much as I could about family centuries dead. This meant, as any genealogist could tell you, spending an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries.
As a child, cemeteries simultaneously fascinated and terrified me. As an adult, I had spent little time in them until the Spring of 2010. As soon as the thaw began, I was taking every available opportunity to visit the graves of my ancestors, both recent and ancient. A rubbing of the stone of my Great (x8) Aunt, Mary Carhart, now hangs in my living room, her death date of 1737 clear and easy to read.
I grew to truly love cemeteries. They are quiet and green and rarely are there any other people there to interfere with my enjoyment of them. Cemeteries are a place of introspection. and they often seem like a private park, just for me. The art of gravestones has evolved over the years and the artist and historian within me appreciates the beauty of a well-constructed monument as well as the depth of information that can be gathered from one. Every time I discover the grave of someone to whom I am connected, there is a thrill that shoots through me. Each relative is a treasure, waiting to be discovered.
Which brings us to our family vacation that summer. Having spent months researching my family because they were more local to our native New York City, we decided to spend a few weeks looking into Anna’s family. In addition to Shakespeare, Anna is a direct descendent of William Bradford, the original Governor of the Plymouth Colony. The descendants of the Bradfords left Plymouth and spread throughout New England, and we spent fourteen days tracking them down, with one small side-trip.
Two years earlier we had been in Cooperstown, NY during the Major League All-Star break, and we were fortunate enough to catch the game at the Hall of Fame. Every year the Hall sponsors an All-Star Gala. They show the game in the Grandstand Theatre on the second floor while they give away hot dogs, sodas and snacks. There’s trivia, contests and games in-between innings. The Midsummer Classic had begun to lose some of its luster for me in recent years and this opportunity to spend a little extra time, after-hours, in the Hall had helped to recapture the magic. We had a blast and decided in 2010 to divert from our genealogical road trip to try and catch lightning in a bottle a second time.
The night before the game we were early for our dinner reservations and Anna suggested we check out the local cemetery. Neither one of us was aware of any family from that area but it had become habit. The closest was Lakewood Cemetery, on the southeastern coast of Otsego Lake. Lakewood is built into a steep hill that seems to wind up into eternity. It’s the final resting place of famed novelist James Fenimore Cooper, whose own ancestors the town is named after. We wandered through the endless rows of this fascinating collection of New Yorkers, looking for those familial names that we had trained our eyes to find.
Instead, Anna found Doubleday. Abner Doubleday. At first we believed we had found the mythical “inventor” of baseball. Then we realized that this Abner died in 1812, making it impossible for him to be the Civil War hero who was wrongfully credited as the progenitor of the game. This Abner was, instead, the grandfather of the famous one. We searched for a while looking for “our” Abner, but with no luck. I later learned he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but by that point it didn’t matter. The door had been opened. I had seen the name of baseball’s Zeus, written in stone, in the town that the game had adopted as its birthplace. One obsession was about to give way to another.
The next night we arrived at the Hall early so we could enjoy the museum before the All- Star Game started. The seed of the idea that was planted the night before bloomed into a quest as I walked through the plaque gallery. It had never occurred to me before how much the plaques each member of the Hall receives upon his induction resemble tiny tombstones. But, of course, I was looking at them with a different set of eyes than I ever previously had.
I looked at row upon row of the greatest, most influential individuals to touch the game over its history. I decided then and there I was going to visit the graves of each and every one of them. My love of baseball and my new found love of cemeteries had fused into a single quest. I was going to absorb the history of the game in a whole new way, one Hall of Famer at a time.
As soon as we returned home from vacation I began my research and Google quickly introduced me to Stew Thornley. It turns out that Stew seems to have the same love for cemeteries, and baseball, that I do and had already gone on a similar journey. He had created a website, complete with photographs and rough GPS coordinates of all of the Hall of Famer graves to that point.
This was good news for me, as it meant that I already had all the location information I needed to get started. Plus, the photos made it easier to find the graves themselves once I actually got to the cemeteries. However, it was also frustrating. I had thought my idea was an original one, and to know that it had already been done was discouraging. I needed to own the idea in some way and began to think of variations that could make it mine.
I was able to get a healthy head start on the whole thing simply by luck of location. My first stop was right over the Verrazano Bridge, in Brooklyn, at perhaps the most famous cemetery in all of New York City. Green-Wood is well-known both for its size and beauty. Of all of the cemeteries I have visited, it is the only one that has trolleys that take people on guided tours. Some of its more famous residents include Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Morse, “Boss” Tweed (who was once a partial investor in a baseball club) and Charles Ebbets. In fact, there is a book entitled “Baseball’s Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.” There are over two hundred former major leaguers buried there (along with forty-four Carharts).
There is only one Hall of Famer, though, but it’s one of my favorites. Henry Chadwick is the only member of the Hall whose election was primarily based on his work as a writer. There is, of course, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award that is given annually to a baseball writer, but contrary to popular misconception, a Spink recipient is not a Hall of Famer. Chadwick is in the Hall, itself. As someone who appreciates the artistic inspiration that comes from baseball in ways unlike any other sport, the British-born writer has always had a soft spot in my heart.
At the impressive main gates, gothic spires that reach to the sky, maps of the massive cemetery are available which clearly mark the location of Chadwick. Minutes after my arrival I was standing at my first Hall of Fame grave. It is one of the most joyous graves I have ever seen and the sight of three baseballs, left behind like religious offerings, touched me. I considered them briefly and, in one of those moments of perfect clarity, I realized a way I could make my tour of the graves different from Stew’s.
Simply, I wasn’t going to make the trip on my own. I was going to bring a baseball with me, a special baseball that I was going to photograph at each of the sites. I was, in essence, going to create my own piece of memorabilia. And I knew just the ball I wanted to use.
On the trip to Cooperstown that inspired this whole thing, Anna and I had gone to Doubleday Field to catch a game. Doubleday is a small ballpark located on a piece of land that was first used for baseball in 1920, before the field itself was even built. Then, it was just a part of a local farmer’s pasture. In 1939, the current steel, concrete and brick structure was constructed as a WPA project. The result remains a centerpiece of the town today.
When one watches a game at Doubleday, one feels like they’ve traveled in time. It is small and unfettered by modern ballpark conveniences. The electric scoreboard is the kind my high school used in 1986, with a series of incandescent light bulbs forming the numerals that keep track of the score. The park doesn’t even have any lighting. All games at Doubleday Field are day games.
On this particular day, Anna and I were sitting in the back row of the grandstand, giving us a view of the small stream that runs next to the park. Anna noticed a baseball sitting in the water and went down to the stream to fish it out. This was the ball I wanted to use. In my mind, this ball had come from Cooperstown, giving it a Hall of Fame pedigree. Of course, having spent an unknown amount of time in the water, most likely used in an American Legion game, this was not your typical memorabilia ball, pristine and white with the MLB mark stamped cleanly into it. To me, that only lent to the character.
The only problem was, I couldn’t find it. I could have sworn it was somewhere in the car, but after pulling out all of our camping gear (still sitting in our trunk in anticipation of another upcoming trip), I gave up and grabbed another ball that was sitting in the back seat. It was in even worse shape, brown and scuffed from a game of catch that took place on concrete. I took out a Sharpie that was in the glove compartment, briefly considered how I was going to mark the ball it to make it clear that each photograph was of the same one, and quickly scribbled “The Hall Ball.” It wasn’t poetry, but there it was.
I placed the ball on one of the more interesting features of Chadwick’s grave, took my photo, and set off on the next stop of the tour. By the time the day was over I had succeeded in reaching only six of the nine graves I had originally set out to see. I was also thoroughly frustrated by the fact that the time I had spent felt wasted because it wasn’t the ball I really wanted to use. I was going to need to revisit everywhere I had gone that day.
I also still felt the need to differentiate my quest in another way from Stew’s, besides the ball. Despite standing at the feet of the some of the biggest names in the history of the game that day, inspiration had not come. A few days later, as I was finishing the packing for the camping trip, I found the ball. It had been in the trunk the whole time, buried in the large canvas duffel that also contained our sleeping bags and the poles for our tent. I knew I was right in choosing this ball immediately upon placing my fingers upon it. With the same lightning clarity that came with the initial idea, when I touched the ball I had an epiphany.
I figured out the final piece of truly making the quest mine. Why stop with just taking the ball to the graves of the dead Hall of Famers? Why didn’t I also bring it to the living ones? And there it was. My quest in full. This ball was going to either be at the graves, or in the hands, of every member of the Hall of Fame. It would unite the rich history of the game in a way that would be unique and quirky, bringing Alexander Cartwright together with heroes not yet ordained.
Now, four and a half years later, the end of the quest is in sight. Please explore all The Hall Ball website has to offer, and join me as I attempt to complete the first crowd-sourced artifact ever donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s been a hell of a journey so far, and I believe the best is yet to come. Why don’t you come along with me?