All over America, there are people who are doing wonderful, generous, kind and important things, not for recognition or personal profit, but because something needs to be done to set things right, and nobody else will do it. The only way most of us learn about these ethics heroes is if some enterprising reporter discovers their stories, and brings them to the public’s attention. For every one we hear about, there are probably dozens that remain in obscurity.
One of those Ethics Heroes I have just learned about is Dr. Jeremy Krock, an anesthesiologist by trade, who began the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project seven years ago. His self-appointed mission is to find the neglected burial places of players from the old Negro baseball leagues, and give them each a grave marker that identifies them and their place in baseball history.
Baseball’s professional Negro leagues existed in various forms from the 1880’s until the mid-1950’s. They were testimony to the apartheid practiced in Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Many wonderful black players who could have played along side white stars like Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove and Rogers Hornsby played instead in ramshackle stadiums for tiny salaries, appreciated only by the black fans in the stands. Robbed by pure bigotry of their chance to play ball at the highest level, many of these superb athletes retired unsung, unknown, and impovershed.
In recent decades baseball historians have begun assembling the story of the Negro Leagues, and more than twenty former players have been enshrined in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Still, unlike every white man who played professional baseball in the major leagues and whose record is permanently recorded in the sports exhaustive statistics, most Negro League players have little to show that they ever swung a bat or pitched a ball. “These were great ballplayers who don’t deserve to be forgotten, but they have been,” Dr. Krock told the New York Times. “A lot of these guys, by the time Jackie Robinson made it, they were way past their prime. It was too late for them. And not having a marker on their grave for people to remember them only made it worse.” His Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project had provided headstones, at about $700 each, for nineteen players so far. The project’s volunteers track down the unmarked graves and install them, often with their own hands. Krock and his fellow project members raise money for the headstones primarily through members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), though some in the baseball establishment have also contributed, such as Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the last true Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, and former player, manager and coach Don Zimmer.
Krock told the Times that he had no particular interest in baseball history before he learned about the fate of some of the Negro League players by happenstance. Some of his relatives had grown up in Ardmore, Mo., and often talked about Jimmie Crutchfield, a prominent 1930s Negro leagues outfielder from the town. Krock wanted to learn where Crutchfield was buried, and eventually determined that he lay in an unmarked grave near Chicago.
He spoke with SABR’s Negro Leagues committee, and a mention in the group’s newsletter led to small donations arriving from SABR members. Krock found two more players in the same cemetery where Crutchfield was buried, got headstones for them, and the project was born.
The old players are dead: they don’t know about the headstones, and many of them don’t have families to appreciate the project’s work either. Nonetheless, it is an important gesture: a demonstration of respect, kindness, recognition and gratitude to the memory of men who never got enough of any of these.
“We don’t want these men to continue to be unrecognized and invisible,”one of Krock’s colleagues told the Times. “That’s just not acceptable.” Sadly, it would be acceptable to most people. That’s how Ethics Heroes often do their their best work: by not accepting the unacceptable.