The Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project (NLBGMP) is the convergence of the love of the game of baseball and a deep sense of honor for those who came before us.
It started with the stories Jeremy Krock heard growing up about an otherwise forgotten Negro Leagues ballplayer named Jimmie Crutchfield. Older relatives who shared Crutchfield’s hometown of Ardmore, Missouri, spoke proudly of the man who escaped the hard, dangerous life of the coal mines to play baseball.
Considered small even in his day, the 5’7” Crutchfield played outfield for eight teams in the Negro Leagues during a fifteen-year career that began in 1930. Although he was selected to four East-West All-Star games, three with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and one with the Chicago American Giants, Crutchfield was perhaps more appreciated for his wide smile and affable optimism, traits that did not go unnoticed in the dugout. His teammate in Pittsburgh, Cool Papa Bell, considered Crutchfield the best team player in baseball because he always had a positive outlook, on the field and off.
For Krock, a life-long St. Louis Cardinals fan, the stories of Jimmie Crutchfield were wonderful, shared memories of days gone by, a part of his family’s tradition to honor the past. Each year, for example, Krock’s grandmother, great-aunt, and other relatives would spend Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) visiting cemeteries in Central Missouri making sure deceased family members had flowers of some sort adorning their graves. Although Krock loved baseball and its history, Jimmie Crutchfield was something more—he was part of the family.
Then, in 2003 he took his wife and children to the Field Museum in Chicago to see “Baseball as America”, a traveling exhibit from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In the gift shop at the end of the exhibit, Krock found a book written by Larry Lester, Sammy J Miller, and Dick Clark titled Black Baseball in Chicago. Inside he found a description and photographs of Jimmie Crutchfield and learned that, after his playing days and before passing away in 1993, Crutchfield had worked in a post office in Chicago. It seemed natural to Krock to visit the man he had heard so much about.
The book had not mentioned the details Crutchfield’s passing or where he was buried, so Krock contacted Dick Clark, co-chair of the Negro Leagues Committee (NLC) of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). Clark provided the name of the funeral home that handled Crutchfield’s service, and with that information, Krock tracked down where Crutchfield was buried. Later that year, Krock traveled to Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, to pay his respects to the ballplayer.
There, Krock was surprised to find Jimmie Crutchfield and his wife Julia buried in unmarked graves, and it seemed an undignified conclusion to the story he had cherished since boyhood. Thoughts of the family tradition his grandmother and his great-aunt helped establish came to mind—the selfless act of adorning the graves of loved ones passed. The next step seemed clear.
Krock first spoke with the staff of Burr Oak Cemetery to see what was needed to place a marker on Crutchfield’s grave. There was no family to be found at the time, so the Cemetery agreed to let Crutchfield be honored in this manner. Next, he called Dick Clark, who published an account of Krock’s plan in the NLC newsletter. Krock also sent letters to people whose lives had been touched by Crutchfield, baseball dignitaries such as former Commissioner Fay Vincent, who had met Crutchfield in 1991 at a ceremony in Chicago to honor Negro Leagues ballplayers, and former Major League catcher and television baseball analyst Joe Garagiola, who worked together with Crutchfield for the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT). The response was remarkable. Donations in Jimmie Crutchfield’s honor began showing up at Krock’s home. Although few of the donors could claim to know Krock personally, they all trusted him to use the money as he had said he would.
In the meantime, Wayne Stivers, a researcher for the NLC, sent Burr Oak Cemetery a list of Negro Leagues players who were known to have died in Chicago. The Cemetery staff quickly located the unmarked graves of Candy Jim Taylor, a long-time Negro Leagues player and manager, and John Donaldson, an accomplished pitcher who later became the first black scout for the Chicago White Sox. The money raised through donations, in addition to a generous contribution made by the White Sox in honor of Donaldson, was sufficient to purchase three markers. On September 26, 2004, a ceremony was held at Burr Oak Cemetery to dedicate the new grave markers for Crutchfield, Taylor, and Donaldson. Crutchfield was also honored for his military service during World War II, and a separate marker, donated by the Cemetery, was placed on the grave of Julia Crutchfield to match her husband’s.
As donations continued to pour in, and as the cemetery staff continued to locate players from Stivers’ list, eight more players, an umpire, and a sportswriter were located. Another nine players had also been located at Burr Oak Cemetery at the time—eight who were buried in marked graves, and one whose grave remains unmarked at the request of his family. A second dedication ceremony was held on June 18, 2004, to coincide with the annual convention of the NLC held that year in Chicago.
Following the convention, it was decided that the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project would become an official part of the NLC. Today, Jeremy Krock continues to direct the NLBGMP, with support from more than 700 NLC members, as well as the hundreds of donors who have generously contributed toward the Project. As of January 2016, 30 Negro Leagues players, an umpire, and a sportswriter who were buried in unmarked graves in various cemeteries across the United States have been given new markers, and the search continues for more.
For an updated listing of newly dedicated graves, visit our "Completed Markers" page.