Opening Day doesn’t merely kick off the baseball season. It alerts us, without fail every spring, to the season of rebirth. This most hallowed day in sports (rivaled perhaps by the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, but by nothing else) starts the cycle that is as sure as the seasons it follows.
Green hues covering an expanse of outfield, sun dripping on the lengthening days, a chill in the air to remind us that winter is not so far behind — all of these combine to hold out the promise of a long and healthy and leisurely campaign, much like life itself. But it is a campaign that surely fades, along with most teams’ pennant hopes, in what Dave Shiflett so beautifully described last week as the dying season (which, Shiflett notes, is the proper preserve of football).
For more than a century this has been the pattern of the game — Life, Death, Rebirth. And while most fans this week are caught up in the rebirth signified by Opening Day, New Jersey’s Frank Russo focuses his attentions on the macabre middle infielder in that double-play combo.
Russo is an amateur baseball historian who has given over his research to making the final resting places of big league ballplayers a bit more comfortable, at least in our memory, which is where the ghosts of baseball past truly reside.
A bearded, overweight New York Yankees fan, Russo created and runs my favorite sports website, The Deadball Era. Its motto is, “Where Every Player is Safe at Home.” It is a comprehensive site devoted to the passing from this earthly vale of big leaguers great and not-so-great.
Among the wonderful services rendered by The Deadball Era is an attempt to collect the New York Times obituaries for as many deceased former big leaguers as possible. Too many people in and around the game today are shortsighted when it comes to the game’s history. Despite the fact that baseball builds on the accomplishments of previous generations, there are many today to whom the past and its precedents are just an inconvenience. So those with a passion for the past must fight a never-ending battle to ensure that the grand deeds of Cap Anson and Nap Lajoie, or even Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, are not lost to the ages.
Luckily for those of us with historical sensibilities, there is Russo, private citizen, whose love for the game has led him to carry the banner (or funeral shroud) for many a player. See how the majestic Babe Ruth was sent off, for instance, or read about the tragedy of Lou Gehrig, cut down on the base paths of life at just 37.
For all the emphasis on death, there is nothing morbid about The Deadball Era. Rather, it sweetly shows baseball as a game for the living to be played and revered and passed down seamlessly over the generations.
By virtue of their public lives and the fact they play a kids’ game, ballplayers are often colorful characters. All of this color is revealed in the grainy black and white of these gentlemen’s death notices. Take Rabbit Maranville, whose 1954 obituary recalled, “In St. Louis they still point out the fountain in a hotel courtyard into which he dived, fully dressed, on a sultry summer evening. However, he always denied, as an utter fabrication, that he came out of the water holding a goldfish in his mouth.” Who knows what to make of that, or whether they still recall it some 48 years later.
I do have to note one great sin of omission on this site, which owes (as many sins do) to an over-reliance on the New York Times. The obit for Roger Maris is treated thusly, which is fine as far as it goes. But we would be better served if Russo provided the legendary back page of the New York Post that absolutely nailed it on that sad day when we lost the gentlemanly Maris. Said the Post in its World War III-sized type: TRADED TO THE ANGELS.
Along with players’ obits, Russo has catalogued the burial places of dozens upon dozens of the game’s foot soldiers, as well as most members of the Hall of Fame. It is fascinating to see how baseball’s “immortals” are treated in their deathly repose. With few exceptions, the gravestones of the greats are modest and unprepossessing. One would be hard-pressed, for instance, to know that the great broadcaster Mel Allen was anything other than a “Beloved Son, Brother [&] Uncle.” Or that the Christopher Mathewson who lies beneath a small stone marker in a Pennsylvania cemetery is the same legendary New York Giants hurler Christy “Big Six” Mathewson, who won 373 career games. His marker only identifies him as having been a Captain in the 128th Pennsylvania Division.
A few gravestones give clues to the residents’ former lives. Casey Stengel’s provides this quote: “There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had plenty of them.” And Satchel Paige’s has chiseled his famous Rules to Stay Young, such as “Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move,” or “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” And whatever you do, never forget to “avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.”
Ultimately none of these gents — not sportswriter Grantland Rice nor Pirates co-owner (and occasional crooner) Bing Crosby, not Hall-of-Famer Mordechai “Three Finger” Brown nor the forgettable Cliff Mapes — could stay young enough to escape the summons of, as Rice famously put it, the One Great Scorer.
But thanks to the efforts of Frank Russo, they will all live on enough so that the rest of us will be able to note not only whether they won or lost, but how they played the game.