End of the road to baseball immortality
An expert on the subject takes us on a tour of the unique gravestones in MLB
A grave says a lot about the person buried within. When all's said and done, when the book drifts past the final page and is slammed shut, when your friends and relatives are no longer around to tell the world about your accomplishments, all that's left is that marker announcing your remains. So it's no surprise that celebrity graves -- from Grant's Tomb to Graceland to JFK's eternal flame in Arlington -- are tourist attractions; we want to see what mark these prominent people left.
And of all the major sports, baseball is perhaps the most ripe for interesting gravesites. Since the sport's been around for so long, many of the most legendary ballplayers of yesteryear have already passed away.
With the latest round of Hall of Fame inductions, there are now a total of 289 ballplayers in Cooperstown, 224 of which are deceased. That's a lot of gravesites to consider. And just how are you to determine where to view the final resting places?
Luckily, there's an expert on this subject: Stew Thornley. He is a Minnesota-based author who's been to the grave of nearly every Hall of Famer. ("I was actually in Scottsdale when Ted Williams died," Thornley said. "Someone had a connection to get into that Alcor Life Extension place, but I didn't go.")
Drawing from his vast knowledge, we asked Thornley to share his list of the most interesting and unique gravestones -- complete with GPS coordinates -- for Hall of Fame ballplayers. Here's The Travel Ten:
Babe RuthGate of Heaven Cemetery
The best place to start the list may be obvious, at Thornley's favorite grave. And that claim, as so many other milestones in baseball do, belongs to The Great Bambino.
"I got there and was taken by all of the stuff," Thornley said. The "stuff" was everything from baseballs and baseball cards to photos and flowers, all left on Babe Ruth's grave as tokens to the fallen slugger.
The outpouring of emotional artifacts was so overwhelming Thornley was inspired to add his own. "I went back to my car, got a steno pad and wrote a little note that just said 'Babe, you're the best.'" Thornley was shocked when he found the same note, years later and more than 200 miles away.
"Apparently someone from the [Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore] had stopped by the grave and picked up a couple of the things. When I went to the museum, there was my note," he said.
It's not surprising his grave continues to draw such memorials. In a cemetery full of historic characters -- from acting legends James Cagney and Sal Mineo to another Yankees great, Billy Martin -- The Babe's grave is still the most visited.
Gate of Heaven Cemetery
10 W. Stevens Ave.
Hawthorne, NY 10532
GPS: Latitude N 41° 05' 25.3", Longitude W 73° 47' 49.1"
Mel OttMetairie Cemetery
While he stood at an average height of 5-foot-9, everything about Mel Ott's playing career was huge. He was the youngest player to reach 100 home runs, he was a 12-time All-Star and he led his Brooklyn Giants team in home runs for an incomprehensible 18 seasons.
So it only makes sense that his grave marker is larger than life. Buried in Metairie Cemetery (founded in 1872) in the city of New Orleans, Ott's remains reside in a lush above-ground mausoleum constructed of gray granite.
The mausoleum is "about as close to the front of the cemetery as you can get," said Gil Bonnaffons, director of memorial construction for the cemetery.
Bonnaffons also dispelled the urban legend that all New Orleans graves need to be above ground because the city resides below sea level, which would theoretically cause coffins to float to the surface during a downpour.
"There are below-ground plots," Bonnaffons said. "We have a high water table, so when we dig our graves we have water trickling in ... but this type of burials are more influenced by European traditions rather than the water table."
Other famous New Orleanians residing in Metairie include advice columnist Dorothy Dix, the founder of Popeyes Chicken, Al Copeland, and district attorney Jim Garrison, who Kevin Costner played in Oliver Stone's "JFK."
5100 Pontchartrain Blvd.
New Orleans, LA 70124
GPS: Latitude N 29° 59' 05.3", Longitude W 90° 06' 57.3"
Henry ChadwickGreenwood Cemetery
Even Maury Povich's paternity tests wouldn't be able to find baseball's true creator.
"I think we actually have at least two or three [in our cemetery] who were, at one time or another, termed 'the father of baseball,'" said Jeff Richman, resident historian of Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery.
Sportswriter and historian Henry Chadwick gets a piece of the paternal pie for, to the joy of sabermetricians around the country, inventing the box score. But if legitimacy of the claim was based solely on the flashiness of the gravestone, Chadwick might win hands down.
"Chadwick has the great monument," said Richman. And he should, seeing as renowned pitcher and sporting goods magnet Albert Spalding and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charlie Ebbets were involved in its creation back in 1908.
Recently, the cemetery made an extra change to honor Chadwick. "Our lots are marked in each of the four corners with stones to indicate the boundaries so a few years ago, we ran both paths around the monument."
The still-active cemetery also houses graves for Horace Greeley, Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with more than 200 baseball pioneers -- no doubt many of them also "fathers of baseball."
500 25th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11214
GPS: Latitude N 40° 39' 26.8", Longitude W 73° 59' 10.4"
Nap LajoieDaytona Memorial Park
In the oldest section of the cemetery stands a gravestone declaring the final resting place of the "most graceful and effective second baseman of his era."
While his nemesis Ty Cobb might have had a few choice words for anyone lauding Nap Lajoie's achievements, one need only look at his AL record of posting a .426 batting average during the 1901 season to validate the claim.
An all-time great like this should be a household name, right? Not necessarily. "I'd never heard of the guy, but everyone seems to know who he is," said David Collins, the family service manager at Daytona Memorial Park.
However, throughout Collins' 46 years working at the cemetery, he's gotten accustomed to point out Lajoie's grave; Collins receives about a request a month from visitors wanting to see it.
However, as you might expect in the heart of NASCAR country, the biggest draw belongs to a race car driver. "We have Fireball Roberts buried here. People come in here constantly to see him," Collins said. "He's buried under a great big Bible." It's a fitting marker, seeing as the ultimate church of any NASCAR fan, the Daytona Speedway, is a little more than a mile away.
Daytona Memorial Park
1425 Bellevue Ave.
Daytona Beach, FL 32114
GPS: Latitude N 29° 11' 13.6", Longitude W 81° 02' 22.1"
James "Cool Papa" BellSt. Peter's Cemetery
One doesn't know what to make of the humility of James "Cool Papa" Bell from his grave alone.
On the front is a modest quote by Bell, proclaiming to the world, "I did the best I could with what I had." But on the back, above a list of Bell's achievements in the baseball world -- and it is quite the lengthy read -- are the words "A Universal Legend" written in extra large font.
You can't really fault Bell. To have his level of game-breaking speed -- the inscription claims he once rounded the bases in 12 seconds flat -- you can excuse a little bravado. The fans don't seem to mind. Even today, baseballs are ceremoniously left behind on his gravesite.
And according to Bill Baumgartner, the superintendent of the cemetery, the grave of "Cool Papa" Bell is the most visited, despite it also being home to the graves of Tuskegee Airman Wendell Pruitt and famed lawyer Homer G. Phillips. Even in the afterlife, "Cool Papa" laps the field.
St. Peter's Cemetery
2101 Lucas and Hunt Road
St. Louis, MO 63121
GPS: Latitude N 38° 41' 14.6", Longitude W 90° 17' 37.2"