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Mudville: June 18, 2024 9:38 pm PDT

Grave Matters

Frank Russo has a story to tell. Lots of stories in fact.

He honors ballplayers by visiting their gravesites and posting information about their deaths at his fact-filled website: thedeadballera.com.

Russo researches players, their accomplishments and how their lives ended. Russo’s love for the game and the players comes through in a most unique way. That’s why his story is The Story this Sunday.

Why does he do what he does?

“You know what, the players are the game,’’ Russo told BallNine. “And because of analytics and everything today and WAR and spin rate, exit velocity, launch angle and that’s all they seem to talk about, it gets to be almost monotonous. I think people forget the players are human beings. They have their ups and downs and everything else. I appreciate the players, because they are just like us – except they have a special talent.’’

That is putting baseball, life… and death in perspective.

“I think this year, people are beginning to appreciate the game a little more because of the Hall of Famers who have passed away recently,’’ Russo said. “Players are not going to be around forever.’’

The deaths of Hank Aaron, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and so many others really hit the fans hard.

When a favorite player passes away it is a reminder that our youth is gone. Nothing lasts forever.

“It’s kind of scary because when I was growing up you still had a lot of players from the ‘20s and even the 1910s, I’m talking about growing up in the ‘60s,’’ he said. “You get older, they’re gone and another generation comes in, they get old and now even the players from the Yankees Dynasty teams in the late ‘90s and 2000, they’re in their 50s now. So many players I grew up with are passing away or even players from the last 20 years. But then again, I look at my age and say, I’m going to be 62 this year, what the heck happened?’’

Indeed. Time has come today.

Click on Russo’s website and there is a celestial image with these words:

The DEADball Era

Where every player is safe at home

Dedicated To Deceased Major League Players!

Twenty categories are listed, everything from accidents, murders, suicides to gravesite listings, death certificates, grave photos and Hall of Famers.

This endeavor is a lot of work. A most serious Yankee fan, Russo has written two books. His first was Bury My Heart at Cooperstown. Salacious, Sad and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseball.

His most recent book is entitled: The Cooperstown Chronicles. Baseball’s Colorful Characters, Unusual Lives and Strange Demises.

The chapter titles of his second book say it all:

Bad to the Bone

Beer Drinkers and Hell-Raisers

Suicide is Painless

Unnatural Causes

Why not Suicide Squeeze as a chapter title in the second book?

Easy. That was used in his first book.

Then there is perhaps my favorite chapter title: Final Out.

People are fascinated by his work and what he puts on his website. Russo has spent a lot of his time in Cooperstown at the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, a library that contains over three million documents.

“I’ve made 77 research trips to Cooperstown, and 74 were day trips so it goes to show you how much common sense I have,’’ he explained in his humorous, self-deprecating way. “I have the largest independently owned collection of obituaries and death certificates for major leaguers probably outside of the Hall of Fame. Believe me, you have to have a sense of humor when you are doing this stuff.’’

Russo deeply cares about the baseball dead. And their final resting places.

The first player he ever researched was Eddie Plank. “It struck me that he was only 50 years old when he died,’’ Russo said. “What the hell happened?’’

“He was fishing off of Fort Hamilton Labor Day Weekend in 1872 and he fell in the water and drowned. ’’

Plank, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946 by the Old Timers Committee, was the winningest left-hander in baseball until Warren Spahn passed him, then Steve Carlton. Plank died in 1926 soon after suffering a stroke.

Russo started collecting obituaries, not baseball cards. “I was a weird kid,’’ he said.

One of his favorite graves to visit is Babe Ruth’s at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY, Lot 1115 in the center of graves 3 and 4.

“You just never know what people are going to leave at that grave,’’ Russo said. “I’ve seen everything from panties to lipstick to beer, somebody left condoms. The Babe is in the same section that Billy Martin is in.’’

Each grave is different and has a story to tell.

Take the case of Dick Cotter, a Brooklynite who passed away in 1945. He was a WWI veteran, who had a brief major league career with the Phillies and Cubs. Russo lets us know that Cotter was financially well off and had a nearly 5,000 square foot home built in the Tudor-style designed by famous architect John J. Petit in 1904 in Flatbush, a home that still stands today. He suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 55.

Russo gives you the exact coordinates of Cotter’s final resting place in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn. The story does not end there. Russo tells us a tornado with wind speeds of 111-135 mph touched down in Brooklyn in August of 2007, doing tremendous damage to Cotter’s magnificent granite Celtic cross, lifting it from its three-tiered pedestal mount “as if being shot from a mortar, it landed several hundred feet away, breaking into three large sections,’’ Russo said.

Dick Cotter's stone was uprooted by a tornado and now sits in three pieces.

A photo in The Cooperstown Chronicles shows the damage. Attempts were made to contact the family by the cemetery, but those attempts were not successful. The pieces were placed back at the gravesite to which Russo notes, and yes, here is that sense of humor again, “Poor Dick Cotter will forever more, rest in pieces.’’

And so it goes.

One of Russo’s favorite players was Thurman Munson who died when the plane he was piloting crashed on August 2, 1979, one of the darkest days in Yankees history. “His name is revered,’’ Russo said. “I do believe he should be in the Hall of Fame. His death was very sad. Yankee players who played with him, I don’t think they are ever going to get over it.’’

He has yet to visit Munson’s grave. “I don’t know if I could handle it,’’ Russo said.

I have been there and it is a lovely spot at Sunset Hills Cemetery in Canton, Ohio, a memorial with a touching image of Munson in his Yankee uniform on the front with the words Captain of the New York Yankees. On the back of the stone is the No. 15. So many fans remember seeing the catcher from behind and that No. 15, his wife Diana told me when we visited the site in 1999.

Jackie Robinson's burial site.

Russo works in behavioral health as a certified peer support and recovery specialist and when friends and co-workers joke with him, he takes it all in stride. “When I tell them I’m going on a trip they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to find dead people.’’’

He is working on a third book on nice guys in baseball. They don’t always finish last.

Russo also tries to shine light on some of baseball’s controversies and points to Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox during the Black Sox scandal, who died in 1931 at the age of 72 and is buried at the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, IL.

“They still continue to promote this legend about him being a cheapskate,’’ Russo said. “He wasn’t a cheap owner. Many of his salaries were actually above the average. These guys went for the easy money. That’s all… Joe Jackson was a very nice guy and should be in the Hall of Fame.’’

Finding graves can be difficult. Such was the case of “Turkey’’ Mike Donlin, teammate of Giants legend Christy Mathewson. Donlin was an actor with 30 movie appearances to his credit, including Casey at the Bat (1927 version). Donlin died in 1933 at the age of 55 in Hollywood. Russo knew that his grave was located somewhere in Glenwood Cemetery in West Long Branch, NJ. Russo needed eight trips to the cemetery to find the grave. There was no on-site office and eventually he located the grave placed at a fork in the road near the cemetery’s entrance, right under his nose.

Ryan Freel’s story is one of the saddest stories. The former Red killed himself in 2012. Freel suffered at least 10 concussions during his playing career. After his death Freel’s family was contacted by the staff at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, who wanted to study his brain tissue. It was later discovered that Freel had suffered from Stage 2 CTE, a condition usually associated with football players. That diagnosis gave his family some closure as he was the first MLB player known to have CTE. Freel was buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in Jacksonville, FL. “That was such a sad story, nobody really addressed his problems,’’ Russo said.

Frank Russo at the final resting place of Billy Martin

Russo is quick to credit those who have helped him along this road, starting with his wife Joanne. “She believed in me from the start.

“The last seven to eight years I’ve been going on grave hunts with Dr. Fred Worth, he’s a mathematician. He is a professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas.

“He’s a fast walker, I’ve lost him a few times, the last time at Calvary Cemetery,’’ joked Russo. “Calvary is gigantic. It’s the biggest cemetery in North America, there’s like three million people buried there. I had to tell him a couple of times, Fred, you just can’t be taking off like that, leaving me here.’’

Together they found the gravesite of Eddie Bennett, who was the Yankees batboy and mascot from 1920-32. He was buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. Bennett was known to take the losses as hard or harder than the players, Russo noted.

Dr. Worth and Russo recently found a grave that Russo has been searching for many years, the grave of Al Thake, who died in 1872, at the age of 23. He played for Brooklyn Atlantics and is buried in Brooklyn at Green-Wood Cemetery.

He learned that Thake was buried in one part of the cemetery and then was moved later to a family plot. “This grave was one of my Holy Grails,’’ Russo said. “He was the first major league player to die from an accident. He was fishing off of Fort Hamilton Labor Day Weekend in 1872 and he fell in the water and drowned. He was born in England. I’ve been looking for his grave forever. When we found the grave Fred Worth said, ‘You sure you don’t want to kneel before this grave?’ I said, ‘No, it’s too cold.’’’

Russo at his Holy Grail - the gravesite of Al Thake.

Others have followed his lead.

“There are a few guys who are members of Baseball Player Passings on Facebook who are starting to go grave hunting,’’ Russo said. “I’ve been doing this over 20 years and I learned how to do mine from a gentleman named Russ Dodge.’’

Russo is a member of findagrave.com and that is how he met history buff Dodge.

“We did a whole bunch of Philadelphia graves,’’ he said.

When they would search in the heat of summer and find a grave they were looking for, “He had an interesting thing he would do,’’ Russo explained. “He would wipe the sweat off his brow and wipe it on the headstone, as a way of respect and saying, ‘I was here.’’’

There are the big names, the graves of Babe Ruth and other superstars, but there also are players you never heard of and tragedies. Such was the case of Marshall Renfroe. He pitched in only one major league game, September 27th, 1959 at the age of 23 with the Giants against the Cardinals. That was his only start and major league appearance. He did not figure in the decision. He surrendered a home run to Stan Musial.

After his baseball career ended, Renfroe became a welder and lived in Gulf Breeze, FL. In 1979 he was crossing the Pensacola Bay Bridge when he stopped to help someone whose vehicle had stalled. He was hit from behind, there was an explosion and Renfroe was terribly burned. He managed to hang on to life, was taken to the hospital and 17 days later died. He was only 34 years old. He was buried at Bayview Memorial Park in Pensacola.

Renfroe is listed in the chapter Unnatural Causes in The Cooperstown Chronicles.

With each story, Russo includes the exact location of each plot. Russo wants these players to be remembered. He wants to make baseball more than statistics.

“Sometimes I get exasperated by the way the game is played today,’’ Russo admitted. “It is important to hear stories about the players and their lives and their deaths, too. That’s part of the game, too. And when people go to their graves they want to just connect with the player. It’s something spiritual.’’

Such was the case after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. Ernie Banks had died a year earlier. The next day I visited Banks’ grave at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, a good walk from Wrigley Field. There were fans there, saying a little prayer or leaving baseball trinkets or copies of the Chicago papers, celebrating the win. One baseball at the grave was inscribed with the words: “The Cubs finally did it! Cubs win!’’

And again, this is not about stars.

Russo remembers visiting the grave of Danny O’Connell, a grinder of an infielder with the Milwaukee Braves and three other teams. He played 10 years in the majors. O’Connell grew up in Paterson, NJ and died at the age of 40. He had a heart attack while driving. He is buried at the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Montclair, NJ.

As he was walking away from the grave one day, O’Connell’s wife Veronica came up the path.

“She wanted to know what I was doing there – and I told her I’m not this strange, weird guy – so she started telling me all kinds of different things, about her husband, how she never wanted to re-marry because she had found the love of her life and she had four kids she had to take care of, it was just really emotional,’’ Russo recalled. “I told her I was very honored to meet her there.

“This is just about the ballplayers.’’

How they lived and died and their final resting place. Final Out.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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