September 25, 2004

A fan's tribute to legends of Negro Leagues

By Richard Wronski
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published September 25, 2004

Jimmie Crutchfield was a mighty mite of a player who could hit, field, throw and steal bases with the best in baseball. John Donaldson was a pitcher coveted by legendary manager John McGraw. "Candy Jim" Taylor spent 45 years as a player and manager.

But they played in the wrong league at the wrong time. If they had been white, the three Negro Leagues standouts from the early 1900s through the 1940s would be as widely known as the Major League players of the era, and perhaps even be candidates for the Hall of Fame. Instead, they were buried without even markers on their graves.

That will change Sunday, thanks to a Peoria-area doctor who as a youngster was enthralled by relatives' tales about Crutchfield, the best baseball player Ardmore, Mo., ever produced.

Crutchfield and Donaldson, who spent their post-baseball lives in Chicago, and Taylor will be honored at a noon memorial service in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip. Their new resting places will have headstones recognizing their careers, similar to the plaques of major leaguers enshrined in Cooperstown.

Of the 20 former Negro Leaguers buried at Burr Oak, one of two Chicago-area cemeteries where African-Americans were interred at the time, eight others are in unmarked graves. Soon, they, too, will get markers.

Dozens of fans are expected to recognize the accomplishments of the great Negro Leagues players, who played in segregation before Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues' color barrier in 1947. Featured speakers will be Dennis Biddle, who played from 1953 to 1954 with the Chicago American Giants, and Johnny Washington, who played with the Giants and the Houston Eagles from 1948 to 1951.

Among the fans will be Dr. Jeremy Krock, an anesthesiologist from Peoria who was stunned last year when he discovered that Crutchfield had been buried in an unmarked grave after his death in 1992 at age 83.

Crutchfield was the pride of Ardmore, a coal-mining town where Krock's grandparents had lived. As a youth, Krock heard many tales of the ballplayer, who spent 16 years with Negro Leagues teams.

On a trip to Chicago to see the "Baseball in America" exhibition at the Field Museum, Krock picked up a book on black baseball players in Chicago and noted that Crutchfield was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery.

"I went to see where the most famous person from Ardmore was buried and found out it was an unmarked grave," Krock said.

It was not an uncommon fate for many former Negro Leagues players, said Larry Lester, co-author of the book "Black Baseball in Chicago" and co-chairman of the Negro League Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.

While Major League Baseball's pension plan can be quite lucrative for former players, former Negro Leagues players were not so fortunate.

"Despite being great ballplayers, many men died destitute because they had no pension to rely on," Lester said. "There was no money coming in after their productive years."

And they didn't make much in their playing days either. In 1931, Crutchfield signed with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, then a powerhouse team, for $150 a month.

With the help of the baseball research society, Krock initiated a fundraising campaign to mark Crutchfield's grave and note his career accomplishments.

Contributions came from former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, former Cubs manager Don Zimmer, the Chicago White Sox and "many $25 and $50 checks," Krock said, totaling $3,500. That was enough for Crutchfield's, Donaldson's and Taylor's graves.

"Mr. Crutchfield's headstone was the easiest thing to do," Krock said. "Everyone loved the guy. The outpouring of support was so great."

Only 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Crutchfield began his career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1930 and hit a career-high .330 the next season while playing for Indianapolis.

He was acquired by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, joining a roster that included Satchel Paige and Ted "Double-Duty" Radcliffe. The Crawfords won the first recognized Negro Leagues World Series in 1932.

Crutchfield later played for the Cleveland Buckeyes and the Chicago American Giants.

According to James A. Riley's Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, "no outfielder had better hands or better eyes in judging a ball" than Crutchfield, who sometimes would turn a routine outfield play into something else with a behind-the-back catch.

After retiring from baseball in 1946, Crutchfield worked for 25 years for the U.S. Postal Service in Chicago.

Donaldson was one of the game's great left-handed pitchers and threw three consecutive no-hitters in 1913.

McGraw, the famed New York Giants manager from 1902-1932, said Donaldson could have commanded $50,000 per season, instead of a fraction of that, "had he been white," according to Riley's encyclopedia.

Donaldson, who also worked for the Postal Service and was a scout for the White Sox, died in 1970 in Chicago.

Taylor was a fine infielder, but was known more for his success as a manager. Taylor was with 16 different teams over a 45-year career that spanned virtually the entire black baseball era, Riley said. He died in 1948.

Carolyn Towns, director of operations for Burr Oak, said about 100 people are expected at Sunday's ceremony in the cemetery where singer Dinah Washington and teen murder victim EmmettTill are buried.

It's hoped that sufficient funds will have been raised by the end of October to install markers on the graves of the other eight Negro Leaguers, Towns said.

The situation at Burr Oak is not unusual, Lester said. Throughout the country, many once-great black players are interred in graves with no headstones marking their accomplishments.

He cited Hall of Famer Willie Foster, star of the Chicago American Giants during the 1920s, who is considered by some to be the greatest left-handed pitcher in the history of black baseball. Foster is buried unheralded in Lorman, Miss.

"There are so many that need a decent headstone," Lester said. "People like Jeremy Krock are doing a lot to correct that, and we support his efforts."
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune