October 26, 2021

The Dead Baseball Boys of Brooklyn, Part 1



Visiting the early baseball pioneers of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

I live in a third-floor apartment of a small building in the southern part of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and one of the reasons I like this particular apartment (of the seven I’ve lived in) is that if you look out any of the front windows, you’re greeted with a wonderful view of Green-Wood Cemetery. Well, what you’re first greeted with is the Con-Edison power substation directly across the street, looking like some sort of open-air Frankenstein laboratory. But, if you can ignore that and shift your gaze slightly upward to the block just beyond it, yes, sure, there it is: a wonderful view of the cemetery’s main entrance and the hills beyond it.

The entrance of Green-Wood, from afar

A view of Green-Wood Cemetery, obstructed by some electrical equipment
The actual viewI really enjoy living so close to Green-Wood. For one, most of your neighbors being dead means they tend to keep pretty quiet and there are very rarely any disturbances (those are usually on account of the living). But it’s also quite nice to be in the proximity of such elevated gentry and high-profile citizenry of yore. A lot of very cool (and uncool!) historical figures are found in Green-Wood. Basquiat! “Boss” Tweed! This charming bear! Hello, neigh-bear!

The gravesite for William Holbrook Beard, adorned by a bronze bear sculpture
A little on-the-nose, if you ask meI once went on a Halloween-night tour of the cemetery, which was a delight, but if you ever decide to go, I unfortunately have to recommend that you do not ask the tour guide if they’ve “encountered any spooks or ghouls lately.” Apparently, they do not like that. Even on Halloween! Anyway, this tragically humorless guide also introduced me to the fact that my backyard Famous Cemetery also had a lot of notable burial sites or memorials for important figures in baseball history, a group I’ve come to affectionately call The Dead Baseball Boys of Brooklyn.

The histories of New York, the Green-Wood Cemetery, and baseball are all deeply intertwined. As the city continued its explosive growth in 1800’s, baseball matured from a cornfield game into a legitimate sport. New York City served as an epicenter for innovation in the game, and the stars who made history would often end up interred at Green-Wood, where many famous New Yorkers of the late 19th century found themselves post-mortem.

I’ve made a habit of taking regular walks through Green-Wood during the pandemic. There’s something calming about escaping the threat of death by fleeing to a place where death is kind of a moot concept. And the locals there have been good neighbors. Green-Wood counts well over 200 early baseball pioneers as permanent residents, so I felt it appropriate to spend some time visiting the resting places of those folks during my jaunts and give them a proper hello.

I decided to begin with Henry Chadwick. Here’s how much baseball history is in Green-Wood — the cemetery has not one but several men who are credited as the “Father of Base Ball”. Chadwick is one of them, and he has as clear a right to that title as anybody. You might know him — he’s responsible for most of the modern rules of the game, the lingo, the concept of box scores, .etc.. As a newspaperman, he was also one of the sport’s earliest chroniclers, the prototypical baseball writer.

The Boston Globe sports section, just days after Chadwick’s death, proclaimed the need for an eternal memorial of the man:

“…Henry Chadwick was the American game’s most devoted champion. He well deserves a monument to his memory by the professional players of this country — a monument that will symbolize the rise of a simple recreation to the highest class of outdoor sports, by the pen of a man who could paint the ideal, and then struggle on to see his dream realized.”

And indeed, the baseball community stepped up. A committee chaired by Brooklyn baseball legend and eventual fellow Green-Wood resident Charles Ebbets raised money and installed this tribute to one of the early giants of the game.

The memorial of Henry Chadwick, topped by a granite baseball and surrounded by real baseballs on the ground
Green-Wood was one of the area’s first “rural parks”, a prototype of the design that would eventually inspire the plans for Prospect Park. Given its size, I thought I’d be trekking deep into the cemetery to find Chadwick’s monument, but on a closer look, it ended up being located on the western edge of the grounds, just two blocks and a fence away from my own apartment.

The monument sticks out from the more classical ones surrounding it, which came as a shock to me given how many times I’ve passed by it without noticing. I’m roughly 6’6”, so my best guess is that the full structure stands to be about 7 feet tall, and topped with a giant granite orb. The orb is a Victorian symbol for eternity that shows up on quite a few graves at the cemetery, though I’d bet few of them have the baseball stitching carved into them like Chadwick’s does.

A close-up of the granite baseball topper
The four sides of the monument have plaques of various baseball symbology, and the plot itself is marked on the corners by three bases and a home plate made of granite (which is currently buried in a few inches of snow).

At its base, fans of the game leave balls of great sentimental value to honor Chadwick. Or, maybe they’re just foul balls caught at minor league games that the recipients realized they just didn’t want anymore. Here, it’s your stupid game, YOU take this. I don’t want this!

Baseballs left at the monument
Chadwick so loved the game that on opening day in 1908, he attended the first game at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan despite having a fever (remember, if you’re sick, stay home!). He came down with pneumonia and succumbed a few days later, but not before this rather tragic tidbit as outlined on Green-Wood’s history blog by the cemetery’s historian, Jeffrey Richman:

“…on April 20, 1908, Chadwick lay unconscious in his bed. When he regained consciousness, he asked which team had won the game that day between his beloved Brooklyn team and the New York Giants. Told that the Giants had won, Chadwick expressed his regrets and lapsed into an unconsciousness from which he never emerged.”

If the guy who practically invented baseball is lying on his deathbed and asking if his favorite team won their game that day … you say yes.

I look forward to visiting more of the Dead Baseball Boys in the coming weeks. If you live nearby and decide to join me, take along a copy of Peter Nash’s “Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery” and read Mr. Richman’s history blog, both of which have been indispensable resources for me. I’ll be checking in with more neighbors as the snow melts and opening day approaches (but I promise if I have a fever, I’ll stay home).

By: Ryan Simmons
Title: The Dead Baseball Boys of Brooklyn, Part 1
Sourced From: www.sbnation.com/secret-base/22289570/green-wood-cemetery-baseball-henry-chadwick
Published Date: Thu, 18 Feb 2021 18:00:00 +0000

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