By Thom Loverro
"Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing."
-- Luke 11:44
John DiSanto grew up a fight fan in Philly, which was the birthright of sports fans growing up in one of the greatest fight towns in America. In 2006, the South Jersey marketing and financial consultant began researching the history of Philadelphia boxing, and in the library, came across the story of Tyrone Everett.
Everett was a Philadelphia boxing legend, a featherweight contender who was robbed at his chance for a world title in a 1976 bout at The Spectrum, dominating champion Alfredo Escalera. "Tyrone was standing tall, proud, bleeding in his corner after the 15 rounds, waiting for the championship to be draped around his waist, when they snatched it from him," Philadelphia Daily News writer Tom Cushman wrote. "Picked him so clean it's a wonder they didn't take his shoes and trunks along with everything else."
Six months later, Tyrone Everett was dead.
"He was very popular, and the lines went around the block for people who wanted to pay their respects," DiSanto, 52, said. "His death was an emotional story, and I was struck by it. So I wanted to pay my respects."
DiSanto found the cemetery where Everett was buried. "But I couldn't find his grave," he said. "I couldn't find it. Then I saw there was no stone or marker where he was buried, just grass. I was struck by his story and had been doing a website devoted to Philadelphia boxing history for about a year. I thought this would just be an extension of what I was doing -- honoring these guys with something worth caring about."
So out of his own pocket, DiSanto paid for a gravestone for Everett.
There would be other Philly fighting legends buried in anonymity. DiSanto found his calling devoting himself to the memory of these old fighters by raising money to let the world know that here lies a man who put it all on the line in the ring. He didn't want people walking over the graves without knowing who laid there.
He is not alone.
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There is a group of men -- the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project -- who, like DiSanto, have devoted their lives to giving former Negro League players a place marked on this earth.
"These men played in anonymity," said Jeremy Krock, 56, a children's anesthesiologist from Peoria, Ill., who is part of the grave marker project. "They shouldn't have to spend eternity in anonymity."
Grave markers touch a deep chord in society. They are seen as a way to preserve someone's memory and also serve as a way for loved ones to cope with loss, a last remaining physical connection. They also serve a purpose for historians to document the final resting place of those who have made their mark while alive -- a ballplayer, a boxer.
To find someone who people may have cheered for now without a grave marker often elicits an emotional response. In 2007, the Florida Times-Union reported Dallas Cowboys great Bob Hayes was buried in a grave in his hometown of Jacksonville without a marker. The story resulted in an outcry from Cowboys fans and former players who offered donations for a grave marker for Hayes, and soon his final resting place was marked.
In England recently, it was learned a noted soccer player -- Tinsley Lindley -- who played for Nottingham Forest in the 1880s, had no grave marker. A group of donors stepped forward with the money for a marker, and in April they had a public ceremony to honor Lindley and officially lay the grave marker nearly 140 years after he had played.
It was an emotional hometown connection that led Krock to his calling of marking the graves of former Negro League players.
Krock's family was from Ardmore, Missouri, a mining town and the home of a Negro League great named Jimmie Crutchfield, an outfielder who had played for the Birmingham Black Barons, Indianapolis ABC's, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Chicago American Giants from 1930 to 1941. He served in the military from 1943 to 1944. He later worked for the United States Post Office until his death in Chicago in 1993. He was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, in an unmarked grave.
"Jimmy Crutchfield was born and raised in Ardmore and my parents grew up there," Krock said. "Crutchfield's father coached the miner's team there, an integrated team, and there was a lot of interest in the team there. I heard the stories about Crutchfield when I was growing up. He was a source of pride of the community."
Krock learned more about Crutchfield, including where he was buried. He was saddened when he got to the cemetery. "Here was the favorite son of Ardmore, Missouri, buried in an unmarked grave," Krock said. "Everybody loved Jimmie."
So he contacted the Negro Leagues committee of the Society for American Baseball Research and told them he wanted to do have a marker for Jimmie Crutchfield. "A newspaper came out, and the contributions started coming in, and they were overwhelming."
It grew from there to an effort by the committee to research and find unmarked graves -- and raise money to honor the players with markers. "I got involved to honor Jimmie Crutchfield, who I felt a family connection with, being from Ardmore," Krock said. "When I realized how many were buried in unmarked graves, it became more of a need -- to preserve the history of the Negro Leagues, and in a way, bring it to life."
Since then, Krock and his fellow committee members have laid 30 grave markers, the most recent taking place in a ceremony on May 10 in Staten Island for Sol White, a former Negro League ballplayer, manager and executive and who pioneered African-American baseball at the turn of the 20th century. He also penned the first definitive history of black baseball in 1907.
He had laid in an unmarked grave since his death in 1955 at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park until the May 10 ceremony. "There were people trying to get it done for many years, but it had been rejected because it was a city grave," Krock said. "But then, after a more formal presentation about the significance of his career, and with the cemetery being in a state of receivership, it allowed more flexibility to get it done."
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DiSanto has no committee. He is a one-man operation who dedicated himself to marking the graves of Philadelphia fighters, and not long ago laid a marker for his fourth fighter: Eddie Cool, a former lightweight contender from the 1930s. "That was tricky," DiSanto said. "When he died, it was from alcoholism, and even now there are infamous stories about him. He was not very popular in the family because of the life he led. I found the right people to get it done, but even then there was a lack of interest from family members coming to the ceremony. That's a tremendous contrast to what has happened before. Sometimes I have become extended family to some of these families of these fighters. It's been a bonus I didn't expect."
He is working on his fifth grave marker -- Percy Manning, a welterweight from the 1960s. "It's just a token of respect for what it takes to be a fighter," DiSanto said. "They were in the public eye, and it just reminds people of that fighter again."
People will no longer walk over those graves without knowing.
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Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C, based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.