Beyond the Ballpark

By Robert F. Darden

“If it wasn’t for baseball, I’d be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery.” — Babe Ruth

Dr. John A. Wood retired from the Department of Religion at Baylor University in 2004 after more than 20 years of teaching Christian ethics. Wood was a popular professor, known for his genial nature, off-beat stories and a passionate, lifelong love of baseball. How passionate? He has visited every Major League Baseball stadium. He has a man cave full of baseball memorabilia, including signed baseballs, posters, bats, pictures and books.

Although others have made the trek to all major league (and many minor league) ballparks, what separates Wood from the rest is a decades’ long quest to visit and photograph all of the graves of Hall of Famers and other baseball notables. And in visiting those gravesites he aims to learn something about the person — good, bad or otherwise.

The result of that quest is “Beyond the Ballpark: The Honorable, Immoral and Eccentric Lives of Baseball Legends,” to be released by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers in April 2016. It’s a fascinating book, one that reflects both Wood’s love of the national pastime and his insights into human nature, drawn from a life spent in the study of ethics, philosophy and the Christian faith.

Like most American kids in the 1940s and ‘50s, Wood was crazy about baseball from an early age. Wood is the son of equally passionate baseball fans (his father said that he learned to pitch from baseball great Willie Mays’ uncle). Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Wood’s favorite team was the Cleveland Indians.

“I latched on to Bob Lemon, who was my boyhood hero, a Hall of Fame pitcher with Cleveland,” Wood recalled. “And from 12 on or younger, I followed baseball regularly. It got in my blood.”

The idea to attend a game at every Major League Baseball stadium began informally in the 1970s, while on business and professional trips and even vacations. Wood once planned a honeymoon in Canada, ostensibly so he could visit the stadiums in Montreal and Toronto. From Wood’s first stadium in 1959 (the old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) to the last (Oakland, California’s Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in 2004), the quest took 45 years. Each ballpark in its own way, Wood said, taught him something.

“Since I’m a history buff,” Wood said, “just sitting in some of these old parks and remembering the players who performed there — especially in the old Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field — was special. I like the older stadiums the best because of the history involved. The newer ones, of course, are a lot more convenient and more fan-friendly. But to me, it was the old historical stadiums that I was most charmed by.”

The idea of visiting gravesites came later. According to Wood, it may have begun as an outgrowth of a trip to the United Kingdom with the Baylor in London program. Once there, he began making pilgrimages to gravesites of his favorite English authors, musicians, outlaws and political leaders. When Wood returned, he began doing the same thing in the United States, only he chose the graves of baseball players rather than of Lord Byron.

“When I’d go to a new city on business or on a vacation,” Wood said, “I’d ask, ‘Who is buried there?’”

What Wood found was an extraordinary variety and collection of grave markers, from elaborate, multifigure fantasies to simple, broken plaques. The markers themselves caused him to ponder — as ethicists and philosophers are sometimes wont to do — what it all meant.

“The kind of end-of-life issues slowly became an interest,” Wood said. “I’d wonder, ‘Why did this one die young? What happened to that one?’ How people live is important, but also important is how people die and what got them there. What defining moments and turning points shaped their psyche? Did they exit gracefully or not? From there, I’d try to track down a copy of their funeral service: Who showed up and what was said?”

After visiting each grave, Wood then researched the ballplayers’ lives, both on and off the diamond.

The resulting book, “Beyond the Ballpark,” contains a series of intriguing essays on fame, honor, self-absorption and everything in between. And sometimes, Wood said, all of that can be gleaned from the gravestone itself.

Fame, of course, is fleeting. The brilliant but erratic Rube Waddell died in near obscurity at his sister’s house in San Antonio. The monument at his gravesite was a much later addition. Former friends and ballplayers, including John McGraw, finally pitched in to erect it.

Conversely, African-American pitcher Satchel Paige has a massive monument that dominates the cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.

Some monuments do not even mention a Hall of Famer’s baseball career, Wood said, while other stones include the player’s pertinent baseball statistics — home runs, runs batted in and batting average. Few of the markers, save those from former New York Yankees or St. Louis Cardinals players, indicate which teams the ballplayers played for.

One of the most moving gravestones was a massive marker erected in honor of the legendary Babe Ruth. According to Wood, it’s clearly a monument to Ruth’s larger-than-life persona. Ruth was abandoned by his parents at an early age and became the sport’s supreme home run slugger. He was equally well-known for his riotous lifestyle, generosity and love of children. The marker in Mount Pleasant, New York, features a life-size carving of Jesus looking down and smiling at a small child.

“Ruth was sent to a school in Baltimore, [Maryland,] when he was 5 or 6 years old,” Wood said. “His parents never visited him, and he was raised in that home. He never really grew up. He kept trying to stay a 15-year-old kid his whole life.”

Nearer to Waco, another Hall of Famer, Tris Speaker, is buried in the small town of Hubbard. So many baseball fans have made the pilgrimage that Hubbard officials placed a flagpole at Speaker’s grave to make it easier to find.

Wood said another legend, Rogers Hornsby, is buried in the family plot at Hornsby Bend Cemetery, near Austin.

Closest of all is one of the heroes of the old Negro Leagues, Andy Cooper, who is buried with a plain marker in Waco’s Greenwood Cemetery, not far from Jules Bledsoe’s marker.

Once he finds a long-lost gravestone — not always an easy task — Wood said he always pauses.

“I sit and reflect about their lives,” he said. “There’s a quote in the book from poet Martín Espada about visiting the gravesite of Frederick Douglass. Espada writes that he was ‘soaking up the ghosts through the soles of my feet.’”

Wood added, “I also think about who all stood around while these players were being buried. Some famous ballplayers attended these funerals. One of the sadder ones for me was Ty Cobb because his family didn’t want anybody coming to the funeral. The family told them not to come. Instead the family had a really quick funeral for Cobb at the private mausoleum that Cobb had built for his mother and father. I think about the sadness of the way his life ended, with the bitterness that was there.”

Cobb, one of the greatest baseball players in history, was also one of the most reviled and hated.

“He is a psychological gold mine,” Wood said. “Why he turned out like he did — the whole nature-nurture thing — he’s just fascinating.”

In his travels, Wood said he rarely saw fellow seekers of baseball legends, but he would know that they had been there by what they left behind.

“A lot of people would leave old baseballs, caps, bats and even gloves. You’ll find any number of things,” he said, “The only player ever to die as a result of a beaning in a ballgame, Ray Chapman, is buried in Cleveland, [Ohio]. Though he died nearly a hundred years ago, there are people still going to his gravesite and leaving things.”

Wood said he usually leaves a few pennies at each player’s grave.

Visitors leave an array of poignant objects, including cleats and shoes, at the grave of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was tarred by the Black Sox Scandal and subsequently denied admission to the Hall of Fame.

In “Beyond the Ballpark,” Wood has divided his essays into four sections: “The Good Guys,” “The Mixed Bag,” “The Eccentrics” and “The Sad Cases.” He said he spent the most time at the markers of the ballplayers in “The Sad Cases.”

“It’s the sense of empathy with somebody,” Wood said. “Maybe I knew that they’d had a hard life or that things didn’t work out. Some have tragic stories, young men who died young, or maybe they never got their lives together after baseball. Sometimes I would feel a real sadness for them, of what could have been.”

For others, sometimes the recognition is decades in the making. Wood cited the gravesite of Negro Leagues masher Josh Gibson, known as the “black Babe Ruth.” Gibson’s plot in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, went for years without a marker until a group of fans and players (including the infamous Barry Bonds) pitched in for an appropriate gravestone.

In recent years baseball enthusiasts have marked most Hall of Fame gravesites with GPS coordinates, but for many years Wood spent hours driving down back roads and stumbling around overgrown cemeteries looking for a specific grave. Curiously, the most difficult to find, he said, was the gravestone of Baylor University’s lone Hall of Famer, pitcher Ted Lyons.

“He’s in Big Woods, Louisiana, which is really [near] Vinton,” Wood said. “It’s in the Big Thicket and is a monster of a cemetery. There was no office, and I looked and looked. It was getting late, and I was on my way to Florida for spring training, so I had to leave. It was getting dark, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to find him. Finally, I said, ‘I’m going to do one more loop on the little dirt road I walked through earlier,’ and I finally saw Lyons’ gravestone.”

Ultimately, Wood said his quest was a search for the “essence of their characters” for the baseball stars he had grown up idolizing.
“I wanted to get their personality as best I could,” he said. “With some of the older players, they only wrote about what they did on the diamond. They didn’t bother with everything else, so we don’t know much about them, save for Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. But I was trying to figure what is the core of it and, if they had difficult lives, what were some of the ways their twig was bent? What events in life made them the way they were?”

For Wood, who dedicated the book to well-known Baylor administrator and rabid baseball fan Tom Parrish, the future may or may not include another baseball book. He said his publisher is equally interested in a similar book about a pilgrimage to the graves of famous entertainers, including movie stars. It was at the gravesite of Marilyn Monroe that Wood said he had an epiphany of sorts.

“People still visit her grave a great deal. The monument is covered with lipstick kisses. But even her grave has a connection to baseball,” Wood said. “One of her husbands, Joe DiMaggio, had flowers sent there for years after she died. So much has been written about her. She’s one of the saddest individuals I have ever studied. Joe was so wrapped up in himself; he probably loved her about as much as he was capable of loving anybody. He really was in love with himself, mostly, but he was the only steady man in her life out of all of the people who abused her and used her. Joe himself is a disappointing story. Toward the end of his life he was just so self-absorbed and rude and mean to people. He was an icon, and yet his last 20 or so years of his life were pretty sad.”

DiMaggio is buried outside of San Francisco, California, in an impressive black granite mausoleum with the words, “Dignity, grace and elegance personified” inscribed in the stone.

“But when I saw it,” Wood said, “all I could think of is that it perpetuates the myth of somebody who was a great ballplayer and could do everything well, but he treated people terribly.”

Like every good quest, Wood’s baseball journey was a voyage of self-discovery as well.

“I like to write,” Wood said. “I thought, ‘What better thing to do than to combine my professional interest in ethics with my love for baseball?’ I’m intrigued by human nature. I read a lot of biographies — not just of ballplayers, but all kinds — because I’m intrigued by how we turn out like we do.”

He added, “I guess what I’m saying is, ‘How would I have been? How would I have reacted to the kinds of things that happened to Ty Cobb or if I’d been in an orphanage like Babe Ruth?’ So much of this is genetically and environmentally determined, so what I wanted to know was how much freedom do we have in the light of our genes and our history? I don’t know that I’m going to come up with a definitive answer — philosophers haven’t been able to do it — but I’m intrigued by it. The mystery of human nature, to me, is a greater mystery than the mystery of God. I’m just amazed at how human beings turn out like we do.”

Which may explain why so many philosophers and novelists are baseball fans. Perhaps it is because, as someone has observed, baseball alone of the major sports does not take place in an enclosed space. In baseball, the foul lines extend to … well … eternity.