Dead Man's Curve Ball

Local author Stew Thornley has a fatal attraction for baseball

The fireplace mantel in Stew Thornley's Roseville home bears a tiny engraved metal band that reads "Mickey." The framed print of Yankee Stadium above the fireplace should be a dead giveaway, but it takes a moment for the joke to register: Mickey Mantle.

It's a nice touch, and there are plenty of other small acknowledgments of the homeowner's lifelong obsession with the game of baseball, but the place is hardly the museum one might expect, given Thornley's status as perhaps the most recognizable and respected local baseball historian and writer. There are copies of his various books on regional sports history, as well as the dozen-plus titles he has written for young readers. Still, it's clear Thornley isn't a real collector--at least not in any ordinary sense of the word. His is a tidy, streamlined obsession. The real booty from his years of rummaging in baseball's attic arcana is stashed away in the file folders in his impossibly neat basement office.

Tomb time: Stew Thornley in familiar territory
David Kern
Tomb time: Stew Thornley in familiar territory

Baseball offers its hard-core fans plenty of nooks and crannies in which to explore their obsessions, from its innumerable historical and statistical angles to the cards, autographs, and myriad other physical artifacts it generates. Thornley certainly possesses a historian's passion for the game's minutiae (in a typical digression he might recall how former manager and player Cookie Lavagetto broke up Bill Bevens's no-hit bid with a two-out, ninth-inning double in the fifth game of the 1947 World Series, eight years before he was born) and a few odd bits of memorabilia (most notably a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle). But the actual tangible aspect of his collection is negligible. Rather, it's the product of the considerable time, money, and energy he has expended over the past five years tracking down baseball immortals where they're at their most accessible. Captive, even. Well--dead.

You see, Thornley is a collector of baseball graves. The 43-year-old author has visited and photographed the final resting places of 69 baseball Hall of Famers, not to mention those of numerous lesser lights. His pursuit of the humblest and most humbling of face time with his heroes has taken him to cemeteries all over the nation, often in search of a quarry unknown to the custodians thereof. He has paid his respects to Charles Albert "Chief" Bender in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, to Mickey Welch and Willie Keeler in Queens, New York, to Eppa Rixey in Milford, Ohio, to Negro League pioneer Rube Foster in Blue Island, Illinois. He has rambled in the New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore, the necropolis most dense with dead Hall of Famers (Joe Kelley, John McGraw, Ned Hanlon, and Wilbert Robinson are all buried there). Thornley has trekked to the gravesite of Mordecai Centennial Peter "Three Finger" Brown, whose name has been understandably abridged on his tombstone in Roselawn Memorial Park in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has left a pair of sneakers at Shoeless Joe Jackson's grave in Greenville, South Carolina. In Bradenton, Florida, Thornley, ever the observant baseball fan, noted the lovely symmetry existent between the graves of Bill McKechnie and Paul Waner; there, in the Manasota Memorial Cemetery, the two men are buried roughly 90 feet apart--the distance between the bases on a baseball diamond. And in Meeker, Oklahoma, Thornley gazed upon the words chiseled beneath Carl Hubbell's name and the usual arithmetic of mortality, words that must be inexplicable to anyone unfamiliar with the legacy of the man who reposes there: "The Meal Ticket."

A genial, understated character with the slightly rumpled look of a college professor who plays a lot of pickup basketball, Thornley offers few outward clues that might explain what some might consider a morbid fascination with graveyards. His wife Brenda Himrich, a safety manager with Metro Transit, shares some of her husband's passion for baseball and occasionally accompanies him on his excursions, but as for his grave obsession, she merely smiles and shrugs. "I find it amusing," she allows. For his part Thornley will acknowledge that the hobby is a curious one; he seems content to leave it at that. "I've always liked to travel," he ventures. "I've been to all 50 states, and this is something that gives journeys a little destination or purpose. Hunting down these graves involves a lot of exploration. It can become almost a detective game, and it frequently takes you into out-of-the-way places and neighborhoods in a city where you wouldn't otherwise go. Cemeteries are often old, and in rundown parts of town--cities usually have grown up around these graveyards. And in the middle of these teeming urban areas, you'll find these very peaceful places, oases of serenity and green space." The bottom line seems to be that Thornley's hobby offers as good an excuse as any for a road trip. Something to do between baseball games.

Though it's clear that the passion has snowballed in recent years, it had relatively innocuous roots: On a family vacation in 1966, Thornley's father took a detour off a Michigan highway to visit the grave of legendary Notre Dame football coach George Gipp in Calumet. The snapshot they took there now occupies the leadoff spot in his graveyard scrapbook slide show. Growing up in Minneapolis in the late Fifties, Thornley lead a life steeped in sports. His father was a former Stalag 17 prisoner who was an ardent baseball fan and a supervisor in the downtown post office, and his mother's faculty position at the University of Minnesota allowed her son access to all of the UM sports events.

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