Dead Man's Curve Ball

Local author Stew Thornley has a fatal attraction for baseball

"I was crazy about baseball right from the start," Thornley remembers. "I read everything I could get my hands on, anything to do with baseball history, and I think I drove my teachers crazy. I'm sure they thought that I would outgrow my interest in it, but I kept discovering that there were all these outlets to keep the interest alive. I became a writer not because I had this great desire to write, but because I had this tremendous interest in the subject."

As a kid he hung out at the university's baseball fields; in 1968 and 1969 he was the batboy for the Dick Siebert-coached Gopher teams that won back-to-back Big Ten championships. Throughout much of his childhood, he maintained a correspondence with Twins broadcaster Halsey Hall, whose biography he would later write. After high school he attended broadcasting school at Brown Institute, worked for a time in radio, went back to college, and got a job in business, but it wasn't until he discovered the Society for American Baseball Research in 1979 that he discovered a true outlet for his continuing interest in baseball. He began researching and writing On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers in 1980, and worked at it off and on for the next seven years. Local publisher Nodin Press released the book in 1988, and Thornley has been a busy writer ever since. These days he also has a job with the state of Minnesota, doing public-affairs work in the public drinking-water program, but he still finds plenty of time for his hobby.

Thornley's graveyard odyssey began, properly enough, with a visit to the grave of Alexander Cartwright in Oahu Cemetery in Hawaii, in 1995. (All Abner Doubleday malarkey aside, Cartwright was one of the true fathers of baseball, the man who helped draw up the original rules, organized the first games in New York in the 1840s--in the Elysian Fields, no less--and later introduced the sport to Hawaii.) Later that same year, Thornley followed up his visit to Cartwright's modest grave--which bears no mention of his baseball achievements--with a trip to Babe Ruth's resting place in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

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

He keeps a meticulous catalog of the graves he has visited, complete with addresses and phone numbers, cemetery plots, directions, and occasional entertaining asides. His entry for the Gate of Heaven is typical: "Babe Ruth, drunk and Hall of Famer, and Billy Martin, drunk, both in section 245." Gate of Heaven, incidentally, is part of a peculiar baseball necro-nexus: Just across the road is the Kensico Cemetery, where, amid the sprawling democracy of the dead that is any great cemetery, lie three Hall of Famers (including Lou Gehrig), as well as luminaries such as Danny Kaye, Ayn Rand, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. "Here's Rachmaninoff, decomposing in Kensico," Thornley quips, pointing out a photo of the composer's grave.

A lot of legwork goes into a typical Thornley graveyard junket, and he usually tries to organize his trip so he can take in major league games while he's on the road. The FindaGrave Web site (www.findagrave.com), to which he is a frequent contributor, is an essential resource tool. "Efficiency becomes very important," the collector notes. "I try to coordinate things so I can see as many graves as possible in a relatively short time. Once I find out where someone's buried, I'll try to send away for cemetery maps and directions. And by the time I hit the road, I'll have done all my preparation and I'll be ready to knock off a lot of them in one stretch."

On a recent trip to Florida, Thornley managed to cover both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, crisscrossing the state several times in three days and logging 11 new Hall of Famer gravesites in the process. In Jacksonville's Evergreen Cemetery, the employee he stopped to ask for directions to Bill Terry's plot boasted, "I put him in there." In between his graveyard explorations, Thornley found the time to take in games in Tampa Bay and Miami, and also paid a visit to the Ted Williams Museum in Hernando.

Thornley will be the first to admit that he has sometimes allowed himself to get carried away. He has added the gravesites of dead presidents, celebrities, oddballs, and even racehorses (Man o' War, in Lexington, Kentucky) to recent itineraries. Among his photos are snapshots of the graves of Colonel Sanders, Hank Williams, Wyatt Earp, Duke Ellington, Edgar Allan Poe, and J. Edgar Hoover (at whose marker someone had left a pink bra and panties). He recently found himself making a 20-minute detour out of Baltimore to visit the grave of Spiro Agnew. Handing over the photo, Thornley shrugs. "I had to make sure he was dead, I guess."

Occasionally, however, he does draw the line. He recently passed up the opportunity to visit Lobster Boy's grave in Florida. Still, one senses a touch of regret in his voice when he says, "I missed Mr. Ed somewhere out in Oklahoma one time, but he was just too damn far off the interstate."

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