Armed with a yellow bucket filled with cleaning supplies, Jeremy Krock made his way toward the grave of John Donaldson, who was interred at Burr Oak Cemetery more than 40 years ago.
Krock, 53, an anesthesiologist from Peoria, spruces up Donaldson's grave and many others at Burr Oak a few times every year. But on this pleasant July morning, Krock was taken aback by a problem with Donaldson's engraved picture on his headstone.
"That's not good," Krock said. "Looks like a motor blade took off the tip of John's nose."
After jotting down a note about the problem, Krock cleaned the headstones of others buried at the cemetery near Alsip, such as "Candy Jim" Taylor and Jimmie Crutchfield.
Krock never had the chance to meet these men, who had one thing in common — they were great baseball players in the Negro Leagues, where African-Americans were relegated before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947.
Though these men have few, if any, known survivors, their legacy is remembered by Krock, who has been instrumental in providing headstones for Negro Leagues luminaries buried in unmarked plots.
Eight years after Krock launched the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, headstones have been added for 22 players. Fourteen are in the Chicago area, including 12 at Burr Oak.
It hasn't been the easiest project. Krock, puts thousands of miles on his pickup truck each year, and he spends late nights on the phone with colleagues and cemetery officials, tracking down unmarked graves and planning headstone installations.
He's also had to deal with controversy at the cemetery where much of his work was done: Burr Oak was at the center of a grave-reselling scandal in 2009.
"Running a small charitable organization like this has taken more time than I ever could have imagined," Krock said, but the 10 to 20 hours a week he spends on the project have been rewarding.
"I think part of it is just to honor these men," Krock said. "My colleague (Negro Leagues historian) Larry Lester uses the phrase 'recognition, redemption and respect' with regards to these players."
"Jeremy's sincere about recognizing these legends," said Lester, co-chairman of the Negro Leagues Research Committee, a division of the Society for American Baseball Research, which helps raise funds for the grave markers.
Krock became involved because of his interest in Jimmie Crutchfield, a speedy 5-foot-7-inch outfielder who played for a variety of teams from 1930 to 1945. After his career ended with the Chicago American Giants, Crutchfield stayed here and worked for the post office.
"Crutchfield was born in my grandparents' hometown of Ardmore, Mo.," Krock said. "My grandparents were about 10 years younger than Crutchfield, but they knew of him, and everyone in Ardmore knew of him, I think, because he was a source of pride for the community and he was the most famous person to come out of Ardmore."
Krock learned that Crutchfield was buried at Burr Oak. "But when I came out to visit the most famous man in Ardmore, Mo., I found him in an unmarked grave," Krock said. "I thought it was sad and I thought it was an injustice that could be corrected."
After learning that Crutchfield didn't have surviving family members, he contacted Lester and Dick Clark, who published a story in the Negro Leagues Research Committee newsletter about Krock's efforts to raise money for a headstone. Krock also reached out to Fay Vincent, then the Major League Baseball commissioner; former player/broadcaster Joe Garagiola; former Cubs manager Don Zimmer; and others for donations.
Krock raised the $1,000 needed, and then he and the Negro Leagues Research Committee became intrigued about other unmarked graves. With the help of Burr Oak's staff, they located the unmarked graves of Taylor, who was a player or manager for five decades, and Donaldson, a brilliant left-handed pitcher.
Donaldson later became one of the first black scouts in the majors, working with the White Sox from 1948 to 1954, where he signed some of the team's first black players, including Connie Johnson and Sam Hairston, the father of longtime Sox outfielder Jerry Hairston and grandfather of current Washington Nationals utility player Jerry Hairston Jr.
A variety of donors paid for Taylor's headstone. White Sox majority owner Jerry Reinsdorf provided much of the funding for Donaldson's. After those successes, Krock officially joined forces with the Negro Leagues Research Committee to create the project.
In most cases, Krock has found that there aren't surviving family members for the players. But that's not always the case.
William "Bobby" Robinson, who played from 1925 to 1942, died in 2002 and was buried at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip without a headstone because his family couldn't afford one.
"We had planned on a headstone, but real life kicks in," said his daughter, Patricia Hawkins, of Chicago, who with her husband supports five teenage foster children.
"Dr. Krock contacted us and asked if this is something that my family would like to do," she said. "Once we approved it, they started with the fundraising. But they involved us in the entire project."
Robinson's headstone was installed at Restvale last year. "It's such a tribute," Hawkins said. "I get emotional at the thought of it — Dr. Krock knew nothing but a name and a need. Just the thought that someone came up with a project to honor these men without even knowing them is overwhelming."
The project is targeting 17 additional unmarked graves, including that of Pete Hill, described by Negro Leagues historian William F. McNeil as "the Willie Mays of his era." Hill was buried in 1951 at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Alsip and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Krock said Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, a San Diego Padres executive, has pledged that the team will help pay for Hill's headstone.
"(Hill) was a major discovery of Jeremy's," Lester said. "For years, no one knew where he was buried. I had some of my best researchers on the trail."
Krock found Hill in a rather indirect way — he had been doing research on Chicago blues musician Little Walter and found that the harmonica master was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Evergreen Park. "That made me think that maybe Pete Hill also was buried in a Catholic cemetery," Krock said. "That led me to Holy Sepulchre, and it turned out that Pete was there, in an unmarked grave."
Despite these success stories, the project has had challenges, especially regarding Burr Oak, where he and his colleagues provided the first 11 headstones for Negro Leaguers, with the help of then-Burr Oak director Carolyn Towns.
"I couldn't have started the project without her help early on," Krock said. "She helped us find the graves (of the players at Burr Oak) and orchestrated receptions after our installation ceremonies. And she was very gracious with us, donating labor and waiving installation fees."
But in 2009, Cook County prosecutors said Towns and three cemetery workers had been reusing graves at the cemetery, in some cases stacking new coffins on top of old ones and in other cases removing the old remains. This month, Towns was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
"It was a real surprise because we never saw that side of Carolyn," Lester said.
Krock said none of the markers his group installed had been disrupted, and he's on good terms with the current management.
"I still love coming here," Krock said of Burr Oak, which is also the final resting place for civil rights figure Emmett Till, R&B singer Dinah Washington and blues bassist Willie Dixon.
"Sometimes you'll walk out here and you'll see a group of middle-aged white guys out there looking for blues players, while we're out here looking for old Negro League guys," Krock said with a laugh. "It's such a historical site."
Krock said the project is designed to educate the uninitiated.
"Hopefully that will spur them to go home and look it up on the Internet and see what Negro League baseball was all about and why it was a necessary evil," he said.
Peter Gorton said he was inspired to create a group to research the career of Donaldson after attending the headstone ceremony for the pitcher at Burr Oak in 2004.
"It was really the launching point of our efforts," Gorton said of his John Donaldson Network, which includes 450 authors, researchers and historians. "It became a real responsibility to educate people about one of the all-time great pitchers, who no one knows about, and it's all because of Jeremy."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times