Forgotten Negro Leaguers honored at the grave

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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A group of amateur historians is raising money to bring renewed attention to the accomplishments of long-forgotten Negro League baseball players.

The Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project has collected donations to put baseball-related headstones at the final resting places of former pioneers from the sport’s segregated past.

William “Big Bill” Gatewood is one such player. The 6-foot-7 pitcher who threw two no-hitters and mentored Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell had laid in an unmarked Columbia grave for nearly 50 years.

The Columbia Daily Tribune reported that three volunteers from the Society for American Baseball Research organized a memorial service this week to recognize his playing career.

The gray granite marker at Memorial Cemetery reads: “Negro Leagues Baseball Pitcher and Manager ‘Big Bill’ William M. Gatewood.” The stone also lists the years of his birth (1881) and death (1962).

“In these markers, we get a date of birth and a date of death, and in the hyphen is the person’s life,” said project director Jeremy Krock. “We put a baseball and a baseball glove in his hyphen, because there’s a lot of baseball there that was neglected in his obit.”

Gatewood lived in Columbia for 37 years, nearly half his life, but his baseball exploits were not widely known. A Daily Tribune obituary announcing his death on Dec. 8, 1962, does not mention his playing career.

Author and historian Larry Lester first learned of Gatewood during a conversation with Bell decades ago. Gatewood was Bell’s first manager with the St. Louis Stars in 1922, their first season. The Hall of Famer credited Gatewood with giving him his nickname for showing exceptional poise on the mound.

Gatewood later helped develop Paige as a young pitcher while manager of the Birmingham Black Barons. He played for 15 teams in his 24-year career, including the Moberly Eagles and Gatewood Browns, also based in Moberly, throughout the 1930s.

Krock, an anesthesiologist from Peoria, Ill., has helped place 18 other headstones through the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project. Efforts continue to honor about 20 more Negro Leaguers lying in unmarked graves.

“It’s the proper thing to do, to recognize somebody who spent their heyday in black baseball,” Lester said. “They retired without a pension, and the family just couldn’t afford to put a headstone.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.