Monday, July 28, 2008

Fan has visited graves of 205 Baseball Hall of Famers

By Joe Capozzi

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Thousands of fans will flock to Cooperstown, N.Y., today to honor the Baseball Hall of Fame's two newest members - Goose Gossage and Dick Williams.

Stewart Thornley won't be there, but he's already planning to pay his respects to Gossage and Williams some day - at their grave sites.

There are fans and then there's Thornley, a fan of the dead who takes his passion to another level - 6-feet under. Baseball's Sultan of Cemeteries has visited the graves of 205 Hall of Famers, from 19th-century pioneer Alexander Cartwright's tombstone at Oahu Cemetery in Hawaii to Cy Young's marker at the United Methodist Church in Peoli, Ohio.

"Some people collect baseball cards. This is my form of collecting," said Thornley, 53, a drinking water educator for the Minnesota Department of Health.

"The process is a lot of fun, the hunting and the research. I like to travel and this gets me to many places I normally wouldn't go."

Thornley's ghostly tour has even brought him to Palm Beach County, where in 1999 he visited the grave of Billy Herman, a 10-time All-Star second baseman for the Chicago Cubs who's buried in Memorial Park in Tequesta.

"I knocked off a couple on that trip," Thornley said. "Max Carey in Miami. I crossed the state to Tampa and saw Al Lopez ... Ray Dandridge in Palm Bay, Ed Walsh in Pompano."

Thornley said he has spent thousands of dollars on 45 different trips to see the final resting places of baseball's greatest players, including shortstop Joseph "Arky" Vaughan's grave "out in the middle of nowhere" in Eagleville, Calif., and Babe Ruth's elaborate shrine at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.

"Some people eye it up as being strange. They'll make snide comments like, 'Get a life,' '' Thornley said, "but, hey, it's my hobby. How is that any stranger than stamp collecting?"

Hall of Fame officials aren't insulted by Thornley's preference to honor the dead greats instead of the living ones.

"When I first heard about it, I thought it was kind of odd," said Tim Wiles, the hall's director of research. "But then I found out there are lots of people who do that. It's kind of like baseball archeology.

"Me, I like to visit another kind of baseball grave site - places where ballparks used to be."

Thornley's hobby started by accident in 1967 on a family vacation. Traveling through Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he saw a sign for the grave of George Gipp, whose Notre Dame football legend grew through Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" speech. Against the protests of his mother and brother, Thornley persuaded his father to make the stop.

"I was hooked," he said, though it would be another 30 years before he started his excursions to see fallen baseball stars and the deceased of various notoriety.

Thornley's cemetery visits include the graves of 40 U.S. presidents, Civil War generals, and several victims of Charles Manson's murderous night in Los Angeles. While visiting the grave of manager Leo Durocher in a few years ago, Thornley was able to walk 19 spaces more to see the resting place of teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson.

All told, he has visited more than 1,000 graves, "even all the vice presidents," said Thornley, author of Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota.

Thornley calls Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, burial grounds of rocker Jim Morrison, composer Frédéric Chopin and writer Oscar Wilde, "the Yankee Stadium of cemeteries."

But baseball graves are his passion, and he completed his first lengthy lists of visits in January 2002 by paying respects to Eddie Mathews in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Since then, he said, "as new Hall of Fame graves are added through Hall of Famers dying or those already dead being elected, I've been able to keep up with them."

One of Thornley's favorite visits was to the crypt holding Bill Terry, the last National Leaguer to hit .400, at Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. "I pulled up and saw this old guy who worked there," he said. "As he's walking me to the grave, he says, 'By the way, I put him in there.' He buried Bill Terry and he was proud of that. I thought that was neat.''

Lou Boudreau's was the "freshest grave'' Thornley has visited. He was on a grave-hunting trip to Pittsburgh in 2001 when Boudreau died. Thornley altered his plans to attend the funeral near Joliet, Ill.

There are 10 Hall of Famers without final resting spots, including Bill Veeck, whose ashes were scattered over Lake Michigan, and Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash. (Thornley visited the airport in Puerto Rico where Clemente's plane took off, but he said that doesn't count.)

As an official scorer for the Minnesota Twins, Thornley lives with his wife and their two cats, "Jeter" and "A-Rod." He reads up on baseball, keeping an eye out for obits or stories about ailing stars. "I've never had the guts to go up to Bob Feller and say, 'Where are you going to be buried, in Van Meter (Iowa) or Cleveland?' I don't think he'd appreciate that," Thornley said.

Thornley has been to Cooperstown for one induction weekend, in 1996, but he was turned off by the swarm of fans.

"My feeling about Cooperstown is, I kind of enjoy it when it's a little more ... dead,'' he said.

Thornley used to collect autographs, but that hobby took a turn for the worse when he was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota in 1978. He approached New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson after a game and asked him to sign a paddle from Delta Upsilon, a fraternity to which Munson belonged while a student at Kent State.

Munson apparently wasn't in the mood to sign, the two exchanged words and, Thornley said, "He had me by the neck in a chokehold. (Yankees teammate) Fran Healy had to break it up.''

"Neither one of us was on our best behavior," Thornley said. "Something I'd rather forget."

Thornley doesn't hold a grudge. Munson, who isn't in the Hall of Fame, died in a plane crash in 1979.

"I've been to his grave several times," he said. "It's very nice."

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