Graveyard Tour Unearths Names From Baseball Lore

SUNDAY, NOV. 2, 1997

Seen enough ghosts, goblins and witches this week? Brushed aside enough cobwebs? Heard enough creaking doors, enough anguished screeches, enough ominous laughter?

How would you like to spend five months visiting cemeteries, criss-crossing America in search of the grave sites of Hall of Fame baseball players?

That’s what Dave D’Antonio did. Disenchanted with baseball’s present, gloomy about baseball’s future, D’Antonio went in search of baseball’s past. Slept in his car most nights. And when he felt really cruddy, he’d saunter into some Holiday Inn and bathe in the hot tub or the swimming pool and then slink back into the parking lot for another night in his ‘93 Geo.

Wrote a book about his adventure. Calls it, “Invincible Summer.”

“Set the world’s record for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said proudly. “I wanted to do it economically. Hey, anybody can stay in hotel rooms. Slept in the car, depended on some friends, spent $162 on lodging for the entire trip.”

Thinks he detects some envy when people discuss his book. “Not that they’d want to spend all that time in graveyards,” he explained. “But just envious of someone who headed out across America, pursuing a dream.”

Some dream. Drove 25,873 miles through 43 states in that red Geo he named “Nellie” for Nellie Bly, the crusading stunt journalist, and Nellie Fox, the dogged little Chicago second baseman.

Got into a scuffle with a deaf mute who resented his bicycling the wrong way on a one-way street. Fell in unrequited love with a lesbian. Pretended to be a big-league scout at a Colt League ballgame. Describes the trip, warts and all, his sincerity salvaging a writing style that is sometimes clumsier than a day-old giraffe.

D’Antonio does that, sprinkling similes and metaphors across the pages, scraping the barrel’s bottom in a description of Jesus having “more saves than Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm put together.”

His itinerary brought him to Philadelphia, where stinginess soured the visit. “Stayed in a youth hostel in that park (Fairmount),” he recalled. “Made one of my more foolish mistakes, trying to get around without a city map.

“I had a map of Pennsylvania, with that little segment that showed Philadelphia, but not detailed. Went to the Bala library to look at street maps. It was mid-July, miserably hot, I kept getting lost.”

Disheartening, but not quite as bad as the moment in Portsmouth, Va. “I was sleeping in the car for the sixth of nine nights in a row,” D’Antonio said glumly. “There was a big dance and I couldn’t sleep, too noisy, too hot. I was dirty, miserable.

“So, I drove to another hotel parking lot that had bright lights. I was sweating, back seat of the car, and then, I hear this mosquito buzzing, inside the car. I felt pitiful.”

He slogged on, finding Rogers Hornsby’s grave, surrounded by weeds, in Texas. Visited Ross Youngs and George Waddell in San Antonio, and points out that these were two of seven Hall of Famers who died before their 40th birthday.

D’Antonio provides some basic information about most of the deceased players. Discovers descendants in some places, kindly strangers in other places. Draws a sketch of Mel Ott’s unadorned crypt in New Orleans’ Metarie Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground.

A passionate liberal, bitter about bigotry, D’Antonio takes time out to urinate on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., his response to the racism that was sanctioned there for so long.

He is stunned at the dirt and mould that cover Napoleon Lajoie’s tombstone in Daytona Beach, Fla. He finds the monument to Joe Tinker (of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame) in horrible shape, covered by compost, the stone set at an angle.

He reports happily that both gravesites are being tended to now.

D’Antonio arrives at Jackie Robinson’s New York gravesite bleeding from his forehead, hit by a rock that richocheted through the open car window. Robinson’s tombstone is simple, his name and this quotation: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

On a visit to Cooperstown, he experienced the most pleasant moment of his long journey. “I had watched a town ballgame on my first visit,” he said. “The area was beautiful, there was a gentle night breeze. The fielders could throw the ball at the runner to record an out.

“And then, a week or two later, I returned. A Wednesday night. And I got to play with them. You come to bat, you tell the pitcher where you want the ball. And I smacked it, into the trees. I felt like Hornsby.”

In his book, D’Antonio sermonizes about excluding Shoeless Joe Jackson from the Hall of Fame for his part in the Black Sox scandal. If the concern is conduct harmful to baseball, he rages, what about players who renegotiate fat contracts? What about the strike? What about calling off the World Series?

So, how does he feel about Pete Rose being kept off the ballot? The storyteller surfaces before he answers.

“I was in eighth grade, and I went to Candlestick Park with a buddy, Giants-Reds game. Rose was playing left field that day. We disliked Rose, we had loud mouths, and we shouted at everything he did.

“Finally, in the fourth inning, he flipped us off. Later, I read a story where he said Candlestick Park fans were the most obnoxious. We felt responsible for him feeling that way.

“Hall of Fame? His numbers say he deserves it. You wind up in a debate, so many other actions detrimental to baseball have gone unpunished.”

D’Antonio is back teaching history and English to eighth-graders. Is there another book, based on another dream, waiting to be written?

“This will probably offend every woman in America,” he said, “but I feel like I’ve given birth and I’m not ready to get pregnant again. That book was a draining experience.

“I’ll probably do another book someday. A biography on someone in baseball. But to do that, you need to find someone you really like.”

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