Frank Russo is a baseball collector who doesn’t collect bats, balls, uniforms or autographs.
A 53-year-old resident of East Brunswick, N.J., Russo collects obituaries and death certificates of major league baseball players. He keeps track of their causes of death, and when he can find them, he takes pictures of their gravesites.
And if all of that is not unusual enough, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR for short) who does not consider himself a sabermetrician and has no use for sabermetrics or whatever the new-age metrics are called, you know, the ones I have no use for (the SABR guys despise me, Russo said, which is ok with me).
Russo has written a book, “Bury My Heart at Cooperstown,” subtitled “Salacious, Sad and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseball,” and he maintains a Web site, TheDeadBallEra.com, “where every player is safe at home” and which he dedicates to “deceased major league ball players.”
The site has fascinating stuff, which you can’t get anywhere else.
It has sections on murders, suicides, beer drinkers and hell raisers, accidents, obituary listings, necrology by location, grave site listings, grave photo archives and death certificates. Those headings make their sections obvious. But how about “bad to the bone?” What might be found there?
Four lists of owners, managers and players:
Headhunters: Don Drysdale, Burleigh Grimes, Sal Maglie, Carl Mays, Van Lingle Mungo, Whit Wyatt, Early Wynn
Hotheads and Bad Asses: Johnny Allen, The Cleveland Spiders, Ty Cobb, Lefty Grove, Joe Medwick, John McGraw, The Old Orioles
Cheapskates: Ed Barrow, Charles Comiskey, Charlie Ebbets, Chrlie Finley, Clark Griffith,Connie Mack, Frank Navin, Branch Rickey, George Weiss
Notorious: Cap Anson, The Black Sox, Hal Chase, Jim Devlin, Andrew Freedman, Chick Gandil, Chris Von Der Ahe
Most of those names are familiar to veteran baseball fans. Some may require some research. In one instance, Russo provides the research: the Mays/Chapman incident.
In the only fatal on-field incident in Major League Baseball history, Russo recalls, the New York Yankees’ Carl Mays hit Ray Chapman of Cleveland with a pitch in 1920, killing him.
“About five years ago,” Russo related in a telephone interview last week, “people started coming to my Web site for genealogy. Carl Mays’ cousin gave me new family information. Mays never got over the death of Chapman. He gave me all this wonderful research.
“That’s when I thought maybe I should post death certificates along with obituaries. I started doing that.”
Russo, who was a radio broadcaster for 14 years, most recently in Toms River, N.J., said he has death certificates stored in filing cabinets, and he has death certificates stored electronically in his computer files.
“I probably spent $3,000 on death certificates the past year,” he said. “I have 750 certificates ready to go up. I have thousands.
“Finding missing players is fun. I went back to 1873 to get some of the early National Association players. We just found a player who played for the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1875. William Rexter got in one game and had four at-bats. He played outfield and had one chance, one out. He’s buried in Staten Island.”
Death certificates of New York Yankees’ players are “near and dear to me because I’m a Yankee fan,” Russo said. “I picked up Thurman Munson this year. Thurman is pretty special.”
Russo has death certificates of other notable Yankees. Some of them contain interesting data. Lou Gehrig’s, for example, Russo revealed, says under occupation that he was a baseball player and a parole commissioner. “He was working for the parole board at the time,” Russo said.
Then there is Joe DiMaggio’s death certificate. It lists his occupation as public relations. Maybe that referred to his post-career role in bank and coffee commercials.
How does a man embark on a career of collecting death certificates and obituaries and keeping close track of dead baseball players? When I recently learned of Russo’s passion – it is not a hobby because he does not work and lives on disability – it reminded me of a very funny movie I saw years ago.
“Harold and Maude” is a dark comedy that tells of a young man’s intrigue with death. He constantly attends funerals, where he encounters and develops a relationship with an elderly woman with a similar interest.
Russo was not yet 10 years old when he became intrigued with dead baseball players.
“I was going to military school in 1968 and on this day I had just finished guard duty,” Russo recounted. “I put my weapon away. It was right before mess, and I had a choice of wanting dinner or hanging out at the library and going to dinner after I went to the library to cool off.
“At the library I saw this huge baseball encyclopedia and opened it. The first player I came to was Eddie Plank. He was 50 when he died. He stuck with me. I said I’m going to find out why these players died so early.”
Plank, whose 326 victories rank ninth all-time among pitchers who reached 300 wins post-1900, made another influential appearance in Russo’s life.
“In the mid-1990s,” he said, “I went to the cemetery next to Gettysburg battlefield, where Plank is buried. This caretaker said you should write a book about Plank. I said maybe.”
Russo wrote a book, though not solely about Plank, and he created his Web site. “It took me six months to build the site,” he said. “I started gathering stuff. I went to the local library and looked at the Times microfilm. I spent probably $1,000 on obituaries. I had to go through painstaking research.”
His life became a little easier in 1998 in an otherwise difficult year, he said.
“The Yankees were having a great run,” he recalled; “I was having one of the worst years of my life. I lost my job, my fiancé left me for my best friend. I was sitting around figuring out my next move. I had all this information. That’s when I got my first computer.”
With his computer, Russo has compiled lists of 47 murders and 119 suicides of baseball figures, mostly players but some others as well.
Among Russo’s list of those are Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7 midget, who walked as a pinch-hitter for Bill Veeck’s St. Louis Browns in 1951; Angels’ outfielder Lyman Bostock, who was fatally shot when the shooter mistakenly thought he was dating his estranged wife; Luke Easter, who was shot by two robbers during a payroll robbery, and Ivan Calderon, who was shot during an apparent underworld hit.
Far more players have ended their lives themselves than have had others end them, Russo’s research found.
The most notable suicide might well have been Donnie Moore’s, three years after he gave up a 1986 post-season home run when the Angels were one out from the World Series. Moore’s fatal act, after he shot his wife, who survived, was linked to the home run, but Moore apparently had many more problems off the field.
In a variety of suicide measures, Hugh Casey shot himself in the neck with a shotgun, Doug Ault shot himself in the head with a shotgun, Carlos Bernier hanged himself, Don Wilson used carbon monoxide and Pea Ridge Day “slit his throat with a hunting knife after an operation failed to restore his pitching arm.”
Umpire Ron Luciano killed himself with carbon monoxide, and sports writer Sy Sanborn fatally shot himself.
The obituaries are all there, from Gene Autry to Phil and William Wrigley.
Occasionally, Russo discovers developments beyond an obituary or a death certificate. He cited the death of infielder Danny O’Connell as one example.
“His obituary said he was in an automobile accident,” Russo related. “One day I was going to take a picture of his grave in Montclair, N.J. I had just finished taking the photo of the grave, and as I walked down I noticed a woman walking up to his grave. She comes back down, and I said I didn’t mean to scare you. She said she was Veronica O’Connell, his wife. We had a nice conversation. She told me he died of a coronary occlusion and was dead before he hit the telephone pole.”
One group Russo has put in his book but not on his Web site is the one he has lumped under the title “Clapp for Your Heroes.” “I have a large list of players who died from syphilis,” he said.
The list includes 38 players and executives, their deaths dating from 1897 (Charley Radbourn at age 42) to 1951 (Adam Comorosky at age 45). Radbourn known as Old Hoss, compiled a 309-194 record from 1880 through 1891, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939.
Syphilis, however, was not the leading cause of death, Russo said. He found that the leading cause in the early years of the game, from 1871 to about 1910, was tuberculosis and second was kidney disease.
The last player to die from tuberculosis, Russo said, was Mike Chartak, an outfielder, who began his career with the Yankees in 1940 and batted .243 over four years. He died in 1967.
DYING AMONG THE LIVING
How much beer does someone have to drink to kill himself at the age of 37? Friends of Brian Traxler, ever so briefly a major league first baseman, have said that his alcohol of choice was beer.
Traxler died in 2004. Frank Russo, who passionately tracks the deaths of baseball players, doesn’t include Traxler on his Web site list of “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” because Traxler didn’t play in the majors long enough and was little known.
But Russo minces no words. “Brian Traxler drank himself to death,” he said.
Russo is not a baseball player himself and hasn’t sat around the clubhouse or the bar drinking with players. His research, however, puts him in good position to know about baseball and alcohol.
“They’ve never done anything about drinking in baseball,” he said. “The number of players who died from complications of drinking or cirrhosis of the liver is amazing.”
Russo collects death certificates and is in better position than most to know causes of death. Death certificates list the cause of death.
“All these players who died from drinking, it’s amazing,” he said. “I don’t get it. Players used to drink before games to loosen up. Alcohol was like a performance-enhancer. There’s this culture of alcoholism.”
Traxler was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 draft. Two years later he got his chance to play for the Dodgers but lasted only one start at first base, two other games at the position and nine games and 11 at-bats over-all before being sent back to the minors, never to breathe major league air again.
Thus, Russo had no reason to add him to this list:
Mike Donlin, Leo Durocher, Charlie Faust, Bob Fothergill, Jimmie Foxx, King Kelly, Rabbit Maranville, Bugs Raymond, Babe Ruth, Al Schact, Germany Schaefer, Rube Waddell, Paul Waner, Hack Wilson.
There are some Hall of Famers on that list, but Traxler isn’t one of them. The only list he made was Russo’s necrology list.
MORENO THE MARKETING MAN
Arte Moreno knows he isn’t fooling anyone in southern California by rebranding his team with the name Los Angeles.
“I’m a marketing guy that pictured them as a small-market team,” Moreno said of the team he bought in 2003 that was known as the Anaheim Angels.
A little background:
In the early 1990, when club owners first began discussing revenue sharing, they had a meeting in Koehler, Wis. For two days the owners divided into two caucuses – large-market clubs and small-market clubs.
When the caucuses broke for lunch the first day, reporters watched as the owners emerged from their respective conference rooms. When I saw Jackie Autry come out of the small-market room, I was stunned. When, I asked myself, did the Angels, whom Gene and Jackie Autry owned, become a small-market team?
Apparently based on revenue, Autry was in the right room, as incredible as that seemed. The Angels played in an area awash in wealth but had done a poor job capitalizing on it. Moreno, succeeding the Autrys and Disney, wasn’t about to make their mistake and squander the opportunity he had to enhance the team’s revenue.
If it meant hijacking the Dodgers’ name and geography, so be it.
“I just felt it was part of the region,” Moreno said by telephone from his home in Phoenix, responding too late to have his explanation included in last week’s column about the Angels and the Dodgers.
“What are you telling the other owners when you send Disney a revenue check? I’m trying to take this brand and remarket it into a bigger market. I’m in the metroplex. There are plenty of fans for everyone.
“I was trying to do something financially. I wanted to get back to where we could push this franchise ahead. We needed to remarket the team. We needed increased revenue to be able to compete. We came in with a seven-year plan. We’ve had an opportunity to increase our brand to younger fans.”
The Angels’ $125 million signing of Josh Hamilton is what prompted people to think it was a move to try to counter the lavish spending the Dodgers have undertaken the past five months to improve their team and their post-season chances next season.
Moreno, however, said he wasn’t interested in knocking down the Dodgers. “Why would we want to do that?” he asked. “We both benefit if both of us are doing well.”
“When you look at all the competition and the beach,” he added, “there are a lot of factors we deal with. The last few years we didn’t make the playoffs. We felt we had to make some adjustments.”
As for his over-all marketing plan and revenue pursuit, Moreno said, “I won’t try to tell you I haven’t tried to push north, but I’ve always tried to push east and south.”