"Correct thinkers think that 'baseball trivia' is an oxymoron: Nothing about baseball is trivial."
-- George Will
ARKADELPHIA -- If George Will is right, what Fred Worth has done is monumental.
Worth visits graves. Baseball graves. To date, 7,590 of them, with a trip through the West planned for summer to visit more.
His hobby is unusual, Worth said, but not unique. Some people visit the graves of Civil War soldiers; others the graves of movie stars. But when it comes to graves of people who played professional baseball, or worked in professional baseball, he's tops. Second place belongs to his wife, Beth, who has tagged along for about 3,000 graves.
He's visited graves in every state save Alaska and Hawaii -- there's one in the former, five in the latter -- has a binder with photos and locations of each grave visited in each state, and maintains a database of the whole.
"It's a blast," Worth said in his office at Henderson State University, where he has taught math for 29 years. This office, in Evans Hall, is a baseball hoarder's delight, full of caps and books and assorted memorabilia. He has also written a textbook, College Mathematics Through Baseball, and is a member of the Robinson-Kell chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research.
Worth has always been a baseball nut. In the first grade, in Roselle Park, N.J., he asked his mother to teach him long division -- a fourth-grade skill -- so he could compute batting averages in decimals. He grew up a fan of the New York Mets, traveling by bus to their games at Shea Stadium.
Visiting graves started in 2004 in a cemetery in Waldo, a small town a few miles northwest of Magnolia in Columbia County. Waldo is proud to call itself the home of Travis Jackson, born there in 1903.
Jackson was a stalwart shortstop of the New York Giants in 15 seasons in the 1920s and 1930s. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1982 and died in Waldo in 1987.
That grave was easy to find. Worth then drove to El Dorado, a much bigger city with a much bigger cemetery, for the grave of Schoolboy Rowe. Lynwood Thomas Rowe grew up in El Dorado, won 158 games in the big leagues and died in his hometown in 1961 at the age of 50. Worth looked and looked for Rowe's grave until Beth got out of the car and found it.
Worth continued to do day trips in Arkansas, then overnight trips. To date, he has visited the graves of 401 ballplayers in the state. Eighty-three are big-leaguers; the others minor-leaguers or otherwise connected to the sport. Little Rock's Roselawn Cemetery is the resting place of Bill Dickey and his brother, George. Bill, a catcher for the Yankees for 19 seasons, is in the Hall of Fame. George, a younger brother, was mostly a backup catcher from 1935 to 1947 for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.
They're buried eight feet apart, Worth said.
The brothers are also remembered at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, home of the Arkansas Travelers.
Gene Paulette is buried at Calvary Cemetery, across Asher Avenue from Roselawn. Paulette died in 1966, played off and on in the big leagues from 1911 to 1920, and was then banned permanently from baseball for his association with gamblers in St. Louis.
Worth visits graves of the famous and the forgotten. The forgotten include Bob Mavis, buried in Alexander in Saline County. In 1938, Mavis was on the roster of the Detroit Tigers and was inserted as a pinch-runner at first base. He advanced to second base, the game subsequently ended, and Mavis never played in another big league game.
The famous include Yogi Berra. Worth timed it so that Berra's grave, in New Jersey, was the 5,000th he visited.
At a recent meeting of the local chapter of SABR (Society of American Baseball Research), Worth described visiting the graves of numerous of the prominent players of the 1960s, when Worth's childhood fascination with the game began. Those players included Mickey Mantle, buried in Dallas, and Eddie Mathews, a Hall of Fame third baseman mostly for the Milwaukee Braves. Mathews is buried in La Jolla, Calif.
Not that every ballplayer is actually buried.
Ron Santo played third base for the Chicago Cubs for 15 years. He was later a broadcaster for the team. Santo died in December 2010. In 2011, the Chicago Tribune reported that his ashes had been scattered across Wrigley Field. Worth's entry for Santo includes a photo of the stadium.
It all adds up to, as of this writing, 7,590 graves in 2,303 different cities, and 3,321 cemeteries, of which about two-thirds had only one baseball grave.
The cemetery with the most baseball graves is Calvary in St. Louis -- 121. Eighty-eight of those are of men who played in the major leagues, including Urban Shocker of the 1927 Yankees, widely considered the greatest of all teams, and Joe Schultz Sr. and Joe Schultz Jr. The latter was manager of the Seattle Pilots in 1969, where Schultz Jr. famously exhorted his players to win so that they could go "pound some Budweiser."
Fred and Beth Worth were busy adding baseball graves in the summer of 2019. They traveled 9,000 miles to and through New England, cataloging 920 graves over six weeks. Graves included 520 in Massachusetts, 139 in Connecticut, 61 in Rhode Island, 54 in New Hampshire, 47 in Maine and 17 in Vermont. In the coming summer, Worth hopes to travel through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Washington state, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. California is the big one. Worth has visited 516 graves there and estimates there are 300-400 more.
Information helps Worth find graves. Much of that information is online. More comes from cemetery records and employees, funeral homes and occasionally family.
George "Rube" Foster rests in Bokoshe, Okla. Cemetery workers wouldn't tell Worth exactly where but gave him the phone number of an elderly daughter. "She was happy to tell me where he was buried and told me stories about him. People are genuinely pleased someone is interested."
"Most people," he added, "are incredibly helpful."
Foster starred in the 1915 World Series for the Boston Red Sox, pitching two complete-game victories as the Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies in five games. One of his teammates was Babe Ruth.
In Gladstone, Mo., Worth tracked down the grave of Bill Kelso, who pitched in the big leagues in the 1960s. He drove into the cemetery, and went to the grave, at the exact same time as Kelso's daughter.
Worth explained his presence.
"She thought it was a little bit weird, but I'm OK with that."
Inscribed on Kelso's grave: "Safe at home."
Fifteen men have gathered in a room at First Southern Baptist Church of Bryant to talk baseball. They're members of the Robinson-Kell chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research. That would be Brooks Robinson of Little Rock and George Kell of Swifton. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Robinson lives in Maryland, having played his whole career for the Baltimore Orioles. Kell played mostly for the Detroit Tigers, was a broadcaster for the Tigers, and died in 2009 in Swifton.
Willie Banks was the featured guest. He's a former big-league pitcher who was a student of Fred Worth in high school in New Jersey. Banks now lives in Tyler, Texas.
"Mr. Worth finally made me love math," Banks said. "You notice I still call him Mr. Worth."
A pitcher, Banks was a first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Twins in 1987. When he made the big club in 1991, he learned something about sportswriters: "I learned to keep my mouth shut."
Banks pitched nine seasons in the major leagues. He won 33 games and lost 39 in those nine years, and had the good fortune to play on teams that won the World Series in 1991 (Twins) and 1998 (Yankees).
Banks is old school, so to speak.
About his life: "I never got married. I was married to the game of baseball."
About the scandalous Houston Astros: "That stuff we heard about the last couple of weeks -- that's cheating."
About electronic umpires calling balls and strikes: "Baseball is a beautiful game. Don't mess with it."
Banks was warmly received, and when he finished speaking several members lined to have their photo taken with him.
Johnny Mullens, 52, of El Paso joined SABR two years ago. He has brought along what's known as an Oxbow Bender, a baseball with a handle. It's used to teach different grips for different pitches. Mullens has been a baseball fan since he was a kid. "My Dad was a big fan, and he had an awesome knuckleball."
Same for Charles Gattin -- the dad part.
"When I was a kid I played all the sports, but baseball was the most fun, the biggest connection between me and my Dad."
Gattin, 51, of Benton, wore a jersey of the Staten Island Yankees. Sadly, he said, the Yankee farm team could be dissolved under a plan to reduce the number of minor league teams.
Robinson-Kell meets twice a year, Madison McEntire said. He's president. Sort of. The next meeting is Aug. 15 at Dickey-Stephens Park. The Travelers will provide some space, McEntire said, after which members will watch the game.
To join SABR, simply go to its website, sabr.org. Annual dues are $65. Most states have a chapter.
Back in Fred Worth's office at Henderson State University, he shared a copy of his textbook, College Mathematics Through Baseball. The book evolved from a course he has taught.
"If you hate math but like sports, you'll get something out of this class," he said, that something being quantitative literacy and logic.
Like most textbooks, it won't crack best-seller lists. "I've had several royalty checks, but I won't be retiring on it."
He has also written a book about his grave-hunting. Publishers have declined it, he said. But if it ever does get published, Major League Baseball's official historian, John Thorn, will write a foreword describing the book as "quirkily enjoyable." Worth has also written a book about baseball's worst hitters, hopefully, to be published soon. The worst, by both traditional metrics and updated analytics, he said, is Bill Bergen, a catcher of the early 20th century who had a career .170 batting average.
What is it, Professor Worth, about baseball that makes it so mystical to its most ardent followers?
Two things, he mused. The first is that every ballplayer has a story beyond the field. Look at Archibald Wright "Moonlight" Graham, who appeared in one game for the New York Giants in 1905, but who is remembered as a character in the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. And, more famously, in its derivative movie Field of Dreams.
Yes, Worth has visited Graham's grave. It's in Rochester, Minn. His photo of the headstone shows it adorned with coins and baseballs.
Then Worth quoted Jim Bouton, author of baseball's first book of scandal and truth, Ball Four, published in 1970. Bouton revealed that ballplayers are seldom heroic. Their humor is locker room, and their behavior is often base. They are mostly mortal men.
Bouton became deeply despised for violating a code that says what happens in a baseball locker room stays there. He endured much anger and vituperation, up to and including Pete Rose yelling at him: "F*** you, Shakespeare!"
"A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball," Bouton wrote in Ball Four, "and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
Worth hasn't been to Bouton's grave.
Its location is unknown.
Style on 03/01/2020