Effort under way to mark Topeka grave of Negro Leagues standout

TOPEKA | A space of grass is all that designates where Carroll Ray “Dink” Mothell is buried. No tombstone. No nameplate. No marker of any kind. No description of a man who was born and raised in Topeka before going on to play 15 seasons of Negro Leagues baseball.

The anonymity is consistent with the times he lived. Born in 1897 to Sammy and Scotty Lee Pillows Mothell, he received little fanfare for his baseball abilities outside of the black communities of Topeka and Kansas City. Unable to play Major League Baseball because of his skin color, Mothell's talents weren't as publicized as they may have been for a white athlete.

Today, one baseball historian describes the former Kansas City Monarch as “All-Star caliber” and another lists him as the 10th best second baseman in Negro Leagues baseball history.

However, those accolades remain mostly silent in his home state of Kansas.

Mothell's name won't be found on the list of inductees to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame or even the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame. A low-key effort in 2004 to convert his family home in Topeka into a museum fell through.

The vertical files at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library's Topeka Room dedicated to the area's notable people and places don't include a folder on Mothell.

The story of Mothell's life is contained to seven short paragraphs in the Topeka Daily Capital obituary from when he died April 24, 1980. His playing days are only briefly mentioned, and no related articles are to be found in the sports section.

Consequently, few Topekans are likely to be aware of Mothell's history and his accomplishments in baseball.

However, the members of the Society for American Baseball Research's Negro Leagues committee, led by Jeremy Krock, an anesthesiologist from Peoria, Ill., and Larry Lester, a Negro Leagues historian from Kansas City, Mo., are looking to change that.

Since 2004, the organization has installed 20 headstones at unmarked gravesites of Negro Leagues greats across the country. The Negro Leagues committee has targeted at least a dozen more gravesites where it plans to generate funds and install headstones that not only mark the grave but also give notice to the athlete's playing days.

Mothell's site at Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka is among those targets.

“These players played as unknowns,” Krock said. “They certainly didn't get the credit they deserved during their playing time. The least we can do is remember them now. These players are totally anonymous.”

Before the days of Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil and Hilton Smith, it was the likes of Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, Newt Allen and Carroll Ray “Dink” Mothell who led the way for the Kansas City Monarchs.

The Monarchs were the premier team, winning the first Negro League World Series in 1924.

“Mothell was a great player on a great team,” said Phil S. Dixon, a Negro Leagues historian and author of “Wilber Bullet Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs.”

Mothell began playing at age 16 for the Topeka Giants in 1914. Topeka was the starting place for several Negro Leagues players, including Elwood “Bingo” DeMoss, Tully McAdoo and Mothell.

He joined the Kansas City Monarchs as a catcher in 1920 and quickly became known for his versatility.

During his 15 seasons in Negro Leagues baseball, Mothell played every position. According to Lester's statistics, Mothell played 624 games from 1920-34 with the most at second base (285) and the least at pitcher (1).

That one time on the mound was a good one. In the book “Satchel Paige and Company: Essays on the Kansas City Monarchs,” it says Mothell tossed a complete game, allowing three runs to earn the win.

“His strength also was his weakness in that he could play any position,” Lester said. “In those days, they only carried 15 ballplayers, so his versatility was extremely valuable. He was in the lineup most of the time.”

Krock had grown up hearing about the abilities of Jimmie Crutchfield, an Ardmore, Mo., native who spent 15 seasons in the Negro Leagues. Krock's family members raved about the talents of the 5-foot-7 outfielder with tremendous speed and a team-first attitude.

Interested, Krock did some research on Crutchfield and visited the Illinois cemetery where he was buried. Upon doing so, he learned there was no marker on Crutchfield's grave.

Krock decided something needed to be done. He learned Crutchfield was far from alone and began working with SABR's Negro Leagues committee to generate funds.

In September 2004, grave markers were dedicated for Crutchfield, John Wesley Donaldson and James Allen “Candy Jim” Taylor. Since then, 17 more markers have been placed on the graves of former players, umpires and sportswriters of the Negro Leagues.

Costing about $600 to $800 each, the group has been raising enough funds to place markers on about three graves each year. This summer, dedications took place for William “Bobby” Robinson, “Big Bill” Gatewood and James “Sap” Ivory.

“The list keeps growing,” Krock said. “I think we've learned about two players since Gatewood's dedication. As people find out about us, we learn about more and more. Someone goes to a cemetery and sees there's no marker just like I did.”

The project's current targets include two members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Pete Hill and Solomon White, as well as Mothell and nine others.

Krock said he would like to have the funds in place so Mothell's site could be dedicated for the start of the 2011 baseball season.