Negro Leagues Legend’s Descendant Working to Give Players Dignity in Death

Many Negro Leagues players don’t have anything to mark their burial spot. Josh Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean, aims to change that.
The Homestead Grays, pictured here in 1913, are a big part of baseball history in Pittsburgh.
The Homestead Grays, pictured here in 1913, are a big part of baseball history in Pittsburgh. / Courtesy of the Josh Gibson Foundation

Sam Streeter was known for his curveball. The lefty won pennants with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s, part of a loaded roster with Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston. (He also shared a rotation with a young pitcher he mentored by the name of Satchel Paige.) In a decade and a half of professional baseball, Streeter built a career studded with highlights, including starting the very first East-West All-Star Game and throwing a 17-inning complete game at storied Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

Now, some eight decades after he threw his final pitch, Streeter has a new hold in the record books. What he does not have is anything to mark his burial spot.

With MLB’s recent incorporation of Negro League statistics, Streeter’s 1,156 innings, 3.77 ERA and 585 strikeouts are officially major league numbers. He is one of more than 2,300 players from the Negro Leagues added to MLB’s historical record last week. But the quest to uphold their legacy asks more than admission to the record books.

Streeter died in 1985. He was cremated with his remains buried in an unmarked spot on a hillside in Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery. It’s just a few miles from where he once played with the Crawfords, where he formed a battery with Gibson, widely seen as one of the best catchers in history. Gibson is now recognized as the major league batting champion. And Streeter is now among the players for whom Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean, is working to provide a grave marker.

“This is near and dear to our hearts,” Sean Gibson says. “To me, it feels that if you don’t have a grave marker, you’re still not resting in peace … We want to make sure that these guys get a final resting place.”

There has been a concentrated effort over the last few decades to fund headstones and other markers for players buried without them. For many of these players and their families, the cost of a marker had been prohibitive at the time of burial. The Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project has provided dozens of markers since 2004. But there are still many players in unmarked graves around the country, and over the last few years, the Josh Gibson Foundation has begun taking up the cause in and around Pittsburgh.

Sean Gibson is the executive director of the foundation, which supports a variety of programs aimed at helping local youth, and he didn’t anticipate their work expanding to grave markers. That changed in 2022. He learned then his great-grandmother was buried in an unmarked grave: It was known that Josh Gibson had not had a headstone for years after his death until members of the baseball community installed one in 1975. But the family never knew that his wife, Helen, was buried elsewhere in the same cemetery without a marker of her own. Sean went about securing a grave marker for his great-grandmother. He also began wondering if the experience might be relevant to other local families with ties to the Negro Leagues. They might have no idea where their ancestors were buried or whether their graves were marked. In a city with as rich a history of Black baseball as Pittsburgh—once home to a pair of proud franchises in the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays—it seemed likely that a handful of former players might be in unmarked graves. But he was surprised at just how many they found.

The foundation located roughly 20 former Negro League players in unmarked graves in and around Pittsburgh to start. They began fundraising two years ago—each marker costs roughly $1,000—and were able to place their first headstones last summer. The foundation has now marked 11 graves, each bearing the man’s name, date of birth and death, and an image of a baseball with an inscription reading “Negro Leagues Player.” They continue to raise money for the remaining nine. That group includes Streeter, along with another former player buried in the same cemetery, an outfielder named Forrest Mashaw who played for the Homestead Grays in the 1920s.

Grave marker sign providing more info about Negro Leagues player Ernest E. “Pud” Gooden.
The grave marker project includes placing signs providing more information about the player buried there. / Courtesy of the Josh Gibson Foundation

Some of these men played with or against Josh Gibson, who died at just 35 years old in 1947, only a few months before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in MLB. Others had played decades earlier. Some played for many teams over many years, while others played only a season, and some even just a few games. Sean Gibson sees all of them as part of the same Negro Leagues brotherhood and feels the same obligation to provide them dignity in death.

“Baseball is a team sport,” Gibson says. “So even though some of these guys may not have been his teammates, it’s a team effort for us to make this work.”

The work of identifying the players and locating their graves was done by a local social studies teacher named Vince Ciaramella. In the early days of the pandemic, looking for quiet spaces to get fresh air with his family, he turned to cemeteries. To make it feel a bit less macabre, Ciaramella decided to look for specific graves, beginning with his own family members, then moving on to search for local sports figures. (“I can’t just go to a graveyard without a purpose,” he says. “I’m not Gomez Addams.”) Eventually, it became a project for him and his wife and young son. They visited the graves of every MLB player in and around Pittsburgh and wrote a book about what they found titled Greats in the Graveyard. But when Ciaramella began looking for Negro League graves, he would sometimes find himself checking and rechecking what should be a final resting spot, only to find an empty patch of grass. Ciaramella soon heard that Gibson was interested in locating players who needed grave markers. He was happy to help.

“They were marginalized in life and forgotten in death,” Ciaramella says. “And this way, the spotlight is shining back on them.”

The process generally involves looking up the player’s death certificate and reaching out to the cemetery for their records before visiting the burial spot himself. “You can look for a grave and see that it’s Section B, Plot 1 or whatnot, and you start moving down, essentially just counting, and then you come to a big blank spot,” Ciaramella says. Next, they’ll trace the ownership of the plot and search for any living descendants. (With all 11 players the foundation has placed markers for so far, the plot’s ownership had reverted to the cemetery, often long ago; 10 of the 11 had no living family they could locate.) They can then prepare to commission and place a grave marker.

Alongside each marker, they have placed a small sign with the franchises each man played for and a code that people can scan for more information. The hope is that someone might see one and be inspired to learn more. This part was especially important, Gibson says. He wants the project to be about not just providing the players with headstones but sharing their stories with the community.

That makes MLB’s incorporation of Negro Leagues statistics feel like an opportunity. Gibson has spent the last two weeks fielding calls about the new place in the record books for his great-grandfather. But he is hopeful that might be only a starting point for more questions—about other players, other stories and other places their legacy might live on.

Emma Baccellieri


Emma Baccellieri is a staff writer who focuses on baseball and women's sports for Sports Illustrated. She previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and Deadspin; and has appeared on BBC News, PBS NewsHour and MLB Network. Emma has been honored with multiple awards from the Society of American Baseball Research, including: SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in historical analysis (2022), McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award (2020) and SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in contemporary commentary (2018). A graduate from Duke University, she’s also a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.