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The cemetery spreads across a green hillside above the small upstate city of Troy, N.Y., where shirt collars and steel were once manufactured along the east bank of the Hudson River, but where neither is made anymore. At the entrance to the graveyard there is a three-story brick building that holds musty plot maps spread out on creaky tables. Nobody is inside, and it feels as if the structure has been empty for a very long time. It is a sunny autumn morning; the leaves have just begun to change color. A few cars are parked along the roadway that bisects the cemetery, one set of wheels on grass and the other on pavement, so that other vehicles can pass.
A tall man in a baseball cap speaks with a woman in sunglasses and then points in the distance. His name is Danny Catlin, and if you want to find a gravesite in St. Mary's Cemetery, he is your guy. "You give me the name and a date of birth or death," says Danny, "I call it in, and they give me the location." He is unabashedly cheerful, which feels vaguely at odds with his surroundings. Cemeteries have always left me uneasy. When I was a Catholic altar boy, I would stare off in the distance during burial services, unnerved by the ceremony and even more by the surroundings, silently counting down the minutes until I could leave all that death behind.
"Name?" Danny is holding his pen at the ready.
"You might know this one without calling," I say. "Johnny Evers?"
"The baseball player?" says Danny. "Oh, I know where he is." He speaks as if those laid to rest here are living people who have moved to new addresses. We walk down to the southeast corner of the property and stop at a Mini Cooper--sized hunk of light-gray stone. Five people are buried beneath this earth, the first since 1885 and the most recent since 1974. On the eastern face of the large tombstone are five raised capital letters: EVERS. Names and dates are etched into the other three sides of the rock, including:
JOHN J EVERS 1881--1947
Nowhere does it say that Evers (who pronounced his name EE-vers, not EV-ers, as widely assumed) was a major league baseball player in the early 20th century, a brainy Dead Ball era infielder who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1946. Nowhere does it say that he and two of his teammates were featured in a piece of baseball doggerel that's familiar to many a century later. Nowhere does it say that he was a central figure in one of the most controversial plays in baseball history. And nowhere does it mention the failed marriage, the nervous breakdowns or the bankruptcies (though there are two infants buried in the plot and named on the stone, hinting at a deep unexplained sadness). Nor does it mention the feeling of emptiness, the lifelong struggle to find traction after baseball, because baseball had been such a perfect vessel for his consuming drive, and life was simply messy and complex and couldn't be defeated with scrappy want-to.
There's just a whisper of a breeze in the clear morning air, and seemingly not a sound on earth. Minutes pass before Danny asks, "He's a relative?"
"My uncle," I answer, and then I pull it back, awkwardly qualifying the relationship. "My mother's uncle. My great-uncle. He died nine years before I was born. Uncle Johnny."
These are the saddest of possible words: