It was a meeting of athletes, each of whom at one time or another had heard the cheers of the people of Dayton.
Saturday morning some University of Dayton football players were introduced to Ray Brown. Actually, they first had to pull some of the weeds from around his grave and pick up a pair of crumpled potato chip bags and some twigs that were littered around it.
Then they could fully read some of the career highlights that were etched on the back of Brown’s shiny black headstone, which is a story in itself and one we’ll get to later.
Brown was one of the greatest big-time baseball players ever to call Dayton home. He’s enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in Havana and he’s celebrated in the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
He was known as the “Sunday pitcher” for the mighty Homestead Grays.
Negro League teams sent their best pitchers to the mound on Sunday to draw a crowd and no one was better than Brown.
A right-handed pitcher with a vicious curveball, he started for the Grays from 1932 to 1945 and led them to eight pennants in nine years. He’s second all-time in lifetime winning percentage in the Negro League and fifth in wins.
Although baseball’s color barrier kept him from the Major Leagues, he still showed his dominance against big league teams when he got a chance, including throwing a no hitter against the New York Yankees in Puerto Rican winter ball in the 1940s.
He starred in Cuba and Mexico, as well, and played for the Dayton Marcos.
Originally from Alger,Ohio and once a pitcher at Wilberforce University, he ended up in Dayton, worked at the Sunshine Biscuit Company and died poor and uncelebrated.
His 1965 death notice in the Dayton Daily News was on line. There was no mention of baseball, just that friends could call at Bowman Chapel and burial would be at Greencastle Cemetery.
But friends stop calling soon after and for 43 years he was buried in an unmarked grave in the new Greencastle Cemetery on Nicholas Road. It was only when he was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2006 that interest was revived.
I wrote a story about his forgotten grave and soon a grassroots community effort led by now Judge Steve Dankof collected enough donations to buy a headstone. The remainder of the money went to the First Dayton Little League in Ray Brown’s name
But soon after that splash of recognition, Brown was mostly forgotten again. In recent years Greencastle has fallen into major neglect. The guy charged with taking care of the cemetery “abandoned it” say some people with loved ones buried there.
Grass and weeds grew. Trash accumulated. Trees toppled and sometimes took tombstones with them.
“People buried here deserve respect and they deserve dignity,” said Morton Branham, who grew up in the area and has a niece and two uncles buried in the cemetery.
A year ago he began leading a volunteer effort – Concerned Citizens of Greencastle — to take care of the cemetery. But with just a small group for such a big job. it often was difficult to keep ahead of things at the old graveyard.
Saturday, he got some help thanks to the Rebuilding Together Dayton, the nonprofit organization that works to rehab homes for low income Dayton homeowners – especially the elderly – and to preserve their neighborhoods.
While the organization, which has national roots, provides year-round help, it makes an overwhelming impact each April with a National Rebuilding Day effort here. Saturday that involved 800 volunteers from various local corporations, civic and church groups, individual citizens and, for the past decade, the Dayton Flyers football team under the direction of head coach Rick Chamberlin.
“He’s tremendous,” said Amy Radachi, the president and CEO of Rebuilding Together Dayton. “His leadership speaks for itself. You see that every year in what his team is capable of on the field and off the field.
“He’s someone who cares about the character of his football players and cares about his community.”
In his 11 seasons as the Flyers head coach, Chamberlin’s teams have gone 85-38 and won three Pioneer Football League titles. Off the field his efforts have been even more impressive.
As missions director of Northside Wesleyan Church on Neff Road, he has made Good Samaritan trips to Africa and Mexico where he helped build schools and churches and worked with the poorest of children. His church now supports a missionary couple in Papua New Guinea
Here in Dayton the church has supported food pantries, homeless shelters and the Oasis House — the refuge for the women who dance in the strip clubs and work in the massage parlors that line nearby North Dixie Drive.
He helps people from all walks of life and he’s prompted his football players to do the same.
“They might not be from here, but they’re part of the community now,” he said.
Saturday, Chamberlin, some of his assistant coaches and 79 players took part in morning and afternoon shifts with the Rebuilding Together Dayton campaign. Several worked on demolition projects in the surrounding Edgemont Neighborhood and he brought 10 of his older players to Greencastle to help with cleanup
And when they came upon Ray Brown’s grave, he was especially moved:
“He was an athlete who attained a high level of success in a difficult time and I think the players can appreciate that. To be exposed to something like that today only further enhances this experience for them.”
That crossed the mind of junior tight end Jay Vallie, as well.
As he was cutting grass, he started to focus on the various headstones.
Brown’s grave was flanked by Walter Richards and Minnie Cook. Behind them were the final resting places of World War II soldiers Abraham Leatherwood, Donald Smith, Olden McKnight and James Johnson, as well as Arthur Childs from World War I.
“I’ve been looking at the tombstones and it popped into my head they all have interesting stories in one way or another,” Vallie said.
He said he felt like he and his teammates we’re doing something good on this day.
“In life you’re going to run into walls and negative people, but then a day like today comes and it reminds you you’re going to run into people that really get it. People who know that it takes others helping others in order for us all to move along and prosper.”
A call to action
Branham said it took a call from his sister, Marcella, a year ago to move him into action
She had seen a TV report about the way the new Greencastle Cemetery (old Greencastle is nearby on South Broadway) had been abandoned and it hit her hard.
It’s where she buried her 31-year-old daughter Michelle six years ago after a sudden heart attack. The gravestone reads: “Our Beloved…The love I feel for you will never die…Mommie.”
“My sister was frantic,” Branham said. “She said, ‘We’ve got to get down there and help clean up the cemetery.”
He showed up a day later with his push lawnmower and did what he could. So did a few other folks.
Finally on Memorial Day last year he sat behind a card table he set up along Nicholas Road and signed up people who stopped and volunteered to help. From an initial group of 50, he ended up with 15 volunteers – including fellow mowers Richard and Michael Hopson, Dunbar grads and basketball players like him – and they met every two weeks to try to keep the graveyard presentable.
Along the way other folks have pitched in, Recently, a crew was sent by Fred Stovall, the director of Public Works for the City of Dayton. And Sean O’Regan, the president of Woodland Cemetery, has been a valuable asset.
“The best measure of people is the way we take care of our dead,” O’Regan said.
He admitted when he first saw the condition of Greencastle, he “stunned by the neglect. I thought, ‘We can do better.’”
And as he watched the groups work Saturday, he nodded: “Thanks to these folks today, we are doing better.”
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