Field Notes: These People Honor the Father of Baseball at an O‘ahu Cemetery
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: the annual gathering at O‘ahu Cemetery that honors baseball’s founder.
Rules of the game
You know how it is. Playing schoolyard games, there was always one guy you could count on to know the rules and lay out the boundaries. Well, Alexander Joy Cartwright was that guy, blown up to the millionth power—because, like a Moses of the sandlot, he laid down the laws of America’s Pastime. That was back in 1845 in New York City, making him the documented, and, until recently, pretty much accepted, “Father of Baseball.” That’s also made his grave at O‘ahu Cemetery a place of pilgrimage every April 17 for a celebrated group of baseball fans. “One day Ferd Lewis and I were having lunch at Kincaid’s,” says Lewis Matlin, a man whose own baseball exploits are none too shabby—general manager of the Hawai‘i Islanders among them. “It was the 17th of April and suddenly it dawned on us that it was Alexander Joy Cartwright’s birthday. So we went out to the cemetery and looked around and said, ‘We should do this every year.’” Over the decades, attendance has waxed and waned, but the event still attracts the faithful and, each year, newcomers.
This year, a distinguished group gathered under a rain fly to sing “Happy Birthday” to Cartwright, cut a cake and take turns telling stories about baseball, reading baseball poems and, in one case, showing how to throw a split-finger fastball—a demonstration that had the crowd extending and rotating their hands in unison. In the early days it was lonelier. Along with Ferd Lewis and Lewis Matlin, who is the father of UH Mānoa athletics director Dave Matlin, the core founders were Patrick J. “Corky” Gallagher, Bob Corboy and Jack Sullivan. “Each year we started adding people,” Lewis Matlin says. “Mike Leidemann, Lyle Nelson. We started having a little ceremony. It developed.” In fact, the gravesite attracts fans year-round, as attested to by the baseballs piled up on Cartwright’s final home plate. “Babe Ruth came in 1934—not to the ceremony, but to pay his respects,” clarifies Matlin from Detroit, where he’s watching a Tigers game. “Sadaharu Oh, the big home-run hitter from Japan. Cartwright’s grave is probably the biggest attraction in the O‘ahu Cemetery.”
Say it ain’t so!
Lyle Nelson took the mic to discuss some disturbing news. “There may be a chance that Alexander Cartwright may not be in the Hall of Fame, according to The New York Times.” The crowd roared: “NO!” Like a preacher, Nelson trolled the amen corner with the story: A manuscript came up for auction purporting to be the true rules of baseball, written by someone other than Cartwright. But, said Nelson, “How did this guy write these rules 12 years after Alexander Joy Cartwright and the New York Knickerbockers were already playing baseball?” He smiled. “As my friend Marty Chase said, ‘This is a little like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls.’” The whole thing stank, the fans agreed. Throw the bums out!
The poet of the diamond
Joseph Stanton arrived with a book that he waved in the air to the absorbed crowd: a book of baseball poems. More scripture! Speaking of “friends on the eternal green fields of play,” Stanton, a UH Mānoa professor of art and culture, kept the fans in stitches with poems that, like off-speed pitches, were long on wind-up and short on delivery.
Meet the Players
Charles Tisdale, 27, with Michael, 9 months
“A week ago, my wife and I read in the paper about this—we’re students at the university. My professor said Alexander Cartwright is buried here and my wife said we should go. So here we are.”
Jim Becker, retired sportswriter
“I am the last sportswriter alive who was in the press room for Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues. I realized he was carrying the banner for all of us, and he was carrying it alone.”
Jack Sullivan, “Mr. Soccer,” Olympic Torch carrier
“Alexander Joy Cartwright IV passed away this year. He used to come here. He had a byline: Mr. Baseball. Sold baseball products. He helped us a lot.”