Stew Thornley laughs and acknowledges he doesn't have the most ordinary of hobbies. But he also has little self-consciousness about how he became credited nearly a decade ago with running the "most morbid" website in sports.
Thornley is an official scorer for the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Timberwolves, a public affairs worker for the state of Minnesota, a prolific author, reformed skydiver (he had a close call -- don't ask) and lover of numbers, history and collections of things -- sometimes the more arcane the collection, the better.
For the past 21 years, the 60-year-old Minnesota native has been on a quest, which now stands at 213 visits made, to see the graves of every Baseball Hall of Famer. He has compiled a macabre list of every deceased Cooperstown inductee, complete with photo links, addresses and, in many cases, GPS coordinates of where the burial sites can be found.
In the shorthand parlance of men and women who collect graveyard experiences, Thornley is what's known as a "graver." While his search for the plots of long gone standouts, such as Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown in Terre Haute, Indiana, or Rube Waddell in San Antonio, is nominally about allowing him to cross another name off his list, it's about more than that.
"It's really about the adventure," Thornley said. "A lot of people think I do all this work, I go traveling around, I get there and I'm standing at this grave and I get some kind of cosmic connection like, 'I never saw this guy play. But here I am!'
"It's more like a treasure hunt to me," he explained. "It gives a destination to the journey. Sometimes I do make a trip primarily to run around looking for these places. But even in doing that, it gets you into a lot of places in a city or even a country that you've never been. The challenge of it is what's interesting to me -- and the stories you get too."
Thornley said one of his most protracted hunts began while he was on a baseball-related trip to Cuba in 2001. Eager to see the famous Monument to Baseballists at Havana's Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, Thornley was taken aback when a caretaker said yes, legendary ballplayer Jose Mendez was indeed among "the boxes of bones" entombed there, but fellow Negro Leaguer and Cuban-born great Cristobal Torriente was not. That surprise touched off a determined odyssey that didn't end until 15 years later, when Thornley landed at JFK Airport in January, climbed into a cab and asked his driver, "How do you feel about swinging by a cemetery in Queens on your way to midtown Manhattan?"
And so began the close of another "adventure" for Thornley, who had learned Torriente was at Calvary Cemetery because another graver's research and phone calls had traced the player's death certificate to New York.
It helps that graveyard explorers seem to be a cooperative bunch like that, Thornley said. They exchange info with each other, honorably give credit where credit is due and often join together on their hunts. For the past 15 years, Thornley has been a contributor to the website Find A Grave, a gold mine for such information. (He even kids and brags a bit on his bio page there, detailing how his "fun with death" extends to being a participant in a Fantasy Death League. "I was the winner of our 1998 league, having correctly predicted the deaths of, among others, Pol Pot, Eddie Rabbitt, Barry Goldwater, Linda McCartney, Harry Caray and Jack Lord.")
In addition to the Baseball Hall of Famers' graves, Thornley has visited the resting spots of all 40 U.S. presidents, but he confesses that's not as challenging, because they're mostly buried in notable places.
Thornley's baseball grave visits, on the other hand, have taken him to far-flung spots in 31 states, as well as Cuba, since he started the hobby on a whim while in Hawaii with his wife, Brenda, in 1995. ("Luckily, she's always up for adventure too," he said.) Thornley suggested they make an impromptu visit to the Oahu grave of baseball pioneer Alexander Cartwright Jr., and the side trip reminded him of another story. His dad made a detour when they were on a family outing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and decided on the spur of the moment to visit the grave of George Gipp, the legendary Notre Dame football player. Stew was nearly 12 at the time.
He believes that's how his passion for such adventures was born.
Thornley is now two decades into his Baseball Hall of Fame quest. He said he hasn't given up visiting the remaining eight or so HOFers who have died since the last time his collection was complete.
His sleuthing trips have taken him to remote spots, such as Swifton, Arkansas, the tiny town where Tigers great George Kell is buried. On an extended California swing that allowed him to cross five names off the list. (Leo Durocher, who was tough to find, is buried at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills, not far from Ricky Nelson of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" fame.) While visiting Martin Dihigo's grave at another stop on his 2001 Cuba trip, the locals were so proud anyone cared enough to make the trek that they threw Stew and Brenda a dinner and dancing party.
The visit to Waddell's monument in San Antonio was intriguing because the left-handed strikeout pitcher was known to run out of ballparks if he heard fire truck sirens blaring, one of many quirks that has fed speculation Waddell suffered from an undisclosed mental illness.
"When I got to his grave, someone before me had left a small toy fire truck there," Thornley said, "which I thought was kind of a nice tribute to him in a cool, understated kind of way."
Other burial sites can be more elusive to find, but Thornley said it helps that there is a graveyard explorer's grapevine to spread news, such as when the family of Dodgers great Don Drysdale moved his ashes out of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Thornley also got word when another graver reported that he had successfully made an appointment at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, to see where Ted Williams' remains are frozen in a canister and posted some photos to document his visit.
Thornley hasn't made it to Alcor -- yet.
But he and Brenda have already bought their own grave plot near their suburban Minneapolis home.
One other note: During his January trip to New York, during which he saw Torriente's grave in Queens, Thornley also visited the Brooklyn grave of Gil Hodges, the former Dodgers great and World Series-winning Mets manager who is controversially not in the Hall of Fame, despite much lobbying.
If and when Hodges does get into Cooperstown, Thornley will again be able to say, "Been there, done that."
"I know some people think it's strange," he laughingly admitted. I know."