Interview with The Baseball Undertaker: Part I
When Sandy Koufax threw his last Major League pitch, in the 1966 World Series, he was still only 30 years old. Sandy remained in the public eye for several years after his retirement as a broadcaster. On the other hand, Sandy’s ‘66 Dodgers teammate, Nick Willhite, was done with Major League baseball at the age of 26 — he pitched in a combined 14 games for the Angels and Mets in 1967 and that was it.
We know pretty much where Sandy Koufax is even 44 years after his exit from the Dodgers. But whatever happened to Nick Willhite? It seems really young to be retired from Major League Baseball at age 26. He died in late 2008. That means he lived for over 40 years after his major league career was over.
Thanks to a man named Bill Lee, who calls himself “The Baseball Undertaker”, the answer to the question, “Whatever happened to Nick Willhite?”, is available in a matter of seconds. Willhite’s story is, simply put, fascinating.
Signing a bonus out of high school, he was the classic story of a promising baseball career wasted by the ravages of alcohol abuse. After pitching in the minors for a few years he threw batting practice for Kansas City for a short while and bounced around as a roving pitching instructor for multiple organizations, never sticking anywhere very long. In the 1990s, with help from the Baseball Assistance Team, he went through rehab and slowly rebuilt his life. After struggling with alcoholism over the years he ultimately became a Utah-based alcohol counselor and a coach at a youth baseball program at Brigham Young University.
As a matter of respect to baseball’s history, one person is chronicling what happens to players after their careers are over. There’s a movie to be made out of this, somehow, somewhere. But, if not for the Baseball Undertaker, or similar projects, this story might only be known to a select few in Provo.
Necrology —  A list of people who have died, especially in the recent past or during a specific period or  The science of the collection, classification, and interpretation of mortality statistics.
As described on the official website:
This exhaustive reference work presents information that has never before been available in one source. It briefly details the after-baseball lives of some 7600 major leaguers, owners, managers, administrators, umpires, sportswriters, Negro Leaguers, announcers and broadcasters who are now deceased. Each entry tells the date and place of the player’s birth, the number of seasons he spent in the majors, the primary position he played, the number of seasons he spent as a manager in the majors (if applicable), his after-baseball career and activities, date and cause of his death, and his final resting place.
In the introduction to the Necrology, Mr. Lee described his motivation for compiling the book:
Sometime between age 25 and age 45, usually in the early 30’s, the ballplayer is through as a performer, but he still has twenty to forty useful years ahead of him. What did the ballplayers of the past do with those twenty to forty years? The Baseball Necrology addresses this subject on more than 7600 now deceased baseball players, as well as other personalities in the game of baseball, giving their cause of death and the location of their final resting place.
All too many former ballplayers (and executives and broadcasters) have passed away since 2003. Mr. Lee therefore maintains a second website, The Baseball Necrology Live, which provides similar information about those who have died in the intervening years.
Earlier this month, Mr. Lee sat down for an interview with Books on Baseball. In addition to the Necrology, Mr. Lee turned out to have an encyclopedic memory of both Major and Minor League players and stadiums. A subsequent post will explore those memories. Below is a transcript of the portions of the interview covering Mr. Lee’s roots as the Baseball Undertaker and his involvement with the Necrology project.
Jason Miller for Books on Baseball: Was there any specific player whose death inspired you to start The Baseball Necrology?
Bill Lee, the Baseball Undertaker: It was more of an accumulation over time. Even going back to the 1950s and ’60s, I often wondered what happened to these guys after they got out of the limelight. One may see their baseball accomplishments in any number of places. But what about after baseball? Unfortunately, the only place you can find out about that is the obituaries after they’re dead.
JM: Your website calls you the Baseball Undertaker rather than the Baseball Necrologist. How did that come about?
BL: There was a fellow that did a review of my book. He said I should be called the “Baseball Undertaker”, and I grabbed on to that and have been running with it ever since. My first website, baseballundertaker.com, was set up primarily to sell the book. I was going to call it baseballnecrology.com, but someone said, “No one will be able to spell Necrology.” I had already been dubbed the Baseball Undertaker, so I went with baseballundertaker.com.
I also have another website which is TheBBNLive.com, which is also a play on words. TheBBN for an abbreviation of the title of the book, The BaseBall Necrology and Live, because it’s relatively current and up-to-date. I call it a corrected, expanded and up-to-date version of the printed book. All a person has to do is select a player’s name from a dropdown list, and everything that’s in the book, plus more, will appear in a matter of seconds. I’m in the process of adding gravesite photos to the site, plus grave locations and GPS coordinates. Much of the latter is provided to me by a whole army of “baseball necrologists” who have evolved since the book itself was published in 2003.
JM: How often do you update the live website?
BL: It depends on how often some baseball personality dies. I’ve already updated it to include Clint Hartung – he was a player who died the other day – George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, who just died this week – they are in there. Sometimes a half-dozen or so will die in a week’s time. And other times it may be several weeks with none. However, I’m always looking for additional information on those already on file.
[Editor's Note: Ralph Houk died a few days after this interview, and The BBN Live has already been updated accordingly]
JM: How much time do you spend updating the sites?
BL: I spend probably an average of an hour a day. Sometimes it’s all day, and some days not at all. I’m always looking for information about what ballplayers did after their career, cause of death, place of burial, as well as little known pieces of baseball trivia that is not easy to find elsewhere, so I spend some time expanding the information in the book on to The BBN Live website. I have other projects that have taken a back seat to The Baseball Necrology for a good many years. I’m now able to get back to working on those.
JM: I actually have to thank you for those gravesite photos. I live in Brooklyn, New York. There’s a big cemetery at the end of my street but I didn’t know until researching your site that Henry Chadwick, who invented the box score and many other statistics, is buried right down the street from me (see photo at left).
BL: There are a lot of ballplayers buried in your area. Jackie Robinson is buried at Cypress Hill in Brooklyn (see picture at right). Bob Sheppard was just buried in the Long Island National Cemetery [in Farmingdale]. There are 20 or more ball players at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside [in Queens]. From the freeway that looks like a really interesting cemetery – one that I have not visited, but have seen from the freeway.
JM: Are you actively looking for more baseball gravesites?
BL: My wife and will be going on a six-week trip for other reasons in September into October and part of that time we’re going to be traipsing through cemeteries getting pictures and GPS coordinates. That seems to be the big thing right now; I just got my GPS the other day and it’ll take me within two to three feet of those graves I have the coordinates for.
JM: Do you have a “wish list” of baseball graves you’d like to visit?
BL: Not especially, it’s not something I’m going to go way out of my way to do. If I’m in the neighborhood I’ll stop and snap a picture that will eventually find its way onto my website. I have quite a few photos of my own now on the website, plus others that some of my grave hunting friends have sent me to use. We necrologists are a sharing bunch, so you’re likely to find the same thing in a number of places, but generally speaking, that’s true of the Internet.
JM: When did you start gathering the information that became The Baseball Necrology?
BL: My wife and I started in 1996 and it was published in 2003. That last year was mostly spent finishing the manuscript and looking for a publisher, so we worked gathering information for the book about six years.
JM: Do you remember the very first player you looked up?
BL: I don’t remember the first player I tracked down. But I can tell you why and when I got onto this. Up until 1996 my wife, LaVonne, who is an integral part of all my projects, had spent several years doing on-site courthouse research of family names and genealogy for other folks. Over the years we have darkened the doors of over 800 county courthouses. We had an RV and would spend six to eight months a year traveling from courthouse to courthouse. We would do this in the summer when the roads were passable, then spend our winters in our office analyzing and compiling the data we had gathered during the previous summer. During the winter of 1995-1996 LaVonne fell in our office and broke a hip. If you’ve done any work in county courthouses you know it is hazardous duty. They’re old, they’re clumsy, they have big old ladders that you have to climb up and down to get to the records that are kept in trays, boxes and folders. Anyway, we were on our summer trip in 1996, doing research in some rural courthouse in southeastern Colorado, and LaVonne was going up one of those ladders looking for some record that no one had looked at in over a 100 years. I saw her, and said, “Hey! It is time to change direction.” That was the end of our onsite courthouse research. On the other hand, newspapers, where you get obituaries, are in a fairly central location for each state, usually in libraries, not in courthouse environments. They’re not bothered by you being there looking for records. One can sit down and spend the day at a microfilm reader, which isn’t exciting duty, but I didn’t want LaVonne climbing around courthouses anymore. The baseball thing was something I had in the back of my mind for a few years, and that was our new project.
JM: Did you find a lot of interest in The Baseball Necrology from publishers?
BL: I found it relatively easy finding a publisher. I got a directory of publishers that listed their field of interests and sent some letters and got on the phone. I got a lot of no-responses and no’s. There didn’t seem to be much interest, but then I called Steve Geitschier at Sporting News in St. Louis, which I understand is now defunct after being the Bible of Baseball for so many years [Editor's note: The News continues on a reduced, biweekly schedule]. Steve told me there was nothing he could do for me, but suggested that I call McFarland. I talked to Steve Wilson at McFarland, and it was a go. McFarland is a publisher located up in the foothills of North Carolina (great place) that does a lot of baseball stuff, as well as a wide variety of non-fiction/research type books.
JM: When did you start converting the information from the Baseball Necrology book onto the Baseball Undertaker and BBN Live websites?
BL: During the collection of the material I put it on a 3.3 DOS computer that gave McFarland some fits in the conversion to their computer. I kept the DOS files updated until about four years ago when I converted that over to Windows XP and an Access Data Base. Over the last year the Access data base has been converted to SQL and I went live (please excuse the play on words) with The BBN Live last October. Like I said earlier, The Baseball Undertaker website was strictly a sales tool. That website has been up for about six years now. By the way, I still have a few new, hard cover books available at a bargain price.
The Baseball Necrology is still available for purchase at Mr. Lee’s website.
Part II of this interview, detailing Mr. Lee’s memories of California baseball both pre- and post-the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, will appear shortly.