Today is the second installment of E5280Sports.com’s two-part story of Oliver “The Ghost” Marcelle, the greatest third baseman in Negro Leagues history, and how he came to be buried in an unmarked Denver grave. To read Part One, click here. Otherwise…
In his playing days, Oliver Marcelle gained notoriety and a nickname either for his smooth brilliance on the field or his dark lifestyle off of it. Dubbed “The Ghost,” some say his moniker originated in his instinctive, inborn defensive skills. Baseball Reference, however, says the nickname “was due to his never being in the team hotel when he was expected there.”
In 1924, a year in which he was named captain of the Lincoln Giants, Marcelle was out one night with teammates Frank Wickware and Dave Brown when Brown is alleged to have killed a man in a barroom fight. Marcelle and Wickware were picked up for questioning the next day at the ballpark but later released. Brown was never officially seen or heard from again.
A Creole of a short temper and fiery disposition, Ghost played with reckless abandon on the field. During a game once, Marcelle rapped future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston over the head with a bat. Off the field, however, he drank and gambled to a fault, and his hard-living style drove his playing career careening over the edge.
During the 1929-30 Cuban season, Marcelle got into a heated argument over a craps game with his “Million Dollar Infield” mate Warfield. In the ensuing fight, Warfield, another extreme competitor noted for his unstable temper, bit off a portion of The Ghost’s nose. When he resumed his playing career, Marcelle wore a patch over his missing nostril but, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, “Oral accounts indicate that this incident was indirectly responsible for his withdrawal from league play because Marcelle, a vain man, could not endure the ‘ragging’ from fans and opposing players about his appearance.” However, as Baseball Reference points out, “His statistics…show a 33-year-old in decline relative to his league and the claims that the nose injury led to his finish as a player may be overstated.”
Either way, despite repeated attempts to keep playing with various independent teams and one major comeback attempt with the 1934 Miami Giants, The Ghost’s playing days were done.
That same year, Marcelle washed up in Denver, a city in the grip of the Great Depression. Though Marcelle’s new Queen City hadn’t felt much in the way of immediate impact from the October 1929 stock market crash, nose-diving agricultural and metal prices took their toll on Colorado’s industry, and Denver was sucked down the rabbit hole, as well. By 1933, nearly a quarter of Coloradans were unemployed. Between 1930 and 1934, 56 of Colorado’s 174 state and national banks boarded up. In late 1932, Mayor George D. Begole organized the Denver Emergency Relief Committee to deal with the city’s rocketing unemployment by distributing federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans and to direct charity work. In just three days in January of 1933, nearly 2,000 families requested help. By early April, aid was being given to close to 12,000 families; one in seven in the city.
By the time the Depression hit and Marcelle arrived, baseball and the Mile High City had already a long history. The city’s first recorded ballgame took place on April 26, 1862, and by the next decade, there were teams in towns and cities statewide. In 1886, the Kansas City Cowboys became the first major league club to play in Denver on a barnstorming tour. Through the next few years, the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs), and teams from Cleveland, Boston, and St. Louis played in Denver, as well. It was during World War I, however, that The Denver Post started to put its namesake town on the national baseball map with an annual tournament that would grow to be the country’s preeminent competition outside the big leagues.
In 1933, the Denver Bears, the city’s minor league team, disappeared from the Western League as the economic crisis worsened on all industries, and the Post’s Tournament was all that was left of note on the Denver baseball landscape. Since 1915, teams from around the nation had competed in “The Western World Series” for prize money and the notable distinction of being tournament champions.
Until Oliver Marcelle, however, The Denver Post Tournament had been, like almost all baseball in America at the time, all-white. In one conversation, in his most lasting contribution to the game that defined him, Marcelle changed that. In 1934, The Ghost approached Post sportswriter Poss Parsons, the head of the tournament, about inviting the Kansas City Monarchs to join the event. The Monarchs, then an independent Negro Leagues franchise, were one of the best known and most successful black teams of any era and are today recognized as history’s longest-running Negro Leagues club. Parsons, keen on the idea, extended his invitation, and the Monarchs joined the 1934 fray. When they took the field in Denver, the Monarchs became the first black team to face a white club in anything other than an exhibition contest.
1934. 13 years before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
Marcelle grew more involved with the Post’s tournaments after his suggestion led to the event’s integration. In 1935, two teams, including Denver’s own semipro black squad, the White Elephants, used Marcelle to help them bring in outside talent to compete in the tournament. Denver baseball historian Jay Sanford notes in his book, The Denver Post Tournament, that The Ghost recruited his old Miami Giants teammates to play in Joe Alpert Clothier uniforms and played with them in the tourney. Buck O’Neil manned first base for that squad at a fresh 23 years old. Marcelle also tabbed six former Negro Leaguers to help out with the White Elephants. In ’36, he played on a squad named the Denver Monarchs, and in ’37, the third baseman, now in his 40s, made his final tournament appearance for the Goalstone Brothers Jewelers.
Those, however, were the happier days. After his time on the diamond drew to a close, The Ghost faded away from any semblance of the public light. Marcelle began working as a house painter and general laborer in the Denver area. While continuing to drink in his post-playing days, Marcelle was estranged from his family that included a son, Everett “Ziggy” Marcel (different spelling), who was born in New Orleans in 1916 and cracked the Negro Leagues ranks himself as a member of the Homestead Grays and New York Black Yankees among other teams in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The younger Marcel even entered organized, integrated baseball after the color barrier was broken.
On June 12, 1949, Marcelle was living in Denver in abject poverty. His glory days on diamonds across the country and internationally well behind him, his subsequent years of heavy drinking running him into the ground, the greatest third baseman in Negro Leagues history succumbed to arteriosclerosis. Going by the birth year on his headstone, Marcelle was just shy of his 52nd birthday.
Colorado’s oldest operating cemetery is sandwiched in the shadows of smokestacks straddling the borders of Commerce City and Denver, a stone’s throw from I-70. The smells in the air once stepping among the quiet rows of Colorado citizens buried there range from the dog food produced in a nearby plant to the smell of livestock, perhaps from the Stock Show complex five minutes away. No live flowers are allowed in anymore; the facility, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, long since out of money for regular upkeep. Even today, though, it’s easy to see the once serene and meticulously cultivated beauty that made so many want to spend eternity within Riverside’s fences. In an America so presently mindful of the gap between rich and poor, perhaps no place in Denver exemplifies the historical depth of such a struggle in a stark, photographical juxtaposition as Riverside Cemetery.
Founded in 1876, Riverside was first the final resting place for Denver’s elite. Former governors, congressmen, mayors, entrepreneurs, Medal of Honor winners, and pioneers dot the once-lush fields just past the entrance gates, forever entombed under ornate headstones and monuments or in elaborate mausoleums honoring lives of civic contribution that helped build the Rocky Mountain empire we know today. In 1890, though, the Burlington Railroad carved a path from the southwest heading northeast along the cemetery’s southern edge. With the expansion of the rail came the abandonment of the rich. Many wealthy families exhumed remains of loved ones and had them moved. Riverside, like an old neighborhood past its usefulness to society’s upper crust, gradually began its fall to the middle class and below.
It wasn’t long before Riverside morphed into “the graveyard of the poor” in the Centennial State; the last destination for the bodies of Colorado citizens too poor to afford anything else. They were sent there by economically struggling counties across the state for their final rest in the 77-acre garden. They were sent there without money for their own headstones, mausoleums, or even simple grave markers. They were sent there, often, alone with no friends or family to keep their memory alive.
Drive beyond the mausoleums and the headstones. Pass the giant monument to former Colorado Territory Governor John Evans, the namesake of Evans, Colorado, Mount Evans, and the co-founder of Northwestern University and the University of Denver. Pass the towering statue of Colonel James Archer, the visionary who brought gas and water lines to a young Mile High City. Go beyond the miniature skyline of memorials to the cemetery’s more notable occupants. There, in the fields that appear empty from the cemetery road just feet away, are Riverside’s most numerous and voiceless residents. In the paupers’ fields of Riverside, hundreds of bodies reside forever under flat, overgrown, simple headstones, small circular markers denoting nothing more than a number, and in countless circumstances, in locations with no identification at all.
Along a winding drive, Oliver Marcelle, from the warm fields of a baseball career that gained him the respect and admiration of his generation to the cold emptiness of an impoverished and lonely death, found his final resting place, as well. One without a headstone. For over 40 years,
the greatest third baseman in Negro Leagues history laid in an anonymous grave in a field of anonymous graves. Just steps from millions of
dollars of sandstone and marble and granite honoring some of Colorado’s most fortunate citizens, Marcelle and countless like him weathered year after year, decade after decade without a shred of recognition. Many still do.
For The Ghost, for his contributions to baseball history, and for his legacy of a career marked by on-field superlatives, however, the fate of a forgotten pauper’s grave was an unfit one. In 1991, fate itself recognized that fact.
42 years after his death, Oliver Marcelle’s last chapter was finally closed. At 10:30 a.m. on June 1, 1991, members of Riverside’s ownership, the Fairmount Cemetery Co., gathered with members of the Erickson Monument Co., the Black American West Museum, and the Denver Zephyrs, the Triple-A inheritors of, in part, Marcelle’s Denver baseball legacy, to honor The Ghost one final time. In the culmination of a long effort led by baseball historian and Denver-area resident Jay Sanford, there, weeks shy of what would have been the legend’s 94th birthday, they unveiled a simple grave marker.
Oliver Marcelle was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame eleven years later. Read Part One of E5280Sports.com’s story on The Ghost here.