John Newman lives about 14 miles south of the final resting place of one of the most important figures in the history of baseball cards. A longtime teacher, coach, collector and host of the Sports Card Nation podcast, Newman arrived at Hillside Memorial Cemetery in Central Square, NY on Saturday to visit the grave of Jefferson Burdick.
Over the years, other collectors have made the pilgrimage to the small town near Syracuse but it’s not exactly on the beaten path. Burdick may be the Babe Ruth of collecting, but when it comes to visitors, his plot isn’t nearly as popular as The Babe’s.
Newman figured he was too close not to visit.
“I used Find a Grave online to find what section exactly. Thankfully the cemetery numbers their sections,” Newman told SC Daily. “Most don’t.”
While he was glad to have found the final resting place of the godfather of cards, Newman noticed that the elements had made the headstone’s message a bit difficult to read.
“One of the greatest card collectors of all times.”
Indeed he was.
Burdick’s job was not empowering but in the quiet world of trading card collectors from the 1930s until his death, he was a highly respected icon.
“He was the No. 1 guy,” Detroit collector Frank Nagy told a Syracuse newspaper 30 years ago. “He was bigger than life. Everyone looked up to him.”
Burdick authored the American Card Catalog that gave organization to chaos, creating single letter designations for the types of cards he knew. He wrote articles, sharing his knowledge of all types of cards.
While some newbies may not know of Burdick’s importance to the Hobby’s foundation, the fact that collectors are drawn to his life and his final resting place speaks volumes. 60 years after his death, his outlook on card collecting is timeless.
“A card collection is a magic carpet,” Burdick wrote in 1939, “that takes you away from work-a-day cares to havens of relaxing quietude where you can relive the pleasures and adventures of a past day — brought to life in vivid picture and prose.”
The fact that Newman could find a headstone is only because Burdick’s former assembly line co-worker at an electronics parts plant discovered that there was no marker for his friend. John DeFlores bought one in 1997– 34 years after Burdick’s passing in March 1963. DeFlores, then 89, fondly recalled sharing work space with his older friend whose frail body suffered from crippling arthritis he’d dealt with since the 1940s.
“He was picked on his whole life,” DeFlores told Syracuse.com at the time. “He always kept to himself.”
Burdick’s life was his collection and he knew it had artistic and cultural value. He made arrangements to donate all of it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he pasted cards into books that held them all up until the final weeks of his life.
“I shan’t be back,” he’s reported to have said to a museum staffer when the work was done. He checked himself into a hospital in January of 1963 and died two months later. His collection lives on at the Met, which regularly rotates part of it into museum exhibits and began digitizing it all 11 years ago.
In the 26 years since Burdick’s headstone was installed, accumulated moss and grime had taken their toll.
After snapping a photo, Newman vowed to do what he could. He returned home and began looking online for tips on cleaning grave markers. On Sunday morning, he returned to the cemetery and sat down in front of Jeff Burdick’s grave once again.
“I used a soft bristle brush, pump sprayer of water, toothpicks and a solution of cleaning vinegar and Dawn,” he revealed.
About an hour and ten minutes later, the headstone looked like it had just been installed.
Burdick’s grave sits between those of his parents.
Newman cleaned those, too.
He vowed to return once a month to pay his respects and make sure the graves are maintained.
“I feel in my heart it’s the least I can do for the contributions to the hobby we love that Mr. Burdick has given of himself.”