PLEASANTVILLE -- The grave of one of the greatest baseball players of all time is located on a sparse patch of grass in the sprawling Atlantic City Cemetery.
He is buried a few feet away from a chain-link fence that separates a tiny section of the cemetery from Universal Supply Company. Pieces of trash are stuck in the links. Brown leaves are piled up against it, covering several gravestones, such as the one belonging to William G. and Lulu E. Hoyt, who passed away in 1948 and 1950, respectively.
There, too, lies John Henry "Pop" Lloyd.
Lloyd, who died March 19, 1964 at the age of 79, is buried in a plot along with his first wife, "Lizzy," who died in 1931, and an unidentified relative named Edward who passed away in 1932.
The tombstone does not tell of his greatness, but a plaque put there by the Pop Lloyd Committee in 1997 hails the longtime Atlantic City resident and National Baseball Hall of Famer as a "Humanitarian, Mentor and Role Model to the Youth of Atlantic City" and a man who "Served to uphold the dignity of the game and to advance the opportunities of African Americans in the Major Leagues."
The best ever?
Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, a Millville native, is widely regarded as the best baseball player in the game.
A century ago, that distinction belonged to Lloyd, who spent many years in South Jersey.
Lloyd played for more than 25 years, from the early 1900s-1930s, for several Negro League teams, including the Atlantic City-based Bacharach Giants. He was a slick-fielding shortstop and terrific hitter who owned a career batting average of .343, earning him induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1977.
Legend has it that in 1938 noted St. Louis sportswriter Ted Harlow was asked whom he considered the best player in the history of the sport.
The qualified candidates at that point included Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner.
He picked Lloyd.
"If you mean organized (white) baseball, my answer would be Babe Ruth," Harlow reportedly said. "But if you mean in all baseball, organized and unorganized, I would have to say it is a colored man named John Henry Lloyd."
Given Lloyd's talent and gentlemanly demeanor, some historians believe his only flaw was that he was born too soon to break the Major League Baseball color barrier.
Lloyd had long since retired from baseball and was working as a janitor at Atlantic City's Indiana Avenue School while serving as commissioner of the Atlantic City Little League when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, an event MLB celebrates annually on April 15.
Lloyd, however, disagreed with the premise.
"I do not consider that I was born at the wrong time," Lloyd said at the 1949 dedication of Pop Lloyd Stadium at Indiana and Huron avenues. "I felt it was the right time, for I had a chance to prove the ability of our race in this sport. ... And we have given the Negro a greater opportunity now to be accepted into the major leagues with other Americans."
At home in Atlantic City
Lloyd spent his childhood in Jacksonville, Florida, before starting his professional baseball career with the Philadelphia-based Cuban X Giants in 1906. He played for several teams over the span of 26 summers in various Negro Leagues and spent 12 winters playing in the Cuban League.
He spent six seasons with the Bacharach Giants in Atlantic City. According to James E. Overmyer's 2014 book "Black Ball and the Boardwalk: The Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, 1916-29," the team was named after Harry Bacharach, a city commissioner at the time.
Eventually, they played home games at 10,000-seat Bacharach Park, located at North Tennessee and Caspian avenues.
Upon retiring from the Negro Leagues in 1932, Lloyd became a full-time resident of Atlantic City. He first landed a job at the post office, but later moved to the Atlantic City school system, where he worked for Indiana Avenue School principal James Usry, who later became Atlantic City's first black mayor.
When Lloyd was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, Usry, who died in 2002 at 79, attended the ceremony.
"Pop and James Usry were very close," said local historian Michael Everett, of Linwood. "The story goes that Mr. Usry would get very upset when he saw Pop mowing the lawn at the school in his later years."
But Lloyd still played baseball well into his late 50s. Lloyd served as player/manager for a semipro team called the Johnson All-Stars, which was owned by Enoch "Nucky" Johnson of "Boardwalk Empire" fame. When Johnson went to prison, State Senator Frank S. "Hap" Farley took over the team, which became the Farley All-Stars.
"It's funny, but when I was in sixth grade at Indiana Avenue, we had a custodian named Pop Lloyd," Atlantic City native Ron Jordan, 82, said. "As 11-, 12-year-old kids, we never realized who he was until we saw him managing the Hap Farley All-Stars.
"They played all over the place, but their home field was at Kentucky and Adriatic avenues, where the Stanley Holmes Village (housing complex) is now. They were all black, and the other Atlantic City team, the Inlet Athletic and Social Club, was all white."
Over the years, Lloyd became more interested in teaching youngsters how to play the game.
Lloyd was famous for keeping a bucket of baseball mitts in the janitor's office and loved to teach the kids how to play catch. He became heavily involved with youth baseball and was truly moved when Pop Lloyd Stadium in Atlantic City opened in 1949.
"It was the first time a city named something after an African-American ballplayer," Everett said. "That's how beloved he was here. And the stadium is still such a special place, not only in Atlantic City but on a national level."
Decades later, Pop Lloyd's impact on the community remained.
In 1992, the John Henry "Pop" Lloyd Committee was formed with the mission to "preserve and amplify the historical legacy of Baseball Hall of Fame great John Henry Lloyd, all those who played Negro League baseball, and the culture in which it was played."
One of its first goals was to renovate the stadium, which had fallen into disrepair. With the help of the late Max Manning, a Pleasantville native and former Negro Leagues pitcher, the restoration committee held fundraisers and completed the project in 1994.
For 20 years, from 1992 to 2012, the committee also held "Pop Lloyd Weekend" in the fall, which served as a reunion for Negro League players.
But the reunions stopped due to low attendance. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who played for Newark and used to attend every year, died in January at age 96.
"We've lost a lot of the players who were such a special part of the weekend," Everett said. "But there are plans to start it back up."
Pop Lloyd deserves to be remembered forever.