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Tim Johnson checks out the wall of baseballs -- each bearing the name of a soldier who died in Iraq -- he helped his father build.
Tim Johnson checks out the wall of baseballs -- each bearing the name of a soldier who died in Iraq -- he helped his father build. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

Hardball heaven

In Whitman, a commemorative wall honors fallen US soldiers

WHITMAN -- There's no crying in baseball, except probably at 5 this evening.

That's when a Veterans of Foreign Wars honor guard will help unveil a wall of signed baseballs, each listing the name, rank, and date of death of an American soldier killed in the war in Iraq.

"There's nothing more American than baseball, except for the flag," said Chris Johnson, president of the Whitman Baseball and Softball Association, who spearheaded the project. "I just wanted in some way to remember those that were killed."

The memorial, 16 feet long and 6 feet high, has been kept under wraps for more than a month. It will be dedicated to the VFW before the Braintree-Whitman Little League game at the Clinton G. Bradshaw Field.

The wall, located behind the third-base dugout, has struck a nerve in this town. The baseballs evoke sobering thoughts of real heroes, and emotions run high for those who have peeked at the tribute. "People are coming up here and just starting to cry," said Johnson. "It's just unbelievable."

Johnson, 38, got the idea for a memorial while watching the news on television earlier this year. "The coverage turned into a political debate of whether we should be [in Iraq] or not," he said. "I feel we were losing sight of the fact that young people were dying."

Initially, Johnson dedicated a Little League game to each fallen soldier, but as the casualties grew, there were not enough games to keep pace. Eventually the idea evolved into stacking baseballs in custom-built, flag-draped cabinets.

Then, during the wall's construction, random deeds of kindness started happening. Rawlings donated 20 dozen balls ("The neighborhood kids helped me unpack the balls, cases of 'em, in my garage"), and volunteers spread mulch and planted shrubs around the wall.

Johnson's friend Don Rice, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Janene, spent hours documenting the baseballs.

"It took us 10 minutes per ball," Johnson said.

Johnson hired a contractor to build the wall, and the contractor donated materials.

"Yesterday a guy just showed up," said Johnson. "He's a veteran. He says, `Here's what we're going to do,' and he helps build the metal top [to the wall]. I came here today, and these [landscaping] stones are here. I have no idea who did it. They just showed up." Johnson, a senior electrical foreman at The Boston Globe, had volunteers help him install lighting.

It has cost him an estimated $2,500, but he's not concerned.

"It's unbelievable; people are walking up to me on the street handing me money," he said.

Mark Silva, a member of the league's board of directors, arrived in his pickup truck with an inscribed plaque: "In memory of those who gave all. (Operation Iraqi Freedom.)"

"This is a very patriotic town that wants to show its support," said Silva. "If you lose someone from Nebraska or Idaho, there's someone in Whitman taking notice."

Johnson didn't want to wait for the sacrifices in Iraq to be acknowledged. He has a build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy.

He knew he had suceeded when his mother-in-law saw the wall. "She was crying," he said.

Later, a woman walking her dog asked Johnson to help find the name of her nephew, Staff Sergeant Paul Neff Jr., of South Carolina. Neff was killed in Tikrit, Iraq, last Nov. 7.

"She got all choked up," said Johnson.

Johnson was making some last-minute preparations when a woman hurried over for a look. "Oh my God, I wondered for weeks what this was. That's so nicely done," said Carole Gordon, a Whitman resident.

"I play home run derby here," said Brad Condari, 10, of Whitman, pointing to the manicured ballfield with red-and-white bunting and American flags atop the foul poles. "This makes me think about all the people who died in war. I didn't think it was that many."

Said Johnson, "The mere fact that people don't know how many people have died makes this worth it."

But the project is not an antiwar protest.

"This is not meant to be a statement other than it is a memorial," said Johnson. "It's less about the war, more about the people who sacrificed their lives."

Finished for the day, Johnson and his sons Tim, 14, and Patrick, 11, covered the wall as it started to rain.

Tonight promises a short ceremony before the game. "We're not heavy on speeches," said Johnson. "It's just the right thing to do."

Whitman is a stop on the road to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., hosting sectional games July 16.

"I was hoping that the war would be over and we could send these baseballs home to the families," Johnson said.

The cabinets have room for 900 baseballs. The American death toll was 868 as of yesterday.

"Hopefully we won't have to extend the case," said Johnson. "I hope to God it never comes to that." 

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