It’s a crime that could be inducted in its own walk of shame.
A bronze marker honoring the legendary boxer Jersey Joe Walcott has been reported missing from the site of the old Campbell’s Field baseball stadium in Camden. Authorities believe thieves ripped the marker from a path that was a walk of fame honoring Walcott and other Camden County natives.
It was discovered missing in late December when crews with R.E. Pierson Construction of Pilesgrove, Salem County, began clearing the eight-acre site for demolition, said Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen. Three other markers were intact and were removed for safekeeping, he said.
“It was quickly chipped out of the concrete,” Keashen said. “They’re confident it was stolen.”
The markers honoring Walcott and four other Camden residents for their contributions to the city were among the few remaining pieces of memorabilia from the $20 million stadium that was once home to the Camden Riversharks. The stadium was torn down last month to make way for new athletic fields for Rutgers-Camden.
Walcott was inducted into the walk of fame at Campbell’s Field in August 2015. The inlet was placed in front of the stadium to honor the Merchantville native who won the world heavyweight title in 1951, becoming an unlikely champion.
The markers were left at the stadium after the Riversharks, the independent baseball team that played there for 15 years, ceased operations in 2015. Under a $15 million deal last year, the city and Rutgers-Camden purchased the stadium from the county, with a goal of putting a sports complex on the site.
Keashen said the theft was reported Dec. 21, before the stadium was reduced to a pile of rubble. The Walcott marker was roughly 12 by 18 inches and was caulked into the sidewalk, he said. The three other markers recognized community leaders the Rev. Chris Collins, Victor Carstarphen, Maurice DeShields, the Keene Family, and Yocontalie Jackson, and baseball players from the Negro Leagues, he said.
Jackson, one of the organizers of the walk, said she was stunned to learn that the Walcott marker was missing. She said she visited the stadium in December and took photographs of the marker, which weighed about 30 pounds.
“It’s been there for years. It’s awfully strange that all of a sudden it gets stolen,” Jackson said Friday. “It’s never been touched or defaced.”
Jackson, a member of the city’s arts commission, said she plans to work with the county to create another walk of fame, possibly on the waterfront near the entrance to Wiggins Park recognizing Walcott and other Camden residents.
The Camden County Improvement Authority has custody of the three remaining markers, valued at about $500 each, until officials figure out where to place them, Keashen said. Authorities believe those were not taken because they were anchored into the cement, he said.
If the Walcott marker is not recovered, Keashen said, county officials would likely have another plaque made and put at the sports complex site when it is completed to honor the boxer, whose legal name was Arnold Cream and who died in 1994 at age 80. Walcott’s round marker was valued at about $1,000, he said.
“He’s an inspiring person. That kind of stuff needs to be preserved,” said Vincent Cream, Walcott’s oldest grandson. “I hope that it will resurface.”
After the Walcott marker theft was discovered, the Camden County Historical Society did a walk-through at the stadium and retrieved items with a historical value, said executive director Jack O’Byrne. They include two large Riversharks logos, a scoreboard from the upper deck, six benches, and several vinyl banners.
“We made a list,” O’Byrne said Thursday. “They pretty much gave us everything we wanted.”
The historical society plans to put the Riversharks memorabilia in a courtyard at its Park Boulevard campus, O’Byrne said. The scoreboard may be donated to Camden High School for its baseball field if it can be adapted, he said.
O’Byrne was unaware of the missing Walcott marker and said the society would have liked to have that for its collection. The society has been working with the Cream family to erect a larger-than-life bronze likeness of Walcott in a sculpture garden in Camden.
A campaign was launched last year to raise about $100,000 needed for the cost of the statue. Vinnie Bagwell, known for sculptures of luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye, has been commissioned to create the statue. O’Bryne said about $30,000 has been raised and a fund-raiser is planned for March 23.
“This man deserves respect,” O’Byrne said.
Walcott began boxing professionally in 1930 at age 16. He became famous years later after knocking down Joe Louis, the undisputed champion, in a title fight. Many fans and Walcott thought he had won the bout, but the judges declared Louis the winner.
On his fifth try for the title, Walcott defeated reigning champ Ezzard Charles during a bout in Pittsburgh in 1951. At 37, Walcott became the oldest heavyweight champion.
A year later, Walcott lost the world heavyweight title to Rocky Marciano. Back home, Walcott went on to become the first African American to serve as sheriff of Camden County, and was heralded as a symbol of perseverance in the ring and in life.
Anyone with information on the theft of the marker is being asked to contact the Camden County Police Department tip line at 856-757-7042.