By Paul Johnson
While Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s secret use of baseball to launch the Korean War may have been the largest deception in military history, the unofficial award for the government’s most unusual use of baseball in the 20th century must go to the Wyoming penitentiary system.
In 1911, prisoners on Death Row were allowed to play in baseball games against local teams, prison officials and civilians betting heavily on the contest, with a basic understanding: win and you’ll live to play again; lose and your death sentence will be carried out quickly.
At the turn of the century, feuds between sheepherders and cattlemen in Wyoming were lethal; with rivals often killing each other when disputes arose about whose animals could graze in a particular territory.
The town of Rawlins became known as being especially hard on criminals. On March 26, 1881, George “Big Nose” Parrott was hung for killing two sheriffs during an attempted train robbery.
After his lynching, locals skinned the felon and made shoes from Parrott. The shoes were proudly placed in the window of the town barbershop as a warning to anyone that Rawlins was serious on crime.
So, when Wyoming officials needed to find a home for its first state penitentiary, Rawlins was the logical answer. From the moment the first prisoner entered the Wyoming State Penitentiary, state officials employed the convict leasing program to lower taxpayer costs. After years of partnership with The Laramie Broom Company, the Wyoming State Legislature canceled the lessee program in April 1911 under mounting evidence of corruption in the program that led to a fortune for the broom baron, Otto Gramm, while the prisoners were barely fed and the state barely compensated.
At the same time that it canceled the lessee program, the legislature named Felix Alston the first state-appointed warden.
A confounding figure, Alston supported social reform for inmates, using the time incarcerated to educate, medicate, and help improve the negative habits or conditions that contributed to an inmate’s lock up. An avid fan of the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb, Alston believed that physical fitness was a cornerstone to inmate reform and set about creating the best baseball team he could.
Weeks prior to Alston’s arrival, inmates had begun playing baseball in their recreation time. Immediately upon his arrival, Alston organized the makeshift group into a 12-inmate squad. Figuring that the men with the most to lose would be the most motivated to win, Alston’s team was comprised solely of men on death row who were told that if they won, their executions would be stayed until further notice, but if they lost the game then their executions would be expedited.
The Wyoming State Penitentiary Death Row All-Stars, also called Alston’s All-Stars, were a noticeable attraction to local fans. Alston challenged local teams to games, and no team has ever taken the field the way the WSP Death Row All-Stars would: the 12-inmate team was chained together and marched in front of the dugout where their shackles were removed as they took their positions. Armed guards ringed the field, their shotguns leveled at the players cautiously. Immediately after the last out, the prisoners were ordered to line up along the third base line where they were handed handcuffs and leg shackles by guards, who, pointing their shotguns at point-blank range now, expected the players to lock their own bindings while fans still sat in the stands.
There was no celebrating of the wins nor commiserating after the losses, these games meant life and death.
Wearing dark blue uniforms trimmed in white, with large white letters W.S.P. across the chest (Wyoming State Penitentiary), the All-Stars were an interracial team (two of the 12 players were black) led by shortstop Joseph Seng, who killed his lover’s husband. Manning first base was Leroy Cooke, who “bludgeoned to death a barber and stole his money;” at second base was George Saban who killed several shepherds; at third base was Jack Carter, who “shot and killed an old hermit, cut him up and burned his remains in the fireplace.” William Boyer, the pitcher, “stabbed his father to death with a letter opener” and his catcher, Horace Donavan, shot to death his brother-in-law. Outfielders William Boyer, Darius Rowan, and Lazlo Korda combined to rape and kill eight people.
Saban was the team captain and allowed to leave the penitentiary at his leisure and when he did leave, he always visited the local saloon to offer inside information about the All-Stars and to take wagers on the games.
Gambling on the All-Stars was so widespread that rumors hit the governor’s office after just the first couple of games, forcing official action. In September, Governor Joseph Carey issued a statewide crackdown on gambling, especially in regards to Alston’s team.
After just four games, Alston’s All-Stars was officially disbanded and the teammates went back to Death Row.
Joseph Seng was executed by hanging on May 22, 1912.
Alston eventually left Wyoming in 1920 and settled in California before dying in 1956 at age 86.
The shoes made from the skin of George “Big Nose” Parrot are on display at The Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.
Chris Ens, Playing for Time: The Death Row All Stars (San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2004).
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