When a Baseball Game was Life or Death (Part I)
By Tamar Chalker
When you are a fan who breathes Yankees baseball, certain games can feel like they are a life or death situation (especially when you live in the midst of Red Sox country as I do), but in 1911 some games played in Wyoming truly had life or death consequences.
The Wyoming State Penitentiary was founded in 1901, when the “Old West” was still alive, if on its last legs. Bounty hunters and sheriffs would hunt down convicts and overcrowded prisons meant prisoners were still being hung in the town squares. WSP was constructed to house the long-term prisoners and to open up space in the county jails. The cold, dark institution had no electricity or running water and was run by a man named Otto Gramm.
Gramm was a millionaire businessman who wanted to be a warden. When I first read that, I was a little confused. Why would someone who was already a millionaire in 1901 want to be a warden? Well, (not unlike we’ve seen in recent years) prisons can be quite profitable when you have a virtually free workforce that is under your complete control.
Gramm was Joe Arpaio 100 years ahead of time. As previously mentioned, there was no electricity or running water. Additionally, Gramm had incredibly strict rules in order to keep costs down, including counting how many beans each prisoner was allowed at meal time. He put a broom factory in WSP and the equivalent of six million dollars over his ten-year reign.
Eventually, the government got wind of the conditions at WSP and the fact that Gramm had profited greatly off the backs of these prisoners, which did not sit well with them. Felix Alston took over as warden and immediately things shifted in the prison. One of the biggest changes he made was to allow the prisoners time outside to exercise. For many of these men, they had not seen daylight in ten years, so this was a big deal. One of their favorite forms of outdoor entertainment, of course, was playing baseball.
Alston was impressed with the talent the prisoners showed on the baseball field, stating he felt that many of them were just as good as professional players. Eventually, he formed the Wyoming State Penitentiary All-Stars and the players got real uniforms and some other perks.
The team played their first game on July 18, 1911 with a roster made up people convicted of rape, murder, theft, and forgery, which likely added an extra element of excitement for spectators. After all, public hangings were still a thing and the American obsession with crime has always been quite powerful.
In that first game, the WSP All-Stars took on the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors, a local team that was well-respected in the area. Alston’s feelings about his team of prisoners, however, was given a great boost when the WSP All-Stars clobbered the Juniors 11-1.
Now, lest you think this is going to be a feel-good story, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that this doesn’t end with a bunch of rehabilitated prisoners going back into society and leading productive lives or someday playing in the Major Leagues. But for now you will have to wait until next week to find out the fate of the WSP All-Stars, along with the ongoing feud between Gramm and Alston.