When a Baseball Game was Life or Death (Part II)
By Tamar Chalker
Last week, I started telling the story of the Wyoming State Penitentiary All-Stars baseball team. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you start here. Now, for the conclusion of this pretty wild story…
After ten years of Otto Gramm’s harsh and exploitative management of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, Sheriff Felix Alston took over and made life much more bearable within the prison. While the inmates were now allowed time to exercise and meals that weren’t counted out to the bean, this did not mean that Alston’s time with at WSP wasn’t also exploitative.
Alston had been able to convince Governor Joseph Carey to allow the formation of the WSP All-Stars, but this wasn’t done out of the generosity of either men. Both men were friends and Carey was a big gambler. They had found a new way to profit off of the inmates without it being as blatant and harsh as Gramm’s broom factory.
Joseph Seng was the best player on the All-Stars squad and quickly became a bit of a folk hero in Wyoming. Seng was on death row for purportedly murdering his lover’s husband, hoping that his lover would then run off with him. He also was hitting homers in just about every game. Seng’s backstory added a kind of “dangerous romantic” quality to the star player and local papers and fans latched onto his story.
Citizens following the WSP All-Stars thought it was terrible that such a baseball talent should be sentenced to death, particularly for a murder committed for love. They began petitioning the State to lessen Seng’s sentence and soon rumors were flying that if he played well, Seng’s sentence would be reduced to life in prison.
The All-Stars’ captain was a man named George Saban, who was also serving time for murder. While Seng’s situation bought him some strange romantic sympathy, it wasn’t nearly as much as Saban had for his misdeed. The Old West mentality was still strong in Wyoming and an ongoing land dispute between cattle and sheep herders often turned violent. Saban had ambushed three sleeping sheep herders and executed them, shooting each of them in the face at close range. He still elicited a lot of sympathy from the other in the Wyoming cattle industry.
In fact, Saban had actually been arrested by Alston, who was sympathetic to Saban’s plight, but had a job to do. When he later became the warden, Alston allowed Saban to don civilian clothing and come and go from the prison during the day as he pleased. While he was always accompanied by a officer and had to return to the jail by night, this afforded him the luxury of basically living as a free man without having to worry about where to sleep at night.
Saban spent a lot of his free time in the local bars talking up the All-Stars and how hard they were training for their upcoming slate of games. The captain then encouraged them to bet on the games, sending money into the pockets of the warden and the Governor Carey. The baseball players, in turn, began to see more perks at WSP. They got more food than the average prisoners and other special treatment.
Saban took his role in the gambling conspiracy, and as captain, very seriously. He would threaten any players who performed poorly, even saying that they would have time added to their sentences. Saban also bolstered the whispers that Seng’s sentence might be reduced.
The rumors that Seng might escape the noose, while exciting to fans of the WSP All-Stars, was not met with the same exuberance inside the walls of the prison. As his execution date kept being pushed back, Alston always claimed it was due to bureaucracy. One prisoner purportedly decided to take matters into his own hands when Seng’s original execution date arrived. He attempted to kill Seng himself by dropping a heavy box filled with sand over a railing. The box narrowly missed Seng’s head and Alston decided it was time to increase security at the prison.
When going out to the bars, Saban was often accompanied by Officer Johnson, who it would later turn out was relaying information back to Gramm. Of course, Gramm was not sympathetic with the cattle herders and was still upset about his broom factory scheme being upended, so when he got information about Saban placing bets on the All-Stars with Alston’s money, he made his move.
Gramm reached out to his own friend, Wyoming Senator Francis Warren, who was planning on running against Carey for Governor. Warren was certain Carey was also part of the gambling scheme, but before he could capitalize on this information, Alston and Carey shut down the baseball team.
Hearing rumors about gambling and other improprieties surrounding the WSP All-Stars, Alston and Carey began discussing the addition of an educational program within the prison. After their final game on August 29th, which the All-Stars won 15-10, the team was disbanded. In September, Carey announced a crackdown on gambling statewide.
Alston supposedly assured those who had been betting on the games that this was just temporary until the heat had worn off, but it ended up being permanent. Alston and the prison actually began to receive praise for the education initiative by November and they stuck with it. While I’m sure the All-Stars were disappointed, they were apparently appreciative enough to present Alston with a gold watch that Christmas.
Warden Felix Alston
As for Joseph Seng, the WSP potentially helped give him about an extra year of life before his execution finally did come to pass. The Carbon County Journal, who had covered his baseball exploits wrote this about Seng on his execution day, “His steps were steady, and he went to his death in a manner which stamped him as a brave man.”
While Seng met his fate with his head held high, Saban had differently plans. Instead of serving his 24 year sentence under the rather lax conditions Alston had set for him, Saban escaped in December of 1913. Interestingly, Officer Johnson was once again in the middle of Saban’s drama.
According to the December 19, 1913 edition of the Denver Post, “Saban asked Johnson for permission to stop off at Basin so that he could transact some business with the Basin State bank. Johnson readily agreed and Saban was taken to the hotel and an appointment made to meet the banker at 9 o’clock in the morning. Shortly before the banker was to call, Saban asked for and was granted permission to step into the toilet room. That was the last Guard Johnson saw of his charge. Johnson says he felt no uneasiness for a long time after Saban disappeared, believing that the man would return in due time.”