Going from convicted felon and star athlete at Sing Sing Prison to Albany Senators center fielder, Alabama Pitts ventured into a firestorm of controversy, provoking a spirited national debate on the merits of prison rehabilitation in 1935. Allowing the ex-convict Pitts to play professionally set a precedent whose influence continues to pervade professional sports, with the likes of Ron LeFlore, Steve Howe and Darryl Strawberry, among others, benefiting from baseball's willingness to excuse a player's off-the-field troubles in exchange for his on-the-field value. Pitts' own professional baseball career was disappointing, and he would spend the final years of his short life trying to escape the celebrity he never sought.
Edwin Collins Pitts was born in March 1910, in Opelika, Alabama. His father, Edwin Sr., a U.S. Army cavalryman, died just five months after Pitts was born. To avoid confusion between Pitts and his father, his mother, Erma, nicknamed her son the "Alabama" Pitts. Erma later remarried, but his stepfather also died when Pitts was a boy. Little is known of Pitts' youth, with no record of any high school or sandlot sports.
The June 18, 1935 edition of the Charlotte Observer described some of the details of Pitts' life that led to his incarceration:
Pitts was left on his own as a boy when both his father and stepfather died. At 15 he enlisted in the Navy. He was honorably discharged after his three-year hitch as a sailor and found himself in New York, alone and broke without friends except former shipmates. He tried to find a job but couldn't...then a newly found acquaintance suggested a way to make some easy money. Pitts agreed, he said, because he wanted food. A grocery store holdup followed. It netted only $10. Pitts was captured, convicted and sent to Sing Sing for eight to sixteen years for armed robbery.
Pitts appears to be the source of information for this story, and it is clear that some of the facts have been altered to portray him in a more positive light. In reality, the amount stolen was $76.25, not an insignificant sum at the time. Pitts' suggestion that he only agreed to the robbery because "he wanted food" also seems intended to minimize the gravity of his crime. In fact, Pitts had been implicated in "at least five other robberies." (Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, p. 376.)
Regardless of his intentions, Pitts' next stop was Sing Sing Prison, on the Hudson River in Ossining, New York, approximately 35 miles north of New York City. Sing Sing's warden, Lewis E. Lawes, was a champion of rehabilitation and a man who soon would have a profoundly positive effect on the life of Alabama Pitts.
Appalled by the horrid living conditions and brutal methods of punishment he observed upon taking over Sing Sing in 1919, Lawes immediately "instituted reforms and new methods of discipline." He believed that "if trust was shown to the inmates, they would respond accordingly." Lawes oversaw a massive and "long overdue plan of modernization," while also instituting a "well-rounded athletic program, including outside games." (Gado) Prison teams of various sports, including football, basketball and baseball, were started, with "qualified coaches...put in charge of each sport." (Overfield, p. 19)
Pitts embraced this emphasis on athletics, starring in numerous sports, especially football. The Black Sheep, as the football team was called, were coached by John Law, a former Notre Dame star and protégé of coaching legend Knute Rockne. It was in his role as captain and star of the football squad that Pitts began to attract attention from the New York newspapers. In the September 8, 1932, New York Times, Coach Law called Pitts "a real star" with "all the earmarks of a great halfback." The Charlotte Observer of June 18, 1935, in a summary of Pitts' life to that point, proclaimed that his "ball-carrying ability was widely publicized."
While football clearly was Pitts' strongest sport, he also received recognition for his baseball skills, particularly his fielding. Sing Sing teams occasionally played exhibition games against the Yankee and Giants. After a game in September 1933, the New York Times reported, "Alabama Pitts, Sing Sing's star football player, demonstrated that he is equally at home on the diamond. He made two doubles...and handled several chances in centre field perfectly." Pitts would finish his Sing Sing baseball career with a .500 batting average and eight home runs in 21 games.
As a reward for good behavior, Warden Lawes arranged to drop three years from his sentence, meaning he would be released in June 1935. By late 1934, Pitts' athletic exploits had made him something of a national celebrity. The Los Angeles Times, discussing Pitts' upcoming release, referred to him as "the most prominent jailbird athlete in America." While still in prison, Pitts was worked out by at least two professional football teams. Also showing interest was Joe Cambria, owner of the Albany Senators of the International League. Cambria instructed his general manager, Johnny Evers, to sign Pitts before his release from prison. Evers offered Pitts a contract for $200 per month, and Lawes advised Pitts to sign. Pitts did so on May 22, 1935. The parties, knowingly or not, had ignited a powder keg of controversy.
International League President Charles H. Knapp refused to approve the signing. Judge W.G. Bramham, president of the minors' governing body, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, supported Knapp, saying Pitts' signing was "against the best interests of the game." (Clark) These decisions raised much local rancor, with editorials appearing in New York papers advocating Pitts' admission into baseball.
Upon his release from Sing Sing on June 6, 1935, Pitts' celebrity was confirmed when "the prison gates swung open" and he was greeted by "more than a hundred reporters, photographers and curiosity seekers." (Pietrusza, "Beating the Bushes.") Temporarily barred from playing with Albany, he accompanied the team to a game at Syracuse on June 7, drawing waves of applause. Three days later, Pitts received a wild ovation when he appeared at Albany's home park, putting on a batting exhibition between games of a doubleheader. (Charlotte Observer, 6/10/35)
Pitts' growing fame and popularity put more and more pressure on organized baseball to reverse Bramham's decision. Sportswriters, editorial writers, players, managers and coaches expressed support for Pitts, echoing a theme of forgiveness for a man who had paid his debt to society. Pitts' mother, Erma, wrote a letter to Bramham begging him to reconsider. Bramham, while not changing his mind, did agree to refer the case to the three-member executive committee of the National Association: Warren Giles, president of the Rochester club of the International League; J. Alvin Gardner, president of the Texas and Dixie Leagues; and Dan W. Hill, president of the Piedmont League. On June 12, the executive committee upheld the decisions of Bramham and Knapp, citing the difficulty of Pitts having his "activities...constantly subjected to public scrutiny." (Charlotte Observer, 6/13/35) However, the committee did leave one avenue open: an appeal to the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. While "deeply disappointed" by the decision of the committee, Pitts announced that he would appeal to Judge Landis. (New York Times, 6/16/35)
The executive committee's rejection led to an explosion of publicity. What was initially a local controversy now became a national spectacle, and the trickle of pro-Pitts editorials quickly became a flood. One notable exception was The Sporting News. Organized baseball's unofficial mouthpiece supported the committee's decision, while proclaiming that Pitts' "weak arm...would have prevented him making good with the Albany Senators." (June 13, 1935)
With his status as an Albany Senator in limbo, Pitts received a number of job offers. The House of David offered him a spot on their barnstorming baseball squad, but Pitts reportedly turned them down because he didn't want to grow a beard. (Montella, p.3) At least two professional football teams, the New York Eagles and Brooklyn Dodgers, offered him contracts. (Overfield, p.20) He was offered $50-75 per week to act in Hal Roach comedies in Hollywood. (Pietrusza, "Beating the Bushes") He appeared on a number of radio shows, including the popular Kate Smith show. He received "marriage proposals from more than 35 eager females anxious to meet Sing Sing's most talented athlete." (Montella, p.4)
Meanwhile, support began pouring in from newspaper columnists, present and former players, coaches and managers and, perhaps most significantly, from ordinary American citizens.
Newspaper editors were inundated with letters supporting Pitts. Warden Lawes of Sing Sing "received 800 communications and only two were negative on Pitts." (Overfield, p.20) Even John Costello, victim of the robbery for which Pitts was jailed, defended him, stating that "he's paid his debt to society and he's deserving of another chance...Why should he be driven back into crime again?" (New York Times, 6/12/35) In perhaps the most extreme example of the furor, Max Berger, a merchant in Otisville, New York, "became so exercised that he suffered a fatal heart attack [after becoming] involved in a heated argument with a customer over the Pitts case." (Overfield, p.20) Pitts' popular support may have reflected empathy for a man whose crime of petty theft, while not condoned, was at least understood in the height of the Great Depression. Certainly, many people felt it was unfair to deny a changed man the opportunity to make a living in a time when doing so could be very difficult indeed.
Judge Landis, always sensitive to public opinion, ruled in Pitts' favor on June 17, allowing him to play for Albany with the stipulation that he take part only in "regular" games, to keep his employer from exploiting his notoriety through the staging of exhibition games. The text of Landis' decision is fascinating. After a lengthy description of Pitts' criminal past, while lauding the executive committee and Bramham for making eminently reasonable decisions, Landis abruptly changes his tune, arguing that "not permitting him to enter baseball employment" would have left little "doubt as to the destructive effect upon Pitts' efforts towards rehabilitation." (quoted in Pietrusza, Judge and Jury, p.377) As noted in David Pietrusza's excellent biography of Landis, the judge actually agreed with Bramham's decision: "Bramham had first conferred with Landis before issuing his controversial decision." (p.375) But the overwhelming tide of public pressure convinced Landis that baseball could not win by keeping Pitts out. Not surprisingly, Landis' ruling received widespread praise from journalists and baseball people. Pitts reacted gratefully, speaking of his imprisonment as the "turning point in my life just as this decision may be also." (Charlotte Observer, 6-18-35)
Finally cleared to take the field for the Albany Senators on June 23, 1935, Pitts, now the darling of the press and baseball fans, was greeted by a large and boisterous crowd of 7,752. He went 2-for-5 and was praised for his outfield defense. The Albany team and GM Evers would come under criticism for using Pitts for publicity. Evers bolstered that claim when he stated that Pitts would "remain with the Senators the remainder of the season regardless of whether he makes good or not." (The Sporting News, 6/27/35) However, in light of the Depression and the sorry financial state of most minor leagues, it is difficult to find fault with Evers.
Albany teammate Fred Chapman reported that Pitts received friendly welcomes throughout the International League, but his strong debut with the bat would not be repeated. Pitts' speed and fielding prowess consistently drew raves. Legendary sportswriter Paul Gallico wrote that Pitts "moves well, has speed and fine judgment on fly balls," while describing "two spectacular running catches from center field." (Washington Post, 6/24/35) But Pitts was overmatched against the pitching in the International League, just one step below the majors. He hit a paltry .233 in 116 at bats, managing just three extra base hits, all doubles, and seven walks, while striking out 24 times.
Injuries also held Pitts back. He played just 43 games for Albany in 1935, missing time for a shoulder bruise, a severely sprained finger and a case of blood poisoning resulting when Pitts "spiked himself and paid little attention...until his foot swelled." (The Sporting News, 8/29/35) Teammates from Pitts' 1940 Hickory Rebels team said that Pitts "regarded pain [as] a nuisance" and noted that "Pitts wore nothing under his uniform - no sweatshirt, no jockstrap." (Clark)
Pitts' batting woes caused him to have serious doubts about his place on the Albany team. He told The Sporting News he "would improve as a hitter if the Albany Senators would farm him to a club in a lower classification." (7/25/35) Nonetheless, Albany manager Al Mamaux insisted that Pitts would remain with the club, maintaining "there is no better defensive man on the squad." This comment notwithstanding, it was clear that Pitts kept playing for Albany because the crowds kept coming. Mamaux's true intentions were probably revealed when he invited Pitts on a vaudeville tour in the coming off-season with "the pair...cast in a baseball skit." (The Sporting News, 8/22/35) Warden Lawes advised Pitts to turn down Mamaux's offer. (Overfield)
After his less than scintillating baseball debut, Pitts may have contemplated careers in other sports, or perhaps he simply loved the activity. Either way, on September 9, 1935, he signed a generous contract for $1,500 to play for the Philadelphia Eagles in four exhibition games and four regular-season games. He ultimately played in just three games for the Eagles, seeing very little action. (Clark) Released by the Eagles, he played football for the Stapleton and New Rochelle teams in New York. (In an interesting side-note confirming Pitts' football ability, a history of the New York Brown Bombers, "the most important all-black team" of the 1930s, records that the Bombers were undefeated in five games against white competition, with their winning streak finally stopped on the last day of the season when "the New Rochelle Bulldogs, led by Alabama Pitts, defeated the Bombers, 7-6. Pitts, an almost legendary halfback who had played several years for New York's Sing Sing Prison team, the Blacksheep...scored the winning touchdown.") (Carroll) Pitts also tried his luck at basketball that off-season, leading "the Alabama Pitts All-Stars...a New York professional basketball team" in a series of games. As Pitts played only "a minor part" on the team, it is apparent that he was still capitalizing on his celebrity. (Washington Post, 11/27/35 and 1/20/36)
With pro football and basketball offering little long-term financial stability, Pitts returned to baseball in 1936. In an indication both of his diminished stardom and his inability to hit International League pitching, he was demoted to the York, Pennsylvania, White Roses of the New York-Pennsylvania Class A league, a team also owned by Joe Cambria. Undoubtedly wishing to escape his notoriety, Pitts announced early in the 1936 campaign his desire to be addressed as "Ed" or "Edwin" rather than "Alabama". (The Sporting News, 5/14/36) Unfortunately for Pitts, his lackluster hitting did more than any name change to remove him from the public eye. In his injury-plagued season for York (and later Trenton, New Jersey, after a flood at the York grounds forced the team to move), Pitts hit just .224. He did show increased power and patience, with six doubles, two home runs and 21 walks in 156 at bats.
After playing his final game for Trenton on July 6, Pitts traveled to North Carolina, joining the Charlotte Hornets in the first year of the outlaw Carolina League. Pitts stated his displeasure with professional baseball, maintaining that "the [York/Trenton] club had been losing money and they wanted to use me as a circus freak, which didn't appeal to me." (Charlotte Observer, 7/12/36) While his star may have dimmed up north, Pitts first game in Charlotte drew a crowd of 3,000, the largest of the year. Despite heavy rain, the fans demanded that the game be played in its entirety. (Charlotte Observer, 7/14/36)
Pitts had a considerably easier time with Carolina League pitching. While no official 1936 records exist for the outlaw league, newspaper accounts show Pitts with a batting average of .411 as of July 19. Sample game reports exist for 10 subsequent games, in which Pitts was an amazing 30 for 45, a .667 clip, including 7 for 13 in a playoff series with Valdese.
In 1937, Pitts tried his luck again in organized baseball with the Winston-Salem club of the Piedmont League. After hitting .278 in 23 games, he was released in June. (Clark) He returned to the outlaw Carolina League, playing first for the Gastonia Spinners. Released by the Spinners later that June, he hooked up with the Valdese Textiles. Pitts hit .333 overall in the Carolina League that year, with outstanding power and speed, though the fact that he scored 96 runs in just 321 at bats seems to indicate that it was a hitter's league.
Pitts established a home in the mill towns of North Carolina. Following the 1937 season, he worked in the Pilot Hosiery Mill in Valdese. He started the 1938 season with the Valdese club, then played for the Lenoir Finishers in the final, financially catastrophic season of the Carolina League. He hit .268 with 16 doubles, 10 home runs, and 68 runs in 336 at bats.
His baseball dreams apparently over, Pitts returned to his job as knitter at Pilot Mills after the 1938 season. He married Mary Walker, 19, of nearby Lawndale, North Carolina, then a resident of Valdese. Their daughter, Patricia Ann, was born January 13, 1939. The Sporting News reported on April 27, 1939, that Pitts was coaching the Valdese High School baseball team. There is no record of Pitts playing organized ball in 1939, though it is likely that he played for various textile mill teams, as he would for the remainder of his life.
Pitts made one final attempt at professional baseball, joining the nearby Hickory Rebels team of the Class D Tar Heel League in 1940. He enjoyed a fine season, hitting .303 in 244 at bats, scoring 48 runs and driving in 39 for a Rebels team that made it to the league playoffs, losing to Statesville. (The Sporting News, 9/19/40)
Nineteen forty-one saw Pitts return to semi-pro textile mill baseball and normal mill life. As noted in a Morganton News Herald editorial, he "had become Ed Pitts, 'one of the boys' in the hosiery mill, with a wife and a child and all the troubles and joys that might beset his fellow workers, and he was measured not by something that was past but by the same standards which measured the shortcomings and the good qualities of one of their own men." (quoted in Clark)
On the evening of June 6, 1941, Pitts played a game for the Valdese mill team. After the game, he and several teammates engaged in some hearty celebrating at "Valdese's most notorious roadhouse, a service station/dance hall located at the swimming pool, just outside the city limits." Sometime around 3:00 a.m. on June 7, Pitts became involved in a dispute on the dance floor when he attempted to cut in on a man named Newland LeFevers and dance with his girlfriend. (Pitts had a reputation as something of a ladies' man. Former Hickory teammate Al Kubski noted that "he always managed to have the girls around him.") Taking exception, LeFevers "slashed Pitts with a knife, causing a four-inch gash which severed the auxiliary artery in the ballplayer's right armpit." By the time Pitts reached Valdese General Hospital, "he had bled as much as it is possible for a person to bleed." By 5:00.a.m. Alabama Pitts was dead at age 31. (All quotes from Clark)
Pitts told hospital personnel that "there was no fight and he was cut when he attempted to break in on a dancing couple," but witnesses attested that Pitts was wildly drunk and wielded his fist in LeFevers' direction. Hearing this information, a judge later reduced LeFevers' sentence to time served and set him free. (Clark)
Pitts' funeral on June 8, 1941, drew an estimated 5,000 people. He was buried beside his wife Mary's father, mother and sister Ruby at the Friendship United Methodist Church in Fallston. Pallbearers were "the Valdese teammates with whom he'd shared a field only a few hours before his death." Also in attendance were his half-sister and a cousin, both from Opelika, Alabama. Before the next Valdese game, Pitts' former teammates "lined up, heads bare, eyes filled with tears, in a silent salute to their center fielder." (Clark)
I am deeply indebted to Mr. Hank Utley, without whom this biography would not exist. Mr. Utley is the foremost expert on the "outlaw" Carolina League that employed Alabama Pitts in the late 1930s, as well as a noted authority on the textile mill towns of North Carolina that played a major role in the latter part of Pitts' short life. Among the many research items provided by Mr. Utley is a very large collection of meticulously hand-written transcriptions of articles from the Charlotte Observer and The Sporting News, extensive statistical breakdowns of Pitts' seasons both in professional baseball and in the Carolina League, observations from local mill town residents and former teammates of Pitts, as well as several retrospective articles on Pitts' life. This voluminous collection provided the starting point for this piece and the basis for a significant part of its content. The Utley Papers are available at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County.
Carroll, John M., "Fritz Pollard and the Brown Bomber", from The Coffin Corner, Volume XII
Charlotte Observer, June 10, 1935
Charlotte Observer, June 13, 1935
Charlotte Observer, June 18, 1935
Charlotte Observer, July 12, 1936
Charlotte Observer, July 14, 1936
Clark, Michael, "The Sad Tale of Alabama Pitts", from http://philadelphiaathletics.org
Gado, Mark, "All About Sing Sing Prison", from http://crimelibrary.com
Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1934
Montella, Ernie, "The Saga of 'Alabama' Pitts", from http://philadelphiaathletics.org
New York Times, September 8, 1932
New York Times, September 26, 1933
New York Times, June 12, 1935
Overfield, Joseph, "Product of Sing Sing Won Public's Support", from Baseball Research Journal, 1985
Pietrusza, David, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, Inc., 1998
Pietrusza, David, "Beating the Bushes," Oldtyme Baseball News, Volume 6, Issue 4.
The Sporting News, June 27, 1935
The Sporting News, July 25, 1935
The Sporting News, August 22, 1935
The Sporting News, August 29, 1935
The Sporting News, May 14, 1936
The Sporting News, April 27, 1939
The Sporting News, September 19, 1940
Washington Post, June 24, 1935
Washington Post, November 27, 1935
Washington Post, January 20, 1936