Pros vs. Cons: Federal Leaguers versus Federal Prisoners at Leavenworth
This article was published in the Spring 2015 Baseball Research Journal.
In one way, everyone on the diamond was a prisoner. The nine Leavenworth federal prison convicts were obvious; those wearing the blue and gray road uniforms of the Kansas City Packers only slightly less so. The Packers were members of the Federal League, a 1914–15 major league peopled by players trying to escape from their own “prison”—organized baseball’s reserve clause which bound players to teams throughout their careers. It was part baseball, part labor action.
On an 89-degree September 13, 1915, the Packers became the first major league team to play a squad of convicts inside a prison.1 It also was near the end of the team’s and league’s existence. Bankrupt and unable to win its lawsuit against the National and American Leagues that would have ensured parity, the Federal League would fold after the season as would its Kansas City franchise, also bankrupt.
The prison team, called the White Sox, would be more stable. It was an all star team of white players that would last until 1933 when the prison integrated the institution’s ball clubs.2
The prisoners were ready for the game against the professionals. All 1,500 inmates were in the stands except for eight who were in solitary confinement. Possibly among the solitaries was Robert Stroud, later well known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud spent most of his prison life locked up in solitary, although the record is silent on the date of the game. Also present at the ballpark that day was the Reverend A.J. Soldan, a Lutheran minister and prison chaplain, whose duties included oversight of the baseball program. Probably there was Dr. Walter Cronkite Sr., prison dentist and future father of the legendary CBS newscaster.3
The crowd seemed awe-struck as they watched the Packers enter the prison’s sally port. The New Era, the prison newspaper, noted:
As the giant Packers rolled in through the Sallyport gate, they sure did look formidable. Each man was about the size of two of ours with arms and legs like centipedes. It was a question of whether they’d come to make a barbeque of the White Sox or trim ’em on the diamond.4
Even Warden Thomas W. Morgan had little faith in his charges’ fortunes when he saw the size of the professionals. As convict umpire Bert Felt passed the warden’s box before the game, Morgan said to him, “Felt, it looks like it’s up to you.”5
Bert may have had some experience in affecting outcomes. When he was president of the Nebraska State League, he had been accused of fixing games and inflating players’ batting averages. But those weren’t the reasons he was in Leavenworth. Money disappearing while he was president of a bank in Superior, Nebraska, had forced him to take his baseball role to Kansas.6
Felt became umpire that day when two Federal League officials did not appear. Two days after the game, The New Era said they refused to enter the prison. But on October 1 the newspaper apologized, saying the umpires, Fred Westervelt and William Finneran, had wanted to attend but had not been invited.“They tried to make the train that brought the Packers over and would have been here as spectators if not as umpires had they not been too late. Both umpires wish the statement that they declined to come corrected in the New Era which is most cheerfully done,” the paper reported.7
Actually the size of the Packers was relative, even small by today’s standards. Of the 15 “formidable” men who performed that day for Kansas City, only one was taller than six feet and none weighed as much as 200 pounds. The 15 averaged a bit over 5'8" and 175 pounds. By contrast, the shortest 21st century major leaguers are about 5' 8".8
Typical of the prisoners’ size, though, was that of Irish O’Malley, a career convict, who pinch hit that day and in later seasons was the White Sox’ regular catcher. O’Malley was just 5'6" and weighed only 130 pounds. William Basore, the prisoners’ pitcher, was more nearly Packer-sized at 5'8" and 150 pounds.9
Basore was probably living out the dream of every American boy, pitching to a major league baseball team. Unfortunately, his parents and friends back in Neodesha, Kansas, were not on the invitation list. Some 300 local residents along with the major league players’ wives were allowed to watch—although the women were kept outside and could see only through a gate. Most women had been banned from inside since a near riot two summers earlier when a woman entered the prison wearing a slit skirt.10
The Kansas City delegates had arrived at the prison in a special rail car arranged by Phillip J. McCarthy, a Kansas City businessman who also had arranged the game. Known as the city’s “chief goodfellow” to some, McCarthy supported prison charities and getting the Packers together with the White Sox resulted from his efforts.11
Convicts at Leavenworth were there for every conceivable crime including serial killings. But pitcher Basore’s was literally a nut case. A 22-year-old barber who apparently decided he needed more cash flow, Basore began placing ads like this one from the Omaha, Nebraska, World-Herald:
For Sale—Pecans, by parcel post, prepaid, anywhere; fresh, fine, eighteen pound sack $1 currency.
– Charles Wagner, Kansas City, Kansas, Armour Station
From Omaha, Basore received an order from the Mercantile Protective Bureau, provider of “law and collections, Our Past Record is our Future Guarantee.” He also heard from Dresher the Tailor in Omaha, a dairy farmer at Parsons, Kansas, and Charles O. Follett at Petrolia, Kansas, among others. Unfortunately, the promised pecans were never delivered and that led Francis M. Brady, assistant U.S. attorney, to haul Basore into Federal court. Charged with using the mails to defraud, he was sentenced to two years in Leavenworth.12
Once there he was a model prisoner. When his minister, the Reverend John Hopping of Elk Falls, Kansas, wrote the warden about Basore’s conduct, the prison official replied, “He [Basore] has made an excellent record here and has been in no trouble of any kind since his arrival at the prison…. He is the pitcher for one of our best baseball teams.”13
Basore was a sandlot product, but with promise. In his lone season pitching in prison, he won 7 games, lost 2, and tied 1. In the season’s opener against a Catholic high school team, he struck out 18, including a clean-up hitter named Christ.14
Shortly after pitching against the Packers, Basore went to a regularly scheduled parole hearing, made a strong case and was released after having served less than half his two-year sentence. Once free, he moved to Missouri, continued his career as a barber and operated a small resort.15
While the professionals were facing a sandlot pitcher, the toughness of the audience may have caused concern. Prison baseball was rough. “Do you think it is fair for a man in the bleachers to punch a third baseman in the ribs when he is trying to catch a fly?” asked the sports editor of the New Era after another game. Another Leavenworth prison team found itself on the wrong side of prison “fair play.” It forfeited a game to the Kansas State Penitentiary nine rather than keep looking into the sharp flashes of light reflected from Kansas prison mirrors during the game.16
On that fateful mid-September day of 1915, though, it took little time for the Packers to show which team was made up of professionals and which of convicts. Kansas City second baseman Pep Goodwin led off by bunting safely. Art Krueger followed with a double. And when inning number one had ended, the Packers had scored four runs, two more than they would need all day, as it turned out.17
Newspaper coverage was widespread in the region. What the prison paper called “the crack sportswriters” from Kansas City and Leavenworth accompanied the Packers for the face off.
The Kansas City Star writer used an all-star lineup of prison clichés in his story. “Their Lone Run a Theft,” the headline said of the White Sox’ tally. “Stoves Invade Federal Prison and Within Committed all Known Crimes of Baseball—Krueger Drove One to Freedom—No. 9478 Stayed In,” the sub-head noted. The Star’s box score used no prisoner’s name, only numbers.18
The coverage was of a game that ended about as most had expected. The prisoners were no match for the professionals. Kansas City won 23–1 in 2 hours and 10 minutes, a game long for the time. “I guess we’ll just have to accept that score as part of our punishment,” one unnamed prisoner was quoted as saying.19
Amazingly, Basore pitched all nine innings, giving up 23 hits and 20 earned runs although he shut out the Federals in two innings. Packer George Perring was one of eight Kansas City players to have multiple hits, adding injury to insult by using a bat made from the scaffold at the old Ohio Penitentiary. Even under this uncanny attack, Basore’s earned-run average was better than the only genuine Major League pitcher imprisoned at Leavenworth. Eul Eubanks, who had pitched in two games for the Chicago Cubs, and had an earned run average for his short major league career of 27.00. Eubanks would enter Leavenworth in 1933 for bootlegging, but was transferred to another penitentiary before he had a chance to play baseball for the prison team.20
Basore did field superbly, handling five chances including a pick-off and starting a double play, all without erring. “Basore pitched able, but unlucky ball,” one sports page account said after the game.21
His teammates were less sure of hand, making seven errors and getting just four hits although two of them were doubles. The prisoners’ only run came in the seventh inning. The Leavenworth shortstop singled and went to second when George “Chief” Johnson walked Basore. Johnson’s wild pitch sent the convict runner to third. He then stole home while Drummond Brown was trying to throw Basore out at second.22
The run cost hundreds of prisoners their tobacco hordes. Tobacco was the currency of the prison’s underground economy and most prisoners had bet their team would not score. Scores of sacks of Bull Durham furtively changed hands after the run came home.23
In that dead ball era (the leading home run hitter in the Federal League in 1915, Hal Chase, hit only 17 homers) only one was hit well enough to clear the prison’s 40-foot walls. Art Krueger, the Packer left fielder, drove one of his four hits to freedom. “There was many a spectator who wished he could have been sitting on top of that pill when Art soaked it,” the Leavenworth Times’s reporter wrote.24
Kansas City never let up. Stovall used five pitchers including Johnson with 17 wins and Nick Cullop with 22 and a 2.44 earned-run average. The team was bunting and stealing bases through the ninth inning.25
But not everything went the visitors’ way. The prison team twice reeled off double plays. The right fielder played a line drive carom off the wall and threw out Packer Al Shaw at first base. At least three prisoners were cited by Packer manager George Stovall as good professional prospects—catcher Joe White, first baseman John Gilbert, and center fielder Clarence Gillis. Gilbert claimed professional experience in the International League before going to Leavenworth, but this was a cell house fiction.26
The inmates appeared to appreciate the Packers’ take-no-prisoners approach to the game. The New Era said:
One gratifying feature of the game was that the visitors showed no mercy at any time, starting off with four runs in the first inning, swatting all the balls that came their way and reaching out for any additional sparrows, crows or buzzards that happened to be motoring through the ozone or nearby. When they rolled up seven in the seventh, a great groan shook the bleachers and all bets were off. It was no contest. No man in prison was so little sportsman as to collect wagers on that game.27
Even with the guards sitting among them unarmed, the prisoners behaved flawlessly. Deputy Warden A.J. Renoe called the crowd perfect and said he was well pleased with his charges’ conduct. Packer manager George “Firebrand” Stovall told the Leavenworth Times his team had a “fine experience. I’m in favor of making this an annual event.”28
But it was not to be. Even though the Packers were successful on the field—finishing fourth only five and a half games out of first—the league folded after the season. Its players for the most part returned to the other major leagues and high minors where they had performed before moving to the Federal League.
Stovall did take home a bouquet of flowers grown in prison flower beds. White Sox captain and catcher White presented them to him before the game, while Native American inmates gave a buttonhook to Packer pitcher Chief Johnson, a Nebraska Winnebago tribe member. Between innings, Stovall won prisoners’ respect by chatting and telling them baseball stories. After the game he handed the ball to the groundskeeper, a 15-year convict identified only as “Number 84––”, who quickly stuffed it into his pocket.29
At season’s end, the news got better for the prisoners. The Packers had announced early that they would give their uniforms to the prison team. Several players contributed their gloves, shoes, catcher’s gear, and other needed items. The New Era hailed the gifts in its October 1 edition:
Last Wednesday a shipment of ten pairs of shoes, mask, chest protector, shin guards, three finger mitts and catcher’s gloves arrived from Jack Enzenroth, the Packers’ famous catcher, and Manager Stovall of that team consigned to Joe White…. The goods were parceled out among the boys and all were delighted.30
A few days prior to the arrival White received the following letter from Enzenroth:
I am in receipt of your letter and present for which I thank you very much. You will receive shortly a box of shoes, gloves, etc., which we all hope you will be able to use, and our only regret is that we haven’t more to send. Am sending to you so that you can first pick out what you want and distribute the remainder among your friends.31
While the Packers no doubt would have beaten any team the convicts put together, the prison did not send its best ball players against the professionals. The White Sox were the prison’s white all-stars. Another team made up of black prisoners called the Booker T. Washingtons (Booker T’s) regularly defeated the Sox in intramural play, winning 41 of the 59 games the two clubs played over the years. The Booker T’s also twice won Kansas state independent semipro champ-ionships. In 1922 and 1924 they played the Kansas City Monarchs, losing but making the games competitive. In 1929 the African-American Kansas City Call described them as “one of the strongest colored baseball teams in the west.”32
But there may have been a reason the prison didn’t send the Bookers or an integrated team against the Packers. The New Era, shortly after the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard heavyweight boxing title fight in April 1915, editorialized:
The New Era suggests now this battle between two men of different races has been settled, all future fistic encounters of championship nature be between two men of their own color, thus eliminating the race feeling always attendant upon a white man and a colored man meeting in combat.33
In light of the riots across the county that followed the classic black vs. white boxing match, the prison administration may well have wanted to avoid any chance of a racially-inspired riot within Leavenworth walls. Coincidentally, Johnson would arrive at Leavenworth just a few years later to serve a year and a day for violation of the Mann Act. “Lil’ Arthur” boxed and umpired baseball games during his time in Leavenworth, all without incident although his ring opponents were all African Americans.34
Baseball was important to the prison administration. When the sport was introduced in the prison system in the late nineteenth century, Leavenworth warden R. W. McClaughry summarized its place by saying, “Baseball takes the mind of the prisoner off his troubles, stimulates him to better efforts and…is one of the best diversions available.”35
The sport had evolved at Leavenworth, perhaps owing its start to William (“Baseball”) Wilson, a three-year big leaguer sent to prison for forging money orders. In 1910 he was allowed to receive the gift of a bat from an Omaha beer distributor. Using it during the occasional two-hour outdoor periods granted to prisoners who behaved, he likely boosted the game’s start within the walls. While the sport may have lived on in the prison because of Wilson, he, unfortunately, did not. He died in a barroom fight a dozen years later in St. Paul, “the last chapter of his life…written with knives by his enemies” the St. Paul (Minnesota) Dispatch reported.36
Leavenworth was a logical place to begin games between a big league and prison league team. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, the town of Leavenworth is the oldest city in Kansas. It and the surrounding Leavenworth County are to the corrections industry what Hollywood is to film and Silicon Valley to computers. No fewer than five prisons are located there, housing some 6,000 prisoners.
Best known—and the one where the game took place—is the United States Penitentiary-Leavenworth. Formidable looking with a capitol-like dome in the center called “the big top,” it is surrounded by stone walls standing 40 feet high and extending 40 feet below ground level to discourage attempts at tunneling. Built with prison labor and opened in 1903, it holds 1,870, including 400 in a nearby minimum security camp.37
Four miles away is the United States Army’s Disciplinary Barracks which opened in 1874 but moved into new buildings in 2002.38 It houses up to 515 prisoners and serves as the military’s maximum security prison. In 2010 a separate Joint Regional Correctional Facility for medium security offenders was opened nearby. Also at Leavenworth is a 460-bed facility operated by the Corrections Corporation of America for the U.S. Marshals Service.
In a suburb on the south side of Leavenworth stands the state of Kansas’ Lansing Correctional Facility. Housing almost 2,500, it was opened in 1868 and for 20 years also was home for Oklahoma’s offenders. The facility also housed female federal prisoners until a federal penitentiary was constructed in Alderson, West Virginia.39
With both the Packers and Monarchs a distant memory, there were further Leavenworth prison encounters with professional baseball. After World War II, the Leavenworth Braves of the Class C Western Association played pre-season exhibitions against the prisoners in 1946–48. The prisoners captured the final game, 9–6. Although box scores have not survived, the Braves roster that season included future star catcher and manager Del Crandall.40
The Reverend A.J. Soldan left the prison in 1917. He spent much of his post-Leavenworth career in southern California where he served as minister of the Village Church in Westwood and as chaplain to the Los Angeles Police Department. Soldan was also on call to conduct funerals at the Westwood Memorial cemetery. As the baseball gods would have it, Soldan was called on August 8, 1962, to officiate at the funeral of Marilyn Monroe, a ceremony arranged by her former husband Joe DiMaggio, for one final unlikely brush with big league history.41
BOB RIVES is retired from business and from Wichita State University where he was an adjunct instructor. He lives in Wichita and is Tim’s father. TIM RIVES has written extensively about baseball history. He is the supervisory archivist and deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.
- 1. Our claim that this was the first game played between a prison team and a major league team is based on a thorough search of online newspaper databases (Proquest, Newspaper Archive, Chronicling America, The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Constitution, and Los Angeles Times), a discussion thread on SABR-L Archives, and research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Archives and Manuscript Collection at Cooperstown in 2003. Harold Seymour and Dorothy Jane Mills note the Mutual Welfare League games at Sing Sing between inmates and the New York Yankees and New York Giants began in the 1920s. Harold and Dorothy Seymour, Baseball: The People’s Game (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 414. We also consulted the Harold and Dorothy Seymour Papers, 1830–1998, Box 2, Folders 4–5, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.
- 2. Marc Okkonen, The Federal League of 1914–1915 (Society for American Baseball Research, 1989), 3; 24–5; The African American and white teams were occasionally combined for big games in the late 1920s. The merger became official in 1933 when the Great Depression reduced prison recreation budgets. “Baseball Ballyhoo,” New Era, May–June, 1933, 8.
- 3. “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4; Paul W. Keve, Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 58; “Dentists Every Day,” New Era, October 1, 1915, 4.
- 4. New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Bartholomew R. Burns, “Fielders’ Choice: A Selected History of the Nebraska State League,” Unpublished Honors Thesis, University of Nebraska, 1992, 33, 44; Andrea Faling, Nebraska State Historical Society, email to Tim Rives, May 2, 2001; Albert Felt File; Inmate Case Files; United States Penitentiary-Leavenworth; Records of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Record Group 129; National Archives at Kansas City. Additional Leavenworth files will be cited by inmate’s name only.
- 7. “Prison Chatter,” New Era, October 1, 1915, 3.
- 8. http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/KCP/1915.shtml.
- 9. Irish O’Malley File; William Basore File.
- 10. Basore File; “Prison Chatter,” New Era, May 7, 1915, 3; “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4; “1,500 Convicts Attend Game,” Leavenworth Post, September 13, 1915, n.p.
- 11. “Prison Chatter,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 12. Basore File. United States vs. William Basore; Criminal Case Files; US District Court for the District of Kansas, First Division; Records of the US District Courts, Record Group 21; National Archives at Kansas City.
- 13. Basore File.
- 14. “Basore, Pitcher, an Enigma,” New Era, May 7, 1915, 4.
- 15. Basore obituary, Kansas City Star, October 30, 1977, 16B.
- 16. “Clean Sportsmanship,” New Era, June 27, 1919, 4.
- 17. “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 18. “Their Lone Run A Theft,” Kansas City Star, September 14, 1915, 8. William Basore was inmate 9478.
- 19. “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 20. Eubanks File; “A Grewsome Bat,” New Era, July 30, 1915, 4.
- 21. “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 22. Ibid.; “Their Lone Run a Theft,” Kansas City Star, September 14, 1915, 8.
- 23. “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 24. “Their Lone Run a Theft,” Kansas City Star, September 14, 1915, 8.
- 25. “Wind and Science,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 26. “Their Lone Run a Theft,” Kansas City Star, September 14, 1915, 8.
- 27. “Wind and Science, New Era, September 17, 1915, 4.
- 28. “Make It Annual Event,” Leavenworth Times, September 15, 1915, 5.
- 29. New Era, September 17, 1915, 4; “Prison Chatter,” New Era, September 17, 1915, 3; “It’s a Gala Day at Prison When K.C. Feds Play,” Leavenworth Times, September 14, 1915, 3.
- 30. “Packers’ Gift,” New Era, October 1, 1915, 4.
- 31. Ibid.
- 32. “Baseball Season Ends,” New Era, October 1927, 3; “Booker T’s Win Final Game of Series 2 to 1,” Leavenworth Times, October 7, 1929, 7; “Booker T’s Meet Catholics Sunday,” Kansas City Call, August 19, 1927, 6.
- 33. “A New Champion,” Leavenworth New Era, April 9, 1915, 4.
- 34. Geoffrey Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Vintage, Reprint Edition, 2006), 410–3.
- 35. “Penal Court in US Penitentiary Here is Unique,” Leavenworth Times, May 18, 1913, 2.
- 36. Wilson File; “11 Men, 4 Women Shed No Tears at Funeral for Baseball Wilson,” St. Paul (Minnesota) Dispatch, May 16, 1924, n.p.
- 37. United States Penitentiary-Leavenworth was established in 1895, but the inmates did not occupy the current building until 1903.
- 38. The original United States Disciplinary Barracks was located on the old Fort Leavenworth post about a mile north of the U.S. penitentiary site. It is now about three miles farther north.
- 39. Keve, 83.
- 40. Leavenworth New Era, April–June 1946, 87; Leavenworth New Era Annual Issue, 1947, 61; Leavenworth New Era, January-March 1949, 45; Del Crandall: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/crandde01.shtml.
- 41. Albert T. Bostelmann, “Adolph John Soldan, 1877–1971,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Winter 1985, 169-70; Soldan is visible in footage of Monroe’s funeral on YouTube. He is the tall man in the clerical robe at the head of the procession: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S3b9RJCfNw.