Baseball behind bars
New York was not the only or even the first city to use baseball as a means of rehabilitation in its correctional facilities. As early as 1912, Atlanta fielded teams of inmates for full seasons of baseball. One team, the Giants, even boasted a pitcher known to history only as “Black Matty” (an homage to the great right-hander Christy Mathewson) who was a man who once won 15 straight games. Newspapers and reporters from far and wide covered leagues like these; an April 6, 1913, edition of the Boston Daily Globe told readers that Opening Day at Atlanta’s Federal Penitentiary was “[a]ttended by all the conventional ceremonies of a big league,” including a parade led by a prison band, and the raising of the previous year’s championship flag, won by the Giants, a team of men from the Penitentiary stone-cutting shop.
Prison baseball programs and leagues did not die out after institutions like Sing Sing and Atlanta Federal Penitentiary ceased to field high-profile teams the way they did in the early 20th century. Since 1994, the inmates at California’s San Quentin State Prison have tried out to become a member of either the San Quentin Giants or the San Quentin A’s, their own versions of the Bay Area’s Major League Baseball teams. In fact, prison baseball has been a tradition at San Quentin at least since the 1920s. Every inmate is eligible to make the team, except those on death row or in solitary confinement. San Quentin even brings in “free” teams from local community colleges and other amateur teams to compete against the inmates over their 35-game season.
It might be easier to write off all of this coverage of prison baseball as media exploitation, but there is something to be said for the real, positive difference baseball made in the lives of the inmates who played on teams and in leagues while they served out their sentences. The Sing Sing baseball program received praise for the “spiritual change in the men” from the likes of Dr. Katharine B. Davis, the Commissioner of Correction of New York City in 1915. Baseball might be “just a game,” but as any fan knows, it is also one of the things that makes life enjoyable.
For incarcerated men since the 19th century, it has been a way to regain some semblance of control in lives that are otherwise devoid of it.
Katherine Adriaanse was a library research intern in the Class of 2016 Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum