Most folks have heard of Alcatraz, the island just 1.25 miles off the shore from San Francisco, California. Even more infamous than the island itself was Alcatraz prison, a federal penitentiary that operated from 1934 to 1963. The prison was known for its high security and harsh conditions, as well as for housing some of the most notorious criminals in American history, such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud.
Alcatraz prison was originally a military fortification and prison, dating back to the 1850s. It was designated as a federal prison in 1933, as part of a nationwide campaign to combat organized crime and gang violence. The prison was designed to hold the most dangerous and escape-prone inmates, who were transferred to Alcatraz from other federal prisons across the country. The inmates were subjected to strict rules and regulations, such as silence during meals and work, isolation from the outside world, and limited recreation and privileges. The prison also employed myriad security measures, such as guard towers, metal detectors, barred windows, and a 12-foot-high fence. On top of all this, the strong currents of the bay waters surrounding the island and frigid water temperatures made escape nearly impossible.
Baseball and softball proved to be popular sports among the inmates of Alcatraz prison, who were allowed two hours each Saturday and Sunday in the recreation yard. There were no team uniforms, but gloves, bats, and balls were provided. In 1938, there were four amateur teams, the Bees, Oaks, Oilers, and Seals, named after minor league clubs, and four league teams named after major league clubs, the Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, and Tigers. Amateur teams featured a more intramural style of play, whereas league games were more intensely competitive. Some inmates would play for both an amateur team and a league team.
The infield featured a dirt diamond while the outfield was concrete and did not have standard dimensions. Innings within games were shorter and balls hit over the wall were considered outs, not home-runs. The games themselves proved highly competitive and sometimes violent, as tensions and rivalries flared among the prisoners. On May 20, 1956, for example, a riot broke out over racial taunts on the diamond between a white and black prisoner during a softball match.
Baseball also provided a rare opportunity for the inmates to enjoy some entertainment and relaxation, as they listened to radio broadcasts of professional games or received visits from famous players. Players who visited the prison included Warren Spahn, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio.
On October 4, 1955, radio jacks were installed in the cells. Inmates were given the day off and were permitted to listen to Game 7 of the World Series on headphones. Cheers echoed throughout the cellhouse as inmates heard the Brooklyn Dodgers shut out the New York Yankees, 2-0, to win their first championship.
Organized baseball games ceased in the recreation yard when the federal prison closed in 1963.