Baseball at Alcatraz

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Alcatraz Island (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

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.

Recreation yard and dining hall of the former Alcatraz prison in San Francisco.
Recreation yard and dining hall of the former Alcatraz prison in San Francisco (Radomianin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Baseball during World War II

Several years ago, I wrote about baseball during World War I with the intention of following up with a post about the game during World War II. It has taken longer than I intended to circle back, but today, I finally make the return to what I started.

WWII recruitment poster

World War II began in September 1939, though the United States did not enter the war until December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. During the 1941 season, prior to the U.S. entering the war, Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and Lefty Grove earned his 300th career win. These led Major League Baseball to enjoy one of its most popular seasons to date, with its fifth-highest attendance total of 9.6 million spectators. As the war raged on through the 1942 and 1943 seasons, baseball would see a decline in attendance to 8.1 million and 7.4 million respectively. However, attendance would rebound during the 1944 season to pre-war levels, and by 1945, the league experienced an all-time high of 10.8 million people attending baseball games.

At first, there was some speculation as to whether or not baseball would even continue during the war. On January 14, 1942, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking if baseball should stay in operation. FDR’s response to Landis became known as the Green Light Letter, stating, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. […] And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.” Roosevelt did also stress that any ballplayer capable of joining the military should absolutely do so, but he felt the popularity of the sport would not be diminished as a result.

Over 500 major leaguers and 4,000 minor leaguers saw action during World War II. The first major leaguer drafted into the war was pitcher Hugh Mulcahy, and the first to enlist was pitcher Bob Feller. Other major leaguers involved in the war included stars like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Hank Greenberg. As a result of so many major leaguers joining the war effort, many players who previously did not see a lot of action on the diamond and a lot of minor league players now had the opportunity to play big roles on major league ball teams.

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Some players were classified as 4-F during the draft, meaning that they were not fit for military service. There was some criticism of the fact that there could be some individuals identified as unfit for military service, yet still in good enough condition to play baseball. Others noted that 4-F status was determined by Army and Navy doctors, and therefore was not related to their status as baseball players. Furthermore, while some 4-Fs may not have served in the military, many of them did serve in defense industries, and thus still contributed to the war effort.

During the war, military personnel showed overwhelming support for the continuation of baseball. Myriad service men’s teams formed across all theatres of war, and equipment was even made available to these teams. Exhibition games were put on by military teams for the entertainment of the troops, and pickup games were aplenty among deployed servicemen and in POW camps during the war.

Some known baseball stars were deliberately kept out of harm’s way, such as Joe DiMaggio, who spent most of his military career playing for baseball teams and in exhibition games against fellow major leaguers and minor league players. But this wasn’t the case for all major leaguers. Warren Spahn, for example, served as a combat engineer in Europe and was decorated with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and a Battlefield Commission for action at the Battle of The Bulge. Hoyt Wilhelm also earned a Purple Heart fighting in Europe.

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Warren Spahn (medium.com)

In the fall of 1942, many minor league teams disbanded, as many minor league players found themselves being drafted to serve in the war. This plus the concern that major league teams might be in danger of collapsing prompted Philip K. Wrigley to begin the All-American Girls Softball League. Before long, the rules were changed and the name of the new organization was updated to the All-American Girls Baseball League. 280 women were invited to tryouts in Chicago, where 60 were ultimately chosen to become the first women to play professional baseball. Teams consisted of 15 players, a manager, a business manager, and a woman chaperone, and salaries ranged from $45 to $85 per week. League play began May 30, 1943, and each team played 108 games in the season. The league peaked in 1948, when a total of ten teams attracted 910,000 fans. However, following the war, the league began to break down and eventually folded in 1954. In the end, the AAGPBL gave over 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball.

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The end of World War II finally came on September 2, 1945, when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri. Over the course of the war, two MLB players lost their lives in battle: Captain Elmer J. Gedeon (Washington Senators) died during a bombing mission over France on April 20, 1944 and First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill (Philadelphia Athletics) was killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945. Hundreds of men who served in World War II played Major League Baseball, with even more having spent time playing for minor league teams. Most survived the war, and continued their careers on the field, but a small number paid the ultimate sacrifice, and never returned to the field.

This day in baseball: Warren Spahn elected to HoF

On January 24, 1973, Warren Spahn was elected to the Hall of Fame, making him only the sixth player elected in his first year of eligibility.  He received more than 82% of the votes cast by the BBWAA.  Warren Spahn recorded thirteen 20-win seasons with the Braves, making him the winningest left-handed pitcher in big league history with 363 victories.

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Warren Spahn (Wikimedia Commons)

This day in baseball: Oldies, but goodies

On April 28, 1961, Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn threw his second no-hitter against the Giants at County Stadium.  This feat made him the second-oldest pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter, at the age of 40 years and 5 days.  At the time, the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter had been Cy Young, at 41 years old.  That spot is now held by Nolan Ryan, who threw a no-hitter at the age of 44 on May 1, 1991.

Warren Spahn (Wikimedia Commons)
Warren Spahn (Wikimedia Commons)