The Prison That Killed Men for Losing a Game of Baseball
Many people in town, including the prison warden, had substantial money on the All-Stars to win.
Baseball has always been a popular American sport. When fans packed the stands at Rawlins Wyoming in 1911, they watched a pitcher who was dying on the mound. Some didn't appreciate that this wasn't just a saying; he was literally dying.
The pitcher was Thomas Cameron, a convicted rapist. His team, The Wyoming State Penitentiary All-Stars. The team featured some of the most brutal criminals known. During their time together, they played four games and won every game.
The stakes for the supporters were high, the stakes for the players even higher. Win and they were rewarded with time off their sentence. Lose and the punishment was severe, death on some occasions. Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss wrote in The Death Row All-Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder that "Individual errors that cost the team the win would result in death."
Many were amazed that Rawlins was giving their prisoners so much freedom. Rawlins was known for being harsh on convicts. Robbers, rapists and murderers were not only executed, but some skinned. Items were then made from the hides of the lawbreakers and sold as souvenirs. The prison was also at the centre of many political moves. The baseball team would get caught up in this political situation.
Wyoming State Penitentiary
The prison was founded in 1901; the first warden was Otto Gramm. The prison was considered firmly set in the dark ages; the conditions were merciless. Gramm was considered to be a harsh warden. He would carefully ration the food to ensure that prisoners got enough, so they did not starve, but not an ounce over what was needed. Gramm himself opened a broom factory within the prison where convicts spent their day making brooms, which he sold for a profit. Gramm soon became a millionaire
This lasted until April 1911, when Gramm's punishment system was banned. Gramm and the broom factory were out of the prison; a new warden was employed, Felix Alston. Almost immediately, Alston improved the conditions at the prison, bringing in recreational activities. One of these activities was baseball.
The first game the All-Stars played was on 18th July 1911. The team consisted of three rapists, five thieves, a forger and three killers. They won 11-1.
The team were a strange mix of criminals who had excelled at baseball. Convicted murderer Joseph Seng led the team; Seng had been found guilty of murdering his lover's husband and sentenced to death. The local paper, The Carbon County Journal, commented:
Joseph Seng, who was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death, played a classy game all the way through. He will petition the governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment sometime this month.
Seng was due to be executed on 22nd August 1911 after he had lost all his appeals. On the 29th, the team played their fourth game and won 15-10; Seng led them to victory.
Gramm was not happy losing his prison; out of revenge, he heard that one of Alston's best friends was a criminal serving time there. Saban was a convicted criminal who had many benefits, including being able to come and go as he wished. Gramm discovered that Saban was placing illegal bets on the team. Saban had advised many wealthy people to back the All-Stars team. Alston made it known to the players that winning was non-negotiable.
Gramm informed Senator Francis Warren of this illegal activity. The senator was running for governor against the man Alston supported. The last game for the All-Stars was in September 1911. Governor Carey had been forced to issue a ban on gambling to reduce the rumours of his involvement and that of Alston and Saban. Alston changed recreation and baseball to education and was highly commended for the difference this made in the prisoners' lives.
What became of baseball players
Joseph Seng was executed on 24th May 2012, after the baseball finished. This time the Carbon County Journal paid him this compliment:
His steps were steady, and he went to his death in a manner which stamped him as a brave man.
Saban never did finish his sentence. Instead, he escaped from prison with the help of a guard, or warden, to live his life as a free man.