One extraordinary thing about Moundsville’s old West Virginia state penitentiary, which closed in 1995, is how much it was integrated into the lives of residents.
As Tracey Whorton describes in our movie, inmates would shout out their windows about her choice of flavor at a nearby ice cream parlor. Prisoners excavated the mound across the street, and decorated its Christmas tree.
The prison was also a place to go for entertainment– like watching baseball games.
Phil Yoho, a retired chemist who grew up in Moundsville, attended our screening last week at the Carnegie Museum of Art. After the movie, he handed me a roll of printed papers with some memories of his childhood, including a description of going to watch boxing fights and ballgames at the prison.
“Called the Prison Red Sox, the inmates even had their own band and vendors selling snacks during the games,” he writes. “Other attractions at the pen for me were the fish ponds at the main entrance and watching the khaki-clad inmates file singly through the wagon gate, upon returning from the fields during the warm weather.”
Yoho also describes grabbing softballs hit over the prison walls during the day and trying to heave them back in. He remembers the day his throw cleared the wall and the guard shouted, “Today you went from half pint to quart.”
John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, tells me it used to be common in America for locals to go watch prison baseball games for fun. Historians believe the tradition lasted into the 1950s, “especially in the South, until TV became the way fans watched games,” according to Mr. Thorn.
In fact, one prisoner, Alabama Pitts, became a three-sport star at Sing Sing in the 1930s. After his release in 1935, Pitts played centerfield for the Albany Senators. He bounced around the minors for a few years before getting killed in 1941 in a knife fight on a dance floor in North Carolina.
In an article published on the Hall of Fame’s website, Katherine Adriaanse writes that “there is a long history of baseball teams and even entire leagues being formed within prison walls all across the country from the earliest days of the game itself.”
At Sing Sing, the game was lauded as a path to “self-government.”
In 1929, Sing Sing even scrimmaged the New York Yankees. The Yankees won, 17-3. Babe Ruth hit three dingers, including one that, it was said, traveled 620 feet. “Prison statisticians,” the New York Times wrote, noted that one “as the longest non-stop flight by any object or person leaving Sing Sing by that route for the past handful of decades.”
There’s still baseball in prisons like San Quentin, but, as a rule, nobody heads out to the local pen to watch baseball as entertainment anymore.
I don’t like how much our culture romanticizes incarceration, but I think it’s worth celebrating the humanity of a tradition that allowed prisoners to be part of society in some way, even if it was just playing a ballgame people could enjoy going to watch.
John W. Miller