Nothing But the Game

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The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Murder, and Corruption.

 

Photographer M. F. Jukes squeezed the rubber bulb attached to the camera standing next to him, and a bright white flash lit up a section of the penitentiary dining hall. When the flash faded Alston’s All Stars became visible. Dressed in dark uniforms and corresponding caps with the initials WSP stitched across the front and carrying well-worn baseball gloves, team members held their proud pose until Jukes gave them permission to relax. The men talked among themselves as the prominent Rawlins photographer adjusted the shutters around the lens in preparation for the next shot. A sign among his camera equipment on a nearby table read, “Pictures in black and white or Sepia finish, on stiff cards, folders or flexible mountings. Various prices, one of which will suit your pocket. Come in at any time, or if more desirable, phone for an appointment. Settings done upon request. Most locations acceptable.”

At the appropriate time each player resumed his position for another picture to be taken. The first time the prisoners had gathered together for a photograph, they had been dressed in the clothing issued to them by the penitentiary officials as part of their incarceration. The inmate numbers they had been assigned were scrawled over the left breast pocket of their shirts, and the baseball equipment they had held consisted of castoffs from players who had abandoned the game some time ago. In this photo, taken after their first wins, the convicts were different in dress and style. Their coordinating outfits gave them an air of professionalism. Some reverently cradled in their arms the gloves and baseballs they would use in upcoming games; others wore their mitts on their hands to show how ready they were to play.

Joseph Seng stood on the left end of the back row with his hand on his hip. His mustache was neatly trimmed, and his cap was pulled down low on his forehead. His serious expression conveyed that he was a fierce opponent to other teams. Convicted rapist Eugene Rowan stood on Seng’s right, and beside him was George Saban. Saban’s shoulders were pulled back as though he were at attention. The top button of his shirt was undone, his neck being too thick to allow him to fasten it. Swindler Earl Stone, gambler and attempted rapist James Powell, and larcenist H. A. Pendergraft were on Saban’s right. Four-year-old Felix Vern Alston Jr. sat on a stool just below Saban wearing a dark blue uniform, stockings, and dark blue cap. On either side of him were murderer Joseph Guzzardo and thief Frank Fitzgerald; condemned rapist Thomas Cameron and burglar John Crottie bookended the bottom row.

The photograph was proudly displayed in the warden’s office. Felix Jr., whom Alston had made the team mascot, is in the middle of the criminal offenders, wearing the team’s uniform and smiling at the camera. Nothing in the team photo would have led anyone to imagine that the players had run afoul of the law.

Death Row All Stars

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Betting on a Win

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Every day Joseph Seng took his usual position beside the guard’s desk in the mess hall and studied the inmates as they entered the room. Perhaps this was his way of fighting the monotony and routine of daily prison life. Maybe Seng was trying to assert himself as someone not to be trifled with, or maybe he had no agenda whatsoever. Some convicts believed he was a threat to the position they perceived to hold in the hierarchy of prisoners. Seng didn’t worry about what anyone thought of him. He maintained his spot by the desk regardless of the occasional disapproving glance.

In early August 1911 a particularly disagreeable inmate tired of Seng’s habit and decided to kill him. The displeased man who wanted Joseph dead wore a ball-and-chain restraint that clanged behind him as he shuffled along. His arms were generally full of the ten-pound ball attached to the iron links. His heavily bearded face was weathered, and his mouth was set in a perpetual snarl that looked inexpressively evil. He gave Seng a rough look as he passed by him and hauled himself and his ball and chain up a flight of steel stairs.

Once the violent inmate made it to the second landing of the facility, he stopped to look out over the people below, his face “filled with rage,” according to a story provided by an inmate and included in the Annals of Wyoming. “His cell was back at the farthest end of the top gallery,” the prisoner recalled. “At the top of the stairs there was a small box of sand about half full for a sort of trash receptacle. The box was about ten inches wide and probably two feet in length. The fellow set the iron ball on the floor of the gallery and picked up a box of sand. He raised it above his head and dropped it straight down at the head of Seng, twenty-five feet almost directly below.

“As the leaden box went down Seng partly turned to speak to the guard and the box struck the floor with a crash like the report of a gun and burst straight through the center sending sand in all directions. If Seng hadn’t turned just as he did it would have landed on his head. The fellow picked up the iron ball and went down the gallery to his cell. He had sawed the rivet in two that held the iron on his ankle and as he opened the door he loosened the thing from his leg and threw the ball and chain over the gallery. It struck the table and went straight through the floor leaving a six-foot length of board standing straight up in the center of the table.

Although Seng was shaken by the attempt made on his life, it didn’t carry over to his performance on the baseball field. The Death Row All Stars were scheduled to cross bats for a second time with the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors on August 4, 1911. The prison team practiced often in July in preparation for the event.

Even in practices, the Death Row All Stars played with gusto and even temperament. They worked together as one cohesive unit and made the sport look like the easiest game in the world. They seemed to cherish the smell of the leather glove, the snap of the ball smacking their palms, the sensation of letting loose a throw and kicking up a cloud of dust. These were deep pleasures in a world that didn’t offer many happy moments, and they relished this one.

Death Row All Stars

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Path to Righteousness

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ostensibly to make sure his property was being maintained properly. He also would be able to monitor other activities at the prison, such as Warden Alston conferring with murderer George Saban on the baseball field. Gramm would have a firsthand look at the players who enjoyed fame of a sort— their names at one time or another resting on the tongues of men who had seen them operate; their faces known, having been posted in newspapers and on sheriffs’ boards along with the list of crimes they had committed.

On July 18, 1911, under a blue and cloudless sky, the murderers, burglars, rapists, and confidence men that made up the Death Row All Stars emerged quickly from the baselines of the baseball diamond at the penitentiary and spread across the practice field for their first game. Alston, Gramm, and a host of other prison officials, as well as inmates, were on hand to watch.  Inmates craned their necks to see the action from their barred windows and cheered the players on as they whipped the ball from base to base. Warden Alston had supplied the team with gloves, bats, and uniforms, and the ball club look

It was evident after practicing with the other men on the team only a short while that Joseph Seng was an exceptional baseball player. News of the talented addition to Alston’s All Stars spread quickly throughout the area. Patrons who frequented the Turf Exchange, the Senate, the Elkhorn, and other watering holes in Rawlins, speculated on how well the team would do against more established ball clubs in the region. George Saban encouraged such talk whenever he made stops at the saloons as part of his duties transporting items to and from the prison accompanied by prison guard D. O. Johnson in the penitentiary wagon. Security was always lax where Saban was concerned. He came and went from tavern to tavern as he pleased and boasted about the baseball team he helped manage.

Betting on baseball was commonplace in 1911, regardless of its legality. Partnering with a drifter named George Streplis, a man who had been arrested in March 1911 in Wyoming and held over for trial on gambling charges, Saban had plans to capitalize on the trend of betting on baseball games by urging patrons at saloons in Rawlins to bet heavily on the Death Row All Stars. Any ideas Saban had about placing bets on the penitentiary ball club were tabled, however, until he knew how long Seng would be at the Rawlins facility. He didn’t want to gamble on the team if Seng wasn’t going to be at the prison long enough to play with the All Stars. An appeal of his sentence had been filed with the governor immediately; on June 15, 1911, Governor Carey responded favorably to the appeal, and, on July 18, 1911, the Chief Justice Board of the state Supreme Court granted a stay of execution in his case.

Regardless of the fact that his time as head of the prison lessee program was coming to an end, Otto Gramm believed he had some lingering influence at the facility. He did own all the equipment and material used to manufacture the brooms, and, as long as that was the case, he would insist on being a part of the business, visiting the penitentiary and played like professionals. There was no infighting, and players didn’t discuss the specifics of their criminal history with one another. The focus was the game.

The stories of the men who took to the field were varied. Shortstop Joseph Guzzardo had killed a woman in 1908 while shooting at a man who was threatening his life. Eugene Rowan, the first baseman, had been convicted of breaking and entering and attempted rape in Cheyenne. Right fielder and catcher James Powell had attacked a young woman. Team captain George Saban had pled guilty to three killings. And catcher and fielder Joseph Seng had been sentenced to death for the murder of a man in Uinta County.

Every time a player came to bat and slapped a ripping fastball on the nose for a solid hit to left field or someone snatched up a red-hot grounder and heaved it to the proper base to get an out, the All Stars forgot they were little more than caged creatures. Warden Alston and Saban stood on the baselines conferring on strategies of the game, discussing when a good bunt would beat a strong hit and how best to utilize each player. But the ever-watchful Gramm believed that their conversation went deeper than that. Prison guard D. O. Johnson had reported to Gramm that Saban was illegally betting on the All Stars’ games using money given to him by Warden Alston.  Gramm relayed the information to Senator Francis Warren, who suspected the rumor might have a future and that Governor Carey, who had handpicked Warden Alston for the job, was also involved. Senator Warren once said of Governor Carey, “If I hadn’t known Carey from the time he stepped off the train in 1869, a green boy up to the present, and hadn’t figured inside of the inner circles so much with him in political affairs, he might possibly fool me once in a while, for he surely is the most monumental hypocrite, and the most infernal liar—when necessary—that God ever permitted to live.

Death Row All Stars

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Life at the Crossbar Hotel

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The sheriff of Uinta County delivered Joseph Seng to the state penitentiary on April 18, 1911. An endless blue sky was the backdrop for the massive, three-story structure that day. High, barbed wire fence lined the building on all sides, and a plaque on the structure read “Welcome to the Crossbar Hotel”.  Felix Alston, who had taken over the duties of prison warden the day before, watched Seng arrive. A pair of guards helped the shackled and handcuffed prisoner out of the vehicle in which he was transferred. The iron-barred door in front was opened, and Seng was escorted inside the penitentiary. The doors were then closed and locked behind him.

According to Joseph Seng’s family, his father, Anthony, had cried when he read an article about his son in the April 22, 1911, edition of the Wyoming Press. “On last Monday morning Sheriff Ward and Special Deputy Sam Rider took Joseph Seng, the convicted murderer of William Lloyd, to the penitentiary where the man will be confined until he is executed,” the report announced. “Seng was handcuffed to Sheriff Ward . . . he passed through the streets of Evanston thus manacled; he was smoking a cigar, and was accompanied by his customary indifference as to the gravity of the situation.”

There was a standard routine for admitting an inmate into a state facility. The guards would lead a prisoner into an intake room and remove his shackles and chains. They would remove all items from the prisoner’s pockets and set them aside on a table to be inventoried. The prisoner was then ordered to remove his clothes. A guard carrying a fire hose would enter the intake room and point the hose at the prisoner. When the water was flipped on, the force generally slammed the prisoner back against the stone wall. After a few moments, the water was shut off, and the guards would pull the prisoner to his feet. A huge scoop of delousing powder was then tossed on him. Gasping and coughing, blinking powder from his eyes, the prisoner was then shoved toward a trustee cage, a small, defined area where the “trustee,” an inmate who had proven himself trustworthy and had been given a job within the prison, was separated from the prisoner by a thick wall of wire rope with a small slot in it.

Death Row All Stars

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Outlaws in the Infield

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Few spectators would have bet against Joseph Seng when he was catching for All Stars pitcher Thomas Cameron.  Cameron, a twenty-year-old coal miner and native of Tennessee, had a terrific fastball and was a good hitter.  Seng, the standout performer on the team, signaled the talented pitcher on what throw to use. Under Seng’s direction Cameron struck out the majority of batters that faced him.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1882, Seng came from a large German family.  His father, Anthony Seng, was a proud man who had been born in Baden, Germany. He moved to the United States with his parents in 1878 and married Anna Sapple in the Sacred Heart Church in 1880. All of Anthony and Anna’s children were christened at the parish.  Just before the turn of the century, Joseph Seng had been a laborer at one of the textile mills in the area. From 1903 to 1908 he resided in New York, and some history records indicate he worked for a prominent railroad line as a detective.   Then, after a brief visit with his parents in Allentown in the summer of 1908, the twenty-six-year-old Seng departed for points west.

Baseball had always been part of Seng’ life. According to notes made by his spiritual advisor, Reverend Peter Masson of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Allentown, Joseph had a “natural aptitude for baseball, but never displayed ambition for much else.” Still, he didn’t appear to be much of a troublemaker. In fact, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Seng was a diminutive five-foot-five and was said to have a very moderate temper.  “He never shied away from long hours on the job,” Reverend Masson continued, “and was mindful to give an employer all that was required of him and then some.”

After Seng stepped off the train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in July 1908, he walked to one of the saloons just beyond the railroad tracks. Reverend Masson’s notes about the letters he received from Seng painted a picture of his visit to the saloon:

When he entered the business he heard the sound of chips clinking from a side room. A bartender was behind the bar pouring drinks. Patrons were scattered about talking and laughing. Joseph found a spot at a table and sat down. He ordered something to drink while studying the “help wanted” section of a newspaper left behind on the chair next to him.

Customers filtered in and out of the establishment, some exchanged a word or two with a couple of men near the bar. Before walking away from the men the patrons handed them money. Like many saloons throughout the West, gamblers had staked out their territory and were enticing people to wager on boxing and wrestling matches, horse races and political races.

A reading of the Rawlins Republican between May and June 1908 might have led to the conclusion that there was wide interest in stamping out vice in the region—or at least regulating it for the better of the community. In fact, gambling had been outlawed statewide in 1902, but in many communities, it was still widely accepted and officials followed a strict policy of pretending not to notice the poker games and bookmakers in local saloons.

Death Row All Stars

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The Captain and the Critic

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Sheep rancher Joe Emge woke up fast from a fitful slumber late on a chilly night in early April 1909 near Spring Creek, Wyoming. There was no light inside the wagon where he and one of his ranch hands had bedded down. When the darkness around him began to break up and his eyes slowly adjusted, he saw the dim, blurred outline of a man standing over him. Joe squinted and strained to focus on the object the imposing figure was pointing at him. When he realized the object was a six-shooter, it was too late.

Cattleman George Saban pulled the trigger back on his .35 automatic and fired a shot into Joe’s face. He quickly pulled the trigger back again and slapped the hammer with his left hand; it was the fastest way to get off several more shots. The objective was to not only kill Joe but also the other man in the wagon. It was a job the gunman dispatched with ease and no regret.

George jumped out the vehicle and stood in a pool of firelight cast by a smoldering campfire. He heard gunfire erupting inside a second wagon close by, and he turned to see what had happened.

Joe Allemand, a sheep rancher with a bullet hole in his back, stumbled out the wagon, picked himself up, and staggered away from the scene, his hands in the air. Two gunmen, Herb Brink and Ed Eaton, stepped out of the wagon behind him. Herb leveled his Winchester at Joe and fired. Joe lurched forward and fell hard in the dirt, dead. “It’s a hell of a time at night to come out with your hands up,” Herb quipped.

Herb marched over to a stand of sagebrush, gathered a handful, and placed the end into the campfire. The brush crackled and snapped as it burned. He held it up in the air and watched the flame grow then tossed it under the wagon nearest him. In a matter of moments the vehicle was engulfed in fire. George followed Herb’s lead, grabbed a fistful of dry vegetation and dipped it into the flames licking the wheels of the wagon.

As the three men watched the fire burn and consume the vehicles and the gear around it, the report of a series of gunshots in the near distance was heard. Four of George and Herb’s cohorts had unloaded their weapons into a large herd of sheep. The few animals that managed to escape scattered, bleating loudly as they ran away.

George walked over to his horse which was tied to an old, rain-bleached post and lifted himself into the saddle as though he hadn’t a care in the world. He nudged his ride away from the chaos and trotted off into the shadows of the landscape, leaving the others to follow after him.

Death Row All Stars

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 To learn more about the All Stars and the games they played to save their lives read

The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder.

 

 

 

A Fast Game

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A blinding, hot sun pushed its way out from behind a few clouds and stretched across a baseball diamond above Overland Park in Rawlins, Wyoming, in the summer of 1911.1 A crowd of people in the stands of the shade-free arena carved into the center of town waved cardboard fans in front of their faces in a futile attempt to push the merciless heat away from them. All eyes were trained on Thomas Cameron, a cherub-faced, overly tired baseball player on the pitcher’s mound. He backhanded beads of sweat off his forehead as he stepped away from his position and looked over the fielders behind him.

Some of his teammates slapped their fists into their rough, well-worn gloves, and all shouted words of encouragement. Thomas adjusted his cap and pulled it down far over his forehead. He kicked the dirt under his feet, and a haze of powdery dry dust rose in the air around his ankles and settled on his grimy uniform. He stepped back onto the mound and readied himself to pitch. His arms rose high over his head as he started his wind up. Rearing back on his left leg he fired a wild, high fastball. The alert batter turned away from the plate while fading backwards to avoid the out of control pitch, but the ball ricocheted off his left shoulder and bounded back into the stands.

A fat, unkempt umpire shouted for the batter to take his base. The spectators hissed at the rattled Thomas. He cast a glance at the team captain, George Saban, near the dugout and noticed the grim expression on his face.* It was an unfortunate error. Thomas’s shoulders sagged under the weight of what he knew could happen because of the mistake.

To learn more about the All Stars and the games they played to save their lives read

The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder.

Death Row All Stars

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Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder.

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Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder.

 

“No thrill equals that which comes when a home player sends the ball ringing off his bat safely to the outfield. As the number of bases gained by such a hit increases, so does the excitement mount. When one of those drives wins a game, its maker is a hero.”

The American West of the early 1900s was the scene of great change. The trans-continental railroad cut a swath through the country, pulling the population away from the East, bringing progress to and signs of the coming industrial age. Boomtowns were turning into cities; the ways of the west were disappearing and giving way to the inevitable intrusion of change.

But as life became more sophisticated and industrial, a simple and pure game captured the attention of a nation. It would become a national pastime, but in Wyoming in 1910 baseball was an obsession.

Every town, every camp had leagues or teams of their own. Every team had stars that could easily play alongside Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb. But there were no baseball stars as unique as the Wyoming State Penitentiary Death Row All Stars of Rawlins, Wyoming.

And the star of the All Stars, Joseph Seng.

From the moment he arrived at the penitentiary, Seng was known more for his baseball prowess than his murder conviction. Within moments of his incarceration, prison officials got around to the task of creating a team and building a place to play.

The concept of prison reform and prisoner welfare was nonexistent in 1910. Time on the field was a precious escape from day-to-day life that could be both extremely hellish and (for some) lavishly privileged. Corruption and graft ran rampant. Prisoners were forced to work for little or no wages in the prison broom factory, denied basic necessities, fed rancid food, and forced to work road crews. Others were allowed to openly wander the streets of Rawlins, hunt rabbits outside the prison walls, and reap the monetary windfall of betting on the All Stars.

For the players, baseball was their life, their saving grace. Inside their cell, they were rapists, robbers, burglars, and thieves. But on the playing field, they were fast, hard, and possessed an inside fast ball no one could hit.

Primarily off the strength of Seng’s arm (and his bat), the Death Row All Stars quickly became the talk of barrooms, brothels, and even political circles. Fortunes were being made by wagering in exchange for promises of time taken off their sentences and, for Seng, the possibility of a death penalty commutation.

For one cloudless Wyoming summer, residents of Rawlins boasted one of the finest baseball teams in the country. Scores of baseball fans came from all over the state, creating an abstract grandstand fan base. Socialites, merchants, and politicos sat alongside prospectors, ranchers, and drifters cheering for the men in the dark uniforms with “W-S-P” sewn on their chests.

Death Row All Stars

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To learn more about the All Stars and the games they played to save their lives read

The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder.

 

 

 

Zack

Yesterday was one of those days. Most business calls I made turned out to be disastrous. Is the average person stupider than they were a generation ago? Or do you just run into more stupid people because fewer stupid people are getting eaten by bears? The work day blues followed me to Bible study last night and parked themselves right next to me as I began to teach a class of seventeen kids about the importance of loving one another. Just as the lesson started a five year old boy named Zack asked if he could lead the class in a song he learned to play on his small, Mickey Mouse guitar. Everyone happily agreed and he proudly came to the front of the room carrying his instrument and ready to serenade us all in a chorus of “Jesus Loves Me.” No sooner had we started to sing than Zack stopped us because he needed to tune his toy guitar. Wearing a serious expression he carefully turned the knobs on the handle of the guitar and strummed until he achieved just the right sound. The class respectfully watched him as though he were a classically trained musician preparing for a recital. No one laughed or cracked a smile. This was serious business for Zack. We began the song again and he beamed with pride. After an encore he returned to his seat and carefully laid his guitar next to him on the floor. That sweet, unassuming act of praise hung in the air for the duration of the class. Any irritation I was feeling when I arrived at Bible study left the minute Zack played. It made me happy and humbled me in the process. I’ve thought about Zack and his kind offering many times since yesterday. It made me realize how ungrateful and stupid I am at times. I’m praying today that I won’t get eaten by a bear. Play on, Zack!

 

And the Winner Is…

Congratulations to Linda Cosick. 

Linda is this month’s book giveaway winner!

  She has won a copy of Object Matrimony: 

The Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking on the Western Frontier. 

 

Next week’s book giveaway will be The Death Row All Stars.