Tuesday, September 20, 2011
90. Alabama Pitts: Prison Yard to Ball Park
The history of baseball is sprinkled with stories of redemption: Bill Rumler's comeback after being banned for throwing games, Josh Hamilton and his triumph over booze and narcotics to win the MVP award in the 2010 playoffs and of course - the infamous Alabama Pitts who went from the Sing Sing Prison yard to the professional baseball field. Also, if you are interested, on my Facebook page I just posted a card of a certain 1970's Red Sox relief pitcher named Sam "Mayday" Malone and I'm soliciting writers to come up with the story that will accompany it...
Edwin Pitts got his name "Alabama" from his mama who gave it to him to distinguish him from his Pop, also named Edwin, who was born in Georgia. Edwin Sr, an army cavalryman, died soon after Alabama's birth and although there was no longer a need for distinguishing the two, the distinctive name stuck. Growing up with a single mom in the deep south was made a little easier when she remarried and moved the family to Peoria, Illinois. Alabama soon had a step-sister he became very attached to but his mother divorced her husband, touching off a nasty custody battle ending in Pitts' sister going to live with his step-father's parents and his mother trying to kidnap the young girl. At age 15 Alabama left home, joined the U.S. Navy and served a 3 year hitch honorably. Landing in New York City with no prospects, Pitts fell in with a former shipmate and decided that robbing liquor and grocery stores was a good idea.
Now years later it was reported that Alabama Pitts' life of crime was limited to just the one bungled heist for which he was caught, a grocery store robbery committed out of drunken desperation because he was hungry and had no money for food. In actuality it seems that there was a bit more to Alabama's career as a criminal. Later reduced by his proponents to a simple $10 heist, in reality the 2 man gang netted almost 8 times that (remember, in 1928 a 5-spot could buy you a sharp looking suit). Leaving his buddy outside on the sidewalk to act as look-out, Pitts entered the Reeves Grocery Store at 113 Amsterdam Avenue and pulled a revolver on the manager, John Costello. Snatching close to $80 he ran outside where his look-out man waited with a taxi and the 2 men began their genius of a getaway. With Costello running after the getaway cab screaming, the taxi was quickly stopped a couple blocks away, Pitts and his partner were arrested and charged with armed robbery. Far from a simple $10 hold-up for food, but far from criminal masterminds, Pitts and his partner were suspected to have been behind at least 5 other similar heists. Pitts was identified as the man holding the revolver, but unable to pin the other jobs on Pitts, he went down on the single grocery store armed robbery charge and was sentenced to 8 to 16 years in Sing Sing Prison.
If Alabama had committed his crime a decade earlier his time spent confined within the stone walls of Sing Sing would have been much different. Fortunately for him the new warden, Lewis Edward Lawes, believed in rehabilitation through sports and other activities instead of the usual dank confinement. Starting in 1919 Lawes immediately got started on forming competitive baseball, football and basketball leagues made up of not only the inmates, but their guards as well. Revolutionary for the time, Lawes' plan soon began to bear fruit as the prison's disciplinary problems reduced dramatically. Instead of replicating the career path of his predecessors whose tenure at Sing Sing lasted no longer than a few years, Lewis Lawes began a 20 year term as the institution's revered warden and leader in the prison reform movement.
Warden Lawes procured the best equipment he could for his sports teams, some donated by the New York Giants and others provided by the charitable Men's Welfare League (the initials "MWL" can often be seen in Sing Sing photographs). The warden also kept his teams on their toes by bringing in all levels of competition to challenge his teams from semi-pro up to major league baseball and pro-football squads. Besides helping his men hone their skills, more importantly these exhibition games gave the prisoners something to look forward to and get excited about.
In this sports-encouraged environment, 19 year-old Alabama Pitts flourished. His gridiron skills made him starting halfback and captain of the prison's football team called the Black Sheep. The Black Sheep's coach, former Notre Dame team captain John Law, began talking him up to the New York City sportswriters he knew and before long the legend of Alabama Pitts was being created in the sporting news. Lawes often brought professional and college teams to Sing Sing to play against his Black Sheep and during a game against Columbia University their coach, Lou Little, said "I have seen him play and I can assure you he is a 1st class football player."
Besides football, Pitts made quite an impression on the baseball diamond as well. The mighty New York Yankees visited Sing Sing in September of 1933 and newspapers reported the Pitts made quite a stir with his superior fielding skills. He was batting .500 at the time Hall Of Famer Johnny Evers brought his Albany Senators team to Sing Sing to play the Black Sheep. Evers, the clubs general manager, and the owner, Joe Cambria, were immediately taken with the convict and quietly readied a contract for him upon his release.
Since Sing Sing was a mere 30 miles from Manhattan it was only a matter of time before the early mentions of the ballplayer-convict turned into a full-blown media circus. Now 1935 and deep in the Great Depression, the story of Pitts stealing money for food was something many Americans could sympathise with. Bloated exaggerations of his multi-sport talent tickled the eager imagination of those down on their luck and the legend of "Alabama" Pitts, "The Most Prominent Jailbird Athlete In America" was launched. Due to his exemplary behavior while at Sing Sing and his leadership role as team captain, Warden Lawes obtained permission to chop off 3 years from Pitts' sentence. Still behind bars in Sing Sing and with Lawes' nod of approval, Alabama Pitts signed a contract to play outfield for the Albany Senators for $200 a month. It was a story-book ending... only it wasn't.
Before he even walked out of the prison the president of the International League, to which the Senators belonged, refused to validate the contract. Albany and their parent club, the Washington Senators, appealed to the National Association of Baseball Leagues which oversaw all the minor leagues and were likewise rebuffed. The signing of the felon Edwin Pitts was "against the best interests of the game."
From a distance of three-quarters of a century, denying Pitts his shot at redemption seems cruel, however in 1935 there were a few things to take under consideration. The first reason for denying Alabama a shot at the game was strictly from a moral perspective. Pitts and the story of his crime was sugar-coated to feed to the American public, reduced from a dangerous armed robbery to a desperate bid to feed himself. At that point in time, countless Americans were starving, doing all they could to get a square meal for themselves and their families. Still, the great majority did not reduce themselves to crime to put food on the table, they put their heads down and worked as best they could. The International League was not ready to be put in the position to seemingly validate the use of force as a means to survive the hard times. If others could see that not only does crime pay, but it pays off in a $200 a month professional baseball contract and countless newspaper articles. No, the International League was not ready to take on that responsibility.
The second reason for refusing Pitts' contract was whether or not the signing of the prison-athlete was just another stunt to get publicity and improve attendance. It was, after all, the depths of the depression and baseball had endured many such cheap stunts like the signing of the teenage girl Jackie Mitchell, the Washington Senators' bearded hurler "Bullet Ben" Benson and the shameless ethnic duel between a Chinese and Japanese pitcher in the Pacific Coast League to capitalise on the recent war between the 2 nations. Such exhibitions may have temporarily boosted attendance but in the long run they ran the risk of having a serious effect on the sanctity of the game.
On June 6th, 1935 Sing Sing's iron gates opened up and into this hurricane of controversy walked Alabama Pitts, free man. The Senators had him accompany the team as an unsigned player as the press and owner Joe Cambria whooped-up the national sporting press to petition baseball to give him a chance. Albany's general manager Johnny Evers, exasperated by the controversy melodramatically threatened: "I will retire from baseball. I know this is a broad statement, but I will make good on it. I absolutely will get out of the game." Confronted by sportswriters Pitts said "this is the toughest blow of my life" as tears welled up in his eyes.
Letters flooded into newspapers and the baseball commissioners office and there were editorials on the radio talking about it. Even the victim of his botched 1930 stick-up, John Costello, voiced his support of Pitts. On June 17th Judge Landis surprisingly gave the go-ahead to the Senators - Alabama Pitts was a professional ballplayer.
There was one big clause, however: Pitts could only be used in "regular" games, meaning no exhibition games. If the Albany Senators were serious about having him on their squad, they had to play him as a regular, not a circus side-show. Johnny Evers agreed and Pitts joined the ballclub. Wearing his lucky number 7 on his back, Pitts went 2 for 5 against the Syracuse Chiefs and made a couple of nice catches in the outfield that were noted in the papers. Hailed as a triumphant debut, it went downhill from there. Alabama had the fairly-serious problem of not being able to hit the curve ball and his average plummeted. Being able to play in the numerous exhibition games the Senators played might have helped him get his batting up to speed but he was also hampered by injuries, culminating in blood poisoning from an untreated spike wound. Pitts was described by his teammates a tough character who seemingly took no notice of pain. One former teammate went so far as to reveal that Pitts didn't even wear underwear beneath his uniform, let alone a protective jock strap or sliding pads. He kept to himself but was not unfriendly and teammates remarked that he never spoke of his time behind bars. One disconcerting trait the new player possessed was the way his eyes quickly and comprehensively surveyed a room upon entering it. Senators' manager Al Mamaux called him the best defensive player on the team, but his anemic .233 average put his career on the rocks.
After the season Alabama Pitts, now known from coast-to-coast, was a superstar. The former convict was flooded with marriage proposals and business deals. The lucrative vaudeville circuit came calling, but Pitts, wanting to be taken seriously as a ballplayer, turned down the offers. He did however agree to play 4 exhibition games with the Philadelphia Eagles, but his playing time was very limited. Showing his versatility he also led a semi-pro basketball team before baseball season began again.
Telling the boys in the press to start calling him "Ed" instead of "Alabama", Pitts began the season trying to make good but AAA pitching continued to baffle him. Cambria sent him down to the single A York White Roses, a New York-Penn League team he also owned. He continued to average about .230 and complained about being used as a "circus freak." Disgruntled, Pitts moved out of the sphere of professional ball and joined the outlaw Charlotte Hornets of the Carolina League for the remainder of the 1936 season.
The Carolina League was made up of tough factory teams from the area's textile mills and became a home for exiled or aging ballplayers as well as a few talented up and comers. It was a slugger's league and high averages were the norm. No longer under close scrutiny Pitts improved his average feasting on the lesser quality pitching and returned to organized ball with the Winston-Salem Twins the following year.
His last chance at professional ball came to an end in June of 1937 when the Twins released him after 23 games. Pitts headed back to the Carolina League and joined the Gastonia Spinners and then the Valdese Textiles. Easy ballplaying and the promise of a good job in the mills encouraged Pitts to call Valdese, North Carolina his home. Working for the Pilot Hosiery Mill, Alabama married a local girl named Mary and had a daughter in 1939. Pitts took on the extra job of the local high school's baseball coach and settled in to become one of the towns regular fellows.
It was a last grasp at a baseball career that led to Alabama Pitts' untimely demise.
Playing for the Valdese Mill team, Pitts was in a seedy roadhouse celebrating with his teammates when he drunkenly tried to dance with a woman. What happened next is mired in a slurry of booze and ass-covering but 2 alternate tales emerged: the first one being that Pitts forced himself unwillingly on the girl of a local tough named Newland LaFevers and when he tried to stand up for her honor Pitts came at him with fists flying leaving LaFevers no option but to pull a knife in self-defense. The second story is the happily-lubricated Pitts, always popular with the ladies, simply tried to cut in on the dancing couple and LaFevers unexpectedly slashed Pitts. With his last breath Alabama told hospital workers that there was no fight and all he did was try to cut in on a dancing couple. Whatever the reason, the 4 inch cut from LaFevers' knife fatally opened an artery under his right arm pit and Alabama Pitts was dead at the age of 31.
As a side note, after a week-long manhunt, a judge exonerated Newland LaFevers (if you were ever to get knifed in a roadhouse, you just know it would have to be by a guy named "Newland LaFevers") for the murder of Edwin "Alabama" Pitts. LaFevers attorney was able to get witnesses to testify that it was self-defense, which directly contradicted the testimony of Pitts' teammates. 5,000 people showed up to see Alabama returned to the earth, leaving behind one heck of great and tragic story...
While doing research for this story, I came across quite a few writers who try to draw a parallel between Alabama Pitts, a criminal allowed to play professional ball, and Shoeless Joe Jackson who was forever banned from the game. These writers try to use this comparison as leverage to make the point that since Pitts was allowed into the game, Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame. I take exception to this comparison: Shoeless Joe was a dishonest ballplayer who accepted cash to facilitate the defeat of his ballclub. Whether he went through with it or not is not an issue, he accepted the money, period. Alabama Pitts was a convicted stick-up man who served his time and paid his debt to society, living the rest of his life as an honest man. Say what you want, but to me those are two radically different situations and two completely different types of men.