In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives
In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives

In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives

Shannon Quinn - June 8, 2019

In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives
Credit: The New York Post

Sheriff Alston Creates The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars

Sheriff Felix Alston was much more compassionate to the prisoners than his predecessor. He allowed them to get outside and exercise on the prison grounds. Many of these men had not been out in daylight for the ten years – since the prison had first opened. This is how the baseball team started. It was the most entertaining activity that they could all do together outside. It was during these recess sessions that Alston began to notice that some of these men had a true talent for baseball that was on-level with professional players.

Sheriff Alston was friends with the governor of Wyoming, Joseph Carey. He asked for permission to let the men form their own baseball team. Governor Carey was a gambler, and he could see the golden opportunity to make a profit off of the convicts. So he agreed to let The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars form a proper team. The team was given brand new uniforms, and they were treated like true athletes. The Wyoming Supply Company Juniors was a local company team who agreed to play against the convicts. The WSP All-Stars pummeled them with a score of 11 to 1.

In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives
Joseph Seng’s mugshot. Credit: NY Post

Joseph Seng was the best player on the team. He was on death row for killing his girlfriend’s husband in hopes that they could run away together. Even though he was a convicted murderer, people almost sympathized with the fact that he killed his lover’s husband. It was dramatic and sort of romantic (in a crazy, violent sort of way). Knowing his back story made people more invested in the games and journalists began writing about The All Stars in the newspapers across the United States. Joseph Seng was hitting home runs in nearly every game. Most people thought that it was a shame that such an athletic man with so much potential was on death row. People started writing letters to the governor of Wyoming asking for him to lessen Seng’s sentence. Rumors spread that if he could win enough games, he might have his sentence reduced from the death penalty to life in prison.

George Saban was a murderer who became the captain of the baseball team. Cattle herders and sheep farmers in Wyoming were in the middle of a turf war, because they were encroaching on one another’s land and destroying their businesses. There was still a lot of respect for the old west-style justice of shooting these people that were encroaching on his land. Because of that, a lot of people actually sympathized with him, including Sheriff Alston. He just so happen to be the one who originally arrested Saban. He completely sympathized with his motives for murder, but had to arrest him all the same.

Alston allowed Saban to come and go from the prison as he pleased in civilian clothes during the day. He was accompanied by an armed police officer at all times. As long as he came back to spend his nights in the prison, he basically got to live the life of a free man. While he was at the local bars, Saban would tell the men about how much they were training behind bars. This fascinated the local men and encouraged them to bet on the All-Star team. Of course, the warden and Governor Carey were both able to profit off this gambling, and it was all part of their bigger strategy.

In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives
Sheriff Felis Alston. Credit: Wyoming State Museum

It All Came Crashing Down

The baseball players began to receive special treatment. The baseball players enjoyed receiving more food at meal times. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the rumor that Joseph Seng may escape the death penalty. This did not sit well with the rest of the prisoners. Sheriff Alston kept making up excuses for the delay, blaming it on bureaucracy. On the day that Seng should have died, one of the other fellow inmates tried to kill him. A heavy box filled with sand came tumbling over the railing, right above his head. Luckily for Seng, the box missed him by just a few inches. After this, Sheriff Alston had to increase the security in the prison.

If any of the players made a huge mistake during a game, the team captain George Saban would scream at them in the dugout. He told the players that if they did badly in these games that they would have time added to their sentence. And he perpetuated the rumor that Joseph Seng just may escape the death penalty. This was not true, of course, but it was enough motivation to keep the players practicing and doing the best they possibly could.

In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives
The team wearing their brand new uniforms. Credit: NyPost.com

In a town that was so full of drama and gossip, it was really no surprise that the word eventually spread about what was really going on in the Wyoming State Penitentiary. The citizens of Wyoming began to spread rumors that the governor was involved in this conspiracy. He decided to create a new anti-gambling campaign in order to convince people that he really wasn’t part of this. Sheriff Alston decided to cancel his baseball team and used the funding to create an education program instead.

Sheriff Alston was applauded by the local community. He was creating an educational program that would help rehabilitate these men who were typically high school dropouts and illiterate. Unfortunately for Joseph Seng, the governor never actually agreed to commute his sentence. The men in charge were able to pocket huge profits playing on the men’s hopes and dreams. Joseph Seng got to live a year longer than he should have, so the journey wasn’t all for nothing. Newspaper reporters show up to witness his execution. The reporters wrote that he walked bravely, with pride, and without fear. He knew that this truth may be the last year of his life and he lived it to the fullest, and he accepted his fate, closing the chapter on the prison team forever.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Death Row Inmates Forced to Play Baseball For Their Lives. Larry Getlen. The New York Post. 2014.

Albany County Historical Society – Otto Gramm

Fina a Grave – Joseph V. Seng

History Net – Book Review: The Death Row All Stars, by Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss

Chris Enss & Howard Kazanjian – Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder

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