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Episode 23 - Three Strikes, You're Dead

Listen: https://www.americathebizarre.com/listen/episode/24a8a293/23-three-strikes-youre-dead

Baseball in America can be traced back to the 18th century when colonists brought over the games rounders and cricket from England. When the American Revolution broke out, variations of these games were being played at schools across the country and became even more popular during the mid-19th century when cities began to industrialize. In 1845, a group of men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One member named Alexander Joy Cartwright, created a set of rules for the game of baseball that included a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines, nine person teams for nine innings, the addition of short stop and the three-strike rule. Cartwright also banned the practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them. When Cartwright quit his job as a bank clerk to become a gold prospector in California, he brought baseball with him. He taught his fellow prospectors the rules of baseball and eventually organized a baseball club in San Francisco. On February 22, 1860, Cartwright’s team played their first game against a rival team. During the Civil War, baseball continued to expand nationally, and the National Association of Baseball Players was formed. By the end of 1865, there were almost 100 clubs in the NABBP and by 1867, there were over 400. In 1870, the Chicago White Stockings, known today as the Chicago Cubs, won the championship game. By the turn of the century, even small towns across the United States had semi professional teams and by 1911, there were more than sixty thousand clubs in America that included around 750,000 men and boys over the age of 12 all playing baseball and it seemed that if you didn’t play baseball, you watched baseball. Rawlings, Wyoming is about 50 miles north of the Colorado border and in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it was a railroad town that was quick to impart tough justice to anyone who broke laws around the area, like not only hanging criminals but skinning them as well. So when Wyoming got its first state prison in 1901, Rawlins was the perfect place for it. When it first opened, the prison didn’t have running water or electricity and had the reputation as the toughest prison in the West. Butch Cassidy and Frank James, the brother of Jessie James, both spent time at the prison among other famous outlaws. In April 1911, the Big Horn County Sheriff Felix Alston was made the first state-appointed warden of the prison. Alston had big ideas for the prison and quickly got to work putting his new programs into motion including a road-building program that would get the prisoners outside during the day. The first program that Alston wanted implemented into the prison was a physical fitness program and that is how Alston’s Wyoming State Penitentiary baseball team was created. Alston first recruited George Saban as the team captain. Saban was a convicted murderer sentenced to 20 years that had ambushed three sheep herders and killed them in their sleep for encroaching on his cattle’s grazing land. Saban couldn’t play since two fingers on his right hand had been amputated at the second joint and two fingers on his right hand had been amputated at the third joint, but he had the respect of many of the inmates at the prison and was still held in high regards with many prison guards and the people of Rawlins, since many in the town felt that his actions against the sheepherders were justified. Saban would even be allowed to leave the prison in civilian clothes to visit local saloons, he just had to take a prison guard with him. With his team captain on board, Alston and Saban went to work selecting the rest of the members of the team. Joseph Seng had been recently admitted to the prison for shooting his boss who was also his lover’s


husband. Seng insisted that he acted in self-defense, but he was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death by hanging which was scheduled for August 22nd, 1911. When Seng was admitted into the Wyoming State Penitentiary, he was asked a series of questions that included how much schooling he had, religion, and if he had any special skills, to which he replied he was pretty good at baseball. Warden Alston was then made aware of this fact and Joseph Seng was placed on the team as catcher. The other prisoners that made up the Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars, also known as the Death Row All Stars, were shortstop Joseph Guzzardo who had killed a woman while trying to shoot a man that was threatening his life, first baseman Eugene Rowan, who had been convicted of breaking and entering and attempted rape, right fielder James Powell who had attacked a woman, along with others until they had a 12 man roster that included a total of three rapists, a forger, five thieves, and three killers. Alston had a regulation-sized field created in the exercise yard that was surrounded by a stone wall and prison guards could watch the team practice from a glass-enclosed tower. Word started to get around Rawlins that the Death Row All Stars were actually a pretty good team. When George Saban left the prison to hang out at the local bars, he would brag how well his team would be able to compete against the other baseball clubs in the region. Placing bets on baseball games was extremely common in the early 1900’s and George was hoping to make big money betting on his team. Saban teamed up with a drifer named George Streplis that had been arrested in March 1911 for gambling to place bets on the Death Row All Stars for Saban, who was getting his money from Warden Alston. Saban’s goal was to make 20% off all wagers made on the All Stars. Saban told oddsmakers for the bets that Warden Alston agreed to decrease prison sentences and even give permanent stays of execution to the players if they won all of their games. So a loss would be very costly to the All Stars especially for players like Seng that were scheduled to be executed. Warden Alston supplied the team with gloves, bats, and uniforms. On July 18, 1911, the Death Row All Stars came out on their practice field for their first game against the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors, which was one the best teams in the area. During the game, inmates still in the prison tried to watch through the barred windows of their cells and cheered on the players. Joseph Seng hit two home runs that game, including a grand slam and the Death Row All Stars ended up winning 11-1. The Washington Post wrote an article about the game with the headline “Slayer Scores Home Runs.” The way that the All Stars handled themselves during the game also generated a lot of talk from baseball fans and newspapers. The Carbon County Journal said of the game “The prisoners were all out in the yard and yelled and rooted for their team as if they were watching one of the big leagues play. They made a big barrelful of lemonade and passed it around among the players and spectators alike and put blankets over a clothes rack to make a cool shady place for the Juniors, in fact they did everything to make the visit a most pleasant one and there was no one who realized at the end of the game that they were locked in a playing ball in the stockade of penitentiary. Some of the ladies were watching the game from one of the guard houses when one got hit under the eye with a foul ball, the only accident of the game, and many were the expressions of sorrow on the part of the prisoners that this happened... The Juniors and visitors wish to thank Warden Alston for the many kindnesses shown at the game and also the prisoners for the delicious lemonade.”


The Death Row All Stars were scheduled to play the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors again on August 4, 1911 so they got right back to practicing. During one practice, Saban decided he was going to hit a few balls to the players before the end of practice. Saban hit a hard grounder that went between second and third base. Guzzardo tried to scoop it up, but he fumbled the catch. Saban hit another grounder toward Guzzardo and Guzzardo fumbled it a second time. Guzzardo was frustrated and began to march off the field, but Saban cut him off and began to chew him out. In a letter that Seng wrote he recounted that Saban “stomped over to Guzzardo and let him have it. No one could hear what was being said, but something was being said. Guzzardo kept his head down. After a few minutes of serious talk, George motioned for Thomas Cameron (who was the pitcher) to meet him where he stood. Saban went on to reprimand all the players that mistakes on the field would not be tolerated. Prisoners who make errors that cost the team a game would have more time added to their sentence. Winning would lead to reduced time and stays of execution. Those were Warden Alston’s terms and they were non-negotiable.” While not in practice, Seng would often hang out with the guards, being friendly and trying to make small talk with them. This made a few of the other prisoners hate Seng, feeling like he was being a teacher’s pet almost. In early August, one inmate was fed up with Seng decided to kill him. This inmate wore a 10-pound ball-and-chain that was attached to his leg. He picked up his ball and chain in his arms and walked up a flight of stairs. Once he made it to the second landing, he set his iron ball down on the floor and picked up a ten inch by 2 feet box that was half filled with sand. He raised the box above his head and dropped it right above Seng’s head which was about 25 feet below. Luckily, Seng turned to speak with a guard and the box landed right next to him instead of on top of him. When word about this murder attempt made it’s way into Rawlins, gamblers were afraid that the star player was in danger, never mind that he was scheduled to be executed at the end of the month. On August 4, the Death Row All Stars played their second game against the Juniors. The Laramie Daily Boomerang wrote “A game of baseball was played at the penitentiary stockade between the prisoner’s team and the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors, in which the prisoners were victorious, winning by a score of 11 to 1. Seng, who was convicted at Evanston of murder in the first degree, was one of the star players of the convict team, getting four hits out of four times at bat, and played an errorless game. Seng was sentenced to be hanged on August 22, but will petition the governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment.” With so much publicity in the papers, the public began to clamor for a chance to watch the Death Row All Stars play in person instead of just read about them. On August 5, 1911, the Carbon County Journal announced that “Warden Alston of the penitentiary has informed us that to comply with a general demand to see his fast team of convict ball players play he has a plan in mind wherein he can take the team down to the fairgrounds for a game with the Wyoming Supply Company Juniors team.” On August 13, 1911, the All Stars played the Juniors again at the penitentiary and they beat them again. On August 20, Anna Seng, Joseph’s mother, wrote to Wyoming Governor Carey hoping that he would spare her son’s life. The governor wrote back to Anna “Dear Madam, I have your letter of the 9


th instant. Before I received your letter I had acquainted myself somewhat with the facts in the trial and conviction of Joseph Seng. You are his mother, and I have no doubt you are greatly distressed. He murdered his victim and gave him no chance whatever for his life. I will look into the matter further, but, to be entirely honest with you, at this time I do not see any excuse whatever for execution clemency in his case.” Seng continued to hope for clemency, but with the Governor’s letter back to his mother, it was looking like the only thing that might keep him alive would be to continue winning baseball games. The next game was scheduled for August 27 and his execution date was August 22. August 22nd came and went without Seng hearing anything about getting executed, so he just poured himself into practicing for the August 27th game. This game was going to be held in Overland Park and would be open to the citizens of Rawlins. Overland Park was packed for the game, with spectators coming in from Rawlins and surrounding towns to watch the prisoners play. The All Stars beat the Juniors again, this time it was much closer with a score of 15 to 10. As soon as the game was over, the inmates surrendered their gloves, bats, balls, and uniforms and were escorted back to the prison. They were no more scheduled games so the players didn’t know if they were going to be able to continue to play. There was talk of scrapping the baseball team and having them take classes instead since many inmates never got to attend school. Seng knew though that if he wasn’t playing baseball, he wasn’t going to be alive much longer. In September, Governor Carey initiated a statewide crackdown on gambling and wrote to Warden Alston that he had heard rumors about illegal bets being placed on his prison baseball team. Saban tried to assure the local gamblers that this crackdown would only be temporary and then they could get back to betting on the baseball team, but shortly after, Alston announced that the Death Row All Stars were no longer. Without baseball, Seng became a prison nurse. When the cold Wyoming winter weather moved in, the prison infirmary became overfilled with sick inmates. Seng would help the prison doctor by wiping sweat off of prisoner’s heads, giving them drinks of water, taking vitals, and feeding them ice chips. Seng found a renewed life purpose helping the sick inmates and continued to hope his stay of execution would continue. On April 18, 1912, the Wyoming Tribune announced that gallows were being shipped from the Laramie county jail to Rawlins that would be used to hang Joseph Seng. The people of Rawlins were upset that this star baseball player was going to be hanged and a petition began to circulate that begged Governor Carey to grant clemency to Seng. The Rawlins Republican reported that practically every citizen in the city had signed it, but Governor Carey still refused to give Seng clemency. On May 23, 1912, the final preparations were made for Seng’s execution. He was schedule to be hanged at 2:45 am the following morning. Warden Alston ordered all inmates to be locked in their cells at noon on May 23


rd to quell any uprising. The Wyoming Tribune reported that Seng seemed composed. He played cards and drank coffee. The guards watching him said “he behaved as if his approaching death was the merest incident.” Seng spent the last hours of his life staring at a picture of his mother and writing letters to her and his siblings. At 2:30 am on May 24, Seng was escorted out of his cell by Warden Alston and Reverend Long and they walked with him to the gallows. He was led up the stairs to the gallows to a platform and stood on a trapdoor while a noose was placed around his neck and a black cap over his head. Joseph Seng was pronounced dead a 2:54 am and his body was shipped back to his parents in Pennsylvania. Not until 1920 did baseball return to the Wyoming State Penitentiary, and several more years passed before the prison team was allowed to play outside opponents. In 1981 the old penitentiary closed its doors for ever. Sources: “Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder” by Chris Enss & Howard Kazanjian “The Death-Row Inmates Forced To Play Baseball For Their Lives” by Larry Getlen “Death or Glory” by Rupert Cornwell “Who Invented Baseball” History.com article


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