Prologue Magazine

The Booker T Four’s Unlikely Journey from Prison Baseball to the Negro Leagues

Summer 2004, Vol. 36, No. 2

By Timothy Rives and Robert Rives

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Stands seating 1,500 line the diamond at Leavenworth penitentiary, where games were played by the prison's best teamas. (National Archives, RG 129)

It is one of history’s more pleasant ironies that a prison baseball program intended to lull inmates to docility would instead create the “colored team without a peer in the state of Kansas” and send four players to the Negro Leagues. But such is the nature of unintended consequences.

 Baseball went to prison in the late nineteenth century when forward-thinking wardens introduced the game to their charges to encourage right behavior. It proved a hit and grew quickly as a form of progressive penal control and stress release. “Baseball,” said R. W. McClaughry, then warden of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, “takes the mind of the prisoner off his troubles, stimulates him to better efforts, and . . . is one of the best diversions possible.”

The game also helped four inmate players overcome nearly incalculable odds to reach the African American Negro Leagues, the peak of the profession open to them in the early twentieth century.

But diversion, not vocational training is key to understanding the appeal of the game to prison administrators. Opposition of business and labor interests to “convict labor” had limited the productive work available to incarcerated men, and most American prisoners had too much time on their hands. The national pastime tempered the problem of idleness, and prison leaders like McClaughry were grateful for it.

Although fragmentary evidence suggests earlier contests, baseball officially began at Leavenworth in 1912 under the watch of Deputy Warden William Mackey. The former federal marshal built a regulation diamond with bleachers for fifteen hundred, held tryouts, scheduled regular practices and games, and offered a silk pennant to the institutional champions. The league took shape along the prison’s racial fault lines. White players formed the Brown Sox. Native American prisoners organized the Red Men. African American inmates founded the Booker T. Washingtons.

Ethnicity was the natural boundary. Black and white prisoners lived in segregated cell houses, ate at segregated tables, bathed in segregated showers, cheered and jeered from segregated bleachers. Leavenworth was a Jim Crow prison in a Jim Crow country, and its baseball would be no different for many years.

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The Booker T's often beat the all-white Brown Sox. The inmate-umpire in the box score was Albert Felt, former president of the Nebraska State League. (National Archives, RG 129)

The Booker Ts dominated the Leavenworth league from the beginning, easily capturing Mackey’s pennant in 1912 and 1913. The Brown Sox won only five games in 1913, rare victories built on the hitting and fielding of inmates Joe White, a New York semipro, and Dannie Claire, a veteran of seven professional seasons in the minor Kitty, Cotton States, Texas, Western, and Pacific Coast Leagues. “The fact is,” reported the prison’s New Era newspaper, “[Claire and White] were the whole Sox team, without these two it is doubtful if the Sox would have won a game.”

Frustration mounted with the losses. The Kansas City Star reported “hard feelings and some racial hatred” in the black versus white contests. To balance the scales, prison officials added Indian and Mexican players to the white team, but the multicultural effort failed to stop the Booker Ts. Schisms followed, and the team— now renamed the White Sox—broke into opposing factions. The Red Sox, the Gray Sox, and the Ironworkers were all formed in the hope of beating the Bookers. Nothing worked, and after two years of organized play, baseball was threatening to lose its effectiveness as a disciplinary tool. The monotony of opposition did not help the situation, and prison officials looked outside the gates for relief and variety.

They found it in 1914, when the Booker Ts and the re-formed White Sox began playing other institutional, semiprofessional, military, and town teams. It was a rough-and-tumble game. “Do you think it is fair,” asked the editor of the New Era, “for a man in the bleachers to punch a third baseman in the ribs when he is trying to catch a fly?”

Prison players endured bean balls, quarrels with biased and corrupt umpires, teammates who betrayed signals to opposing teams, teams that failed to appear for games, and teams like the Kansas City Tramways, which abandoned the field in mid-game rather than lose to a convict club. The Bookers themselves once forfeited to rival Kansas State Penitentiary rather than endure the harsh flashes of light beaming from the mirrors of fans of the state penitentiary team.

Leavenworth penitentiary teams thrived on northeast Kansas diamonds despite these obstacles. Both squads turned semiprofessional, booking ballparks, charging admission, splitting the gate with opponents, and becoming accepted members of local baseball. Both teams fared well. Between 1914 and 1932, the final year of segregated Leavenworth penitentiary teams, the White Sox compiled a record of 130 wins and 65 losses against outside teams for a .666 winning percentage. Perhaps the White Sox’s most memorable loss came in 1915 when the team scored one run to the Kansas City Packers’ twenty-three in what is believed to have been the first game between a prison team and a major league team. The Booker Ts took 151 wins in 203 attempts against outside teams for a .743 mark. While the White Sox and Booker T’s records against outside teams were similar, the Bookers were clearly better, winning forty-one of fifty-nine games against the White Sox. The Bookers also captured independent state semipro titles in 1927 and 1929, inspiring the African American Kansas City Call to pronounce them “one of the strongest colored baseball teams in the west.”

No occult secret explains the success. The Bookers had talent. In the team’s twenty-year history, it was rarely without the service of at least one former or future Negro League player. Some games featured as many as three future Negro Leaguers on the same squad. The Booker Ts sent more players to the Negro Leagues in the 1920s than any other semipro team in the greater Kansas City area, a region ripe with black baseball talent.

Incredibly, four Booker Ts, men with no previous professional baseball experience, with everything but their talent working against them, made the journey from Leavenworth penitentiary to the Negro National League.

***

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A Buffalo soldier sent to Leavenworth after a fatal fight, David Wingfield led the Booker T's with a .435 batting average in 1918. Freed a year later, he went on to a Negro League career with Dayton, Detroit, Washington, Toledo, Columbus, and Memphis. (National Archives, RG 129)

David Wingfield went first. His story begins in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where the Georgia native joined the U.S. Army’s Tenth Cavalry Regiment in December 1913. A legendary unit of African American troopers better known as Buffalo Soldiers, the Tenth Cavalry patrolled the U.S.-Mexican border, chasing bandits and revolutionaries, maintaining order. Wingfield, athletic at 5' 10", 168 pounds, excelled in the cavalry, becoming in his own modest estimation “an expert pistol shot, excellent horseman, and first class rifleman.”

Like other regulars assigned to the Tenth, he spent his off-duty hours at the White City “resort,” a red-light district catering to the nonregulation needs of the soldiers. White City changed his life, but nearly a century later, the truth of what happened there on the early morning of December 5, 1915, remains a mystery. The short version: Wingfield, a Corporal Duncan, and a Private Williams shared a woman named Helen, a camp follower and prostitute. A payday fight, fueled by alcohol, erupted in gunfire between Wingfield and Duncan. The result: a fatal wound to Duncan’s chest, and .32-caliber bullets in Wingfield’s right wrist, upper back, and left hip. The general court-martial that followed sentenced him to ten years in prison. He arrived at Leavenworth prison on May 24, 1916, age twenty-two years. Still recuperating, he soldiered through eight games for the Bookers, scratching out four hits in twenty-seven at bats.

 Wingfield nursed himself back to health in the intramural Inside League that winter, developing a breaking pitch he dubbed the “nasty ball.” Open to all prisoners, the intramural Inside League comprised teams of every imaginable occupational, criminal, and ethnic combination. The stone shop played the laundry, the fats played the leans, the white lifers played the “colored” lifers, and the morphine addicts played the cocaine addicts. The Inside League played year-round, weather permitting, usually at noon, and into the twilight hours during the summer. Opportunities for gambling abounded, providing sport and revenue for player and spectator—inmate and official—alike. Tobacco served as currency. Two umpires, one black, one white, kept the racial peace. The Inside League also served as a conduit and farm system to the varsity nines. Leavenworth had its own version of the Hot Stove League called the Fresh Fish League, fish being inmate slang for new arrivals. Newcomers were judged in inverse proportion to the amount of professional playing time they claimed; the less they claimed, the better they turned out to be. Many White Sox and Booker T players proved themselves in the Inside League before moving up to the big prison show.

Wingfield emerged in the spring as the Bookers’ top pitcher. His first outing went ten innings and resulted in a 3-2 win over Fort Leavenworth’s Colored Detachment No. 2, an excellent all-black team featuring the post’s service support employees. Wingfield, raved the New Era, “has a world of stuff.” His “quick delivery” is a “baffler.”

He cruised until August, when he met the Kansas City Royal Americans, one of the city’s best African American semipro teams. The Royal Americans were the only team that summer to get a read on Wingfield’s breaking ball. But while he surrendered nine hits, walked five, and hit two batsmen, he held his opponents at bay. His performance forced the Royal Americans to bring in staff ace Hurley McNair to slow the prisoners, but it was too late. The Bookers won the contest 11-8 in front of fifteen hundred rowdy inmate fans. Wingfield had gone head to head with McNair and held his own against the Negro League star. He finished the season with a record of nine wins and no losses and was among team leaders in hitting and fielding.

Wingfield would dominate local diamonds for the next two years. A prison admirer described him in action at his prime: “Traveling high, I thought [the ball] would be at least five feet over Wingfield’s head. But no! with a mighty upward leap it was speared in his trusty glove and seemingly before his feet touched the ground, it was speeding like a bullet to home plate.” His .435 batting average was the Booker Ts’ best in 1918 and won him twenty bags of tobacco as the institution’s overall batting champion. Off the field, his service as an orderly in the prison’s isolation ward cut five years off his sentence. Wingfield left Leavenworth in September 1919 for Terre Haute, Indiana, where he hoped to find work in the wholesale grocery business.

He found instead his regained freedom abridged. Suspected of highway robbery and bootlegging, Wingfield was arrested and confined to the Vigo County jail only a month after leaving Leavenworth. No witness had seen the alleged crime, and a letter from Deputy Warden L. J. Fletcher praising his trustworthiness—and baseball ability—won his release.

Wingfield wrote Fletcher in April 1920 thanking him for his help and informing the deputy, “I am going up in Ohio to play ball very soon.” A few weeks later, the bullet-scarred Buffalo Soldier took second base for the Dayton Marcos in the new Negro National League. Wingfield played parts of four seasons in the Negro Leagues, hitting .282 over forty-four official games. He went to the Detroit Stars in 1921 but after thirteen league games left for the Washington Braves. He appeared in eight games with the Toledo Tigers in 1923, and briefly with the Columbus Buckeyes. He disappeared until 1931, when he turned up with the Memphis Red Sox, a survivor at age thirty-seven. Wingfield lost at least one of the missing years to a Gibb County, Georgia, chain gang, a trap that caught thousands of African American men during that era. His tracks fade again after Memphis.

                                                            ***

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Imprisoned after the 1917 Houston Riot, Roy Tyler was literally paroled to the Chicago American Giants, the baseball owned by Negro National League founder Andrew Rube Foster. (National Archives, RG 129)

In his penultimate game as a Booker T, Wingfield had been joined by Inside League star Roy Tyler. Although the rookie played poorly in his debut, by late next season he became one of Leavenworth’s all-time stars. A compact 5' 7" 180 pounds, Tyler arrived at Leavenworth in 1917. He was a celebrity, one of sixty-three soldiers from the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment convicted for mutiny and murder in the August 1917 Houston Riot. Angered by the city’s rigid enforcement of Jim Crow streetcar laws and excessive force at the hands of Houston’s white police force, the soldiers reacted in a storm of violence that left fifteen whites dead. Vengeance came quickly. A dozen of Tyler’s Company I comrades were hanged. One of the lucky ones, Tyler got life in prison. The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment emerged a symbol of radical resistance to southern apartheid, its dead martyred, its incarcerated celebrated in the black press. At eighteen, Tyler was a hero.

 For unknown reasons, Tyler did not play for the Booker Ts his first two Leavenworth years. He instead slummed around the Inside League, where he put on a real show, slamming home runs and winning fame for “grandstand catches and swoops.”

Then his life entered a new stage in 1920 when former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson arrived at Leavenworth to begin serving a year and a day for violating the Mann Act.

 Within weeks, Johnson organized a boxing exhibition, setting himself against regional namesake “Topeka Jack” Johnson in the main draw. Both men were also black baseball veterans. Topeka Jack had played for and managed the Topeka Giants and Kansas City Giants when he wasn’t laboring as a journeyman boxer. Johnson, the former champ, had played baseball with the Philadelphia Giants in 1903–1904 and counted teammate Andrew “Rube” Foster, later founder of the Negro National League, among his friends. Johnson chose Tyler for his sparring partner when he began training for the fight.

They formed a bond outside the ring, playing dominoes and working together as orderlies in the prison’s tough isolation ward. Johnson organized a second night of boxing in May 1921, this time featuring a five-man Battle Royal at the top of the card. Johnson had gotten his start in the every-man-for-himself free-for-alls, and he encouraged his promising training partner to join the fray. Tyler entered and was the last man standing.

Tyler’s permanent addition to the Booker Ts coincided with Johnson’s arrival. Johnson apparently encouraged him to develop his athletic skills, to “play the game” like a contented prisoner, and use it as an opportunity to win parole. Civil rights leaders had campaigned successfully to get the Houston rioters’ sentences reduced from life to twenty years, with parole possible after seven years. Tyler undoubtedly wanted that and took Jack’s advice to heart.

He made an immediate impact on the Leavenworth diamond in 1921, quickly becoming the team’s leading hitter and base runner. A gifted outfielder, Tyler impressed the prison press corps with his “fish-pole arm catches in center [field].”

With the addition of Tyler, the Booker Ts accelerated their climb to the top of the local semipro standings. They were good, but possibly untested until April 22, 1922, when the Kansas City Monarchs appeared for a seven-inning exhibition. The 1922 Monarchs may have been one of the best teams in the world. The potential for humiliation was even greater than when the prison’s white team played the Kansas City Packers.

But the Bookers performed admirably, out-hitting the Monarchs but losing because of careless fielding, 10-4. If there is such a thing, the Bookers had won a respectable loss. For his part, Tyler had a hit and stolen base.

Tyler marked his seventh prison year in 1924. Pre-release nerves may account for his performance in the Monarchs’ return game that spring. Tyler committed two errors and was hitless when he left the game involuntarily in the third inning. The Monarchs won, 11-1. But the meltdown rekindled Tyler’s fire, and he finished the season with a .607 batting average, impressive in any league. Paroled in September, the slugger made his way to Chicago.

Tyler maintained his friendship with Jack Johnson following the champion’s release from Leavenworth in July 1921. Prison records reveal the pair corresponded on thirteen occasions, and Johnson is probably the link between Tyler and Rube Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants. Still, it takes more than a personal connection to win a job in professional baseball. Tyler would have to prove his worth.

He got his chance in the final exhibition game of the 1925 pre-season against former major leaguer Eddie Stack. A veteran of five National League seasons, “Smoke” Stack allowed the Giants just six hits yet lost the game 2-1 on late inning errors. The Giants “came through with some good fielding,” noted the Kansas City Call, particularly outfielder Roy Tyler, who “ran over into foul territory, and jumped over two benches to pull down a long foul drive.” Foster liked what he saw, too, and invited the rookie to join his team. As much as anything, the defensive skills Tyler polished with the Booker Ts had earned him a spot on Foster’s squad.

Foster was more than Tyler’s manager. He was, in the parlance of the federal parole board, Tyler’s “first friend,” his parole adviser. Tyler may be the first man ever literally paroled to a professional baseball team.

Tyler appeared in only a few games with Chicago, mostly in the outfield. He recorded one loss on the mound in 1925. Tyler went to Cleveland in 1926, where he hit .246 for Candy Jim Taylor’s Elite Giants. His average placed him eighth among Cleveland hitters. It was a terrible club that compiled a league record of five wins and thirty-two losses. Most player directories show him in Cleveland in 1927 as well, but he was on his way out of the African American big leagues by then.

He found baseball work in Fort Wayne, Indiana, making $150 a month as player-manager with a semipro team. The players shared a boarding house as part of the arrangement. But the team, in Tyler’s words, “couldn’t make the grade [financially] and went under and the players had to be sent back to Chicago.” He stayed and began to drift into trouble.

The boarding house madam with whom Tyler made his home may or may not have been a prostitute. Nevertheless, Tyler returned from his job washing cars one night in the summer of 1929 to find her shouting at a white visitor who may or may not have been a customer. The scene suggested commerce and sin, and Tyler wrangled the man out the door. The next day the police arrested him for robbery, the intruder’s billfold and four dollars having disappeared during the scuffle. Tyler got ten years.

The state conviction violated his federal parole, so after serving three years at the Indiana State Reformatory, he was returned to Leavenworth and prison baseball for four more seasons. He joined the varsity for the 1933–1935 campaigns, becoming home-run champion of the recently integrated White Sox. The Booker Ts had disappeared, blanched, like the Negro Leagues a dozen-plus years later, by a unilateral act of integration.

In 1936, having spent a third of his life behind bars, Roy Tyler won commutation and left Leavenworth. He went first to Chicago, then Michigan, where he still worked as caretaker at a Boy Scout camp when he died of heart failure at age eighty-four.

A month before Tyler’s 1924 parole, two new prisoners joined him on the Bookers in a game against the London Heights Methodist team of Kansas City, Kansas. London Heights was a pro–Ku Klux Klan church, with more than twenty of its members belonging to the hooded order. Apparently that was incentive enough for Tyler and rookies Joe Fleet and Albert Street as they shamed the Methodists, 17-2.

***

 

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Albert Street joined the prison baseball team just in time for a 1924 game against the Kansas City Monarchs. He went hitless but scored Leavenworth's only run. (National Archives, RG 129)

Infielder Albert Street was a paradox. A Christian Scientist, he arrived at Leavenworth on November 15, 1923, for violating the Harrison Narcotic Act. Slender at 5' 9", 140 pounds, the twenty-seven-year-old Street made his Booker T debut against the Kansas City Monarchs in 1924. He went hitless, yet scored the lone Booker tally. In eight total games that year, he proved himself an above-average hitter and fielder. He played only four games in 1925 but batted .500.

Street wrote Foster on June 15, 1925, boarded a train for Chicago on June 22, and appeared in the Chicago Defender on June 27: “Rube Foster has bolstered up his club. George Mitchell, a pitcher from Dewmaine, Ill., a big right-hander, has been added to the club. Albert Streets [sic], an infielder from Kansas, has also been signed.” Street’s arrival and employment by Foster meant two Booker T. Washington veterans played on the same Negro National League team. Unfortunately, no statistics survive, and the notice in the Defender appears to have been the highlight of Street’s Negro League “career.” The hard-living Street survived nearly ninety years before dying in Washington, D.C., in 1985.

He played only twelve games for the Booker T. Washingtons in his prison baseball career but, thanks to fellow inmates Joe Fleet and Roy Tyler, has the distinction of having played all of those games on a squad that never had fewer than two future Negro League players. Street, like Tyler, had required little if any adjustment to even the best the local semipro teams had to throw at him. Teammate Joe Fleet was different. The Booker Ts would make him a ballplayer.

                                                            ***

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Joe Fleet, in prison for larceny, pitched a no-hitter in his final game for a Leavenworth team. In 1930 he became the fourth former Booker T to play in the Negro League. (National Archives, RG 129)

Fleet entered Leavenworth on July 11, 1923, a quiet twenty-year-old. He wasn’t the youngest Booker T player, but the Catholic Fleet looked young, with the innocence of an altar boy, not an asset in Leavenworth’s tough environment. A functional illiterate, he had quit school after the second grade, fell in with the wrong crowd, committed housebreaking and larceny, and received a ten-year sentence in the federal pen.

 The 5' 9", 176-pound Fleet showed promise on the mound his first short season with the team, contributing six good innings in the win over the Klan-stained London Heights Methodists. But he hit poorly in 1924, like a boy among men.

The mass transfer of military prisoners to Fort Leavenworth’s Disciplinary Barracks gutted the Booker Ts in 1925 but made it easier for players like Fleet to win a place. He played wherever needed, third base, the outfield, and once on the mound, but continued to hit meekly, a home run the only indication of his potential at the plate.

Fleet floundered the following season when Leavenworth merged the Booker Ts and White Sox, leaving the team after seven games because of his horrendous fielding. An unspecified illness kept him off the field until late in the 1927 season, but he recovered well enough to win institutional All Star honors at first base for the reconstituted Booker Ts. His improved .318 batting average, however, ranked him only sixth on a strong team that defeated the Soldiers’ Home of Leavenworth for the independent state semipro championship of Kansas.

Despite his ups and downs on the field, Fleet was using his time in prison wisely, playing and practicing consistently with the Bookers, learning the game, improving steadily. It sounds trite, but he grew as a person as well, attending school and improving his reading and writing skills. Everything was coming together.

Fleet blossomed as the team’s star pitcher during the Bookers’ disappointing 1928 season. Although statistics are incomplete, Fleet appears to have compiled a record of seven wins and three losses. He improved at the plate in 1928, too, ranking fourth among institution batters. The diffident young inmate had transformed himself into a leader, the Bookers’ ace. “To say that Fleet was 80% of our ball club is putting it mildly,” beamed the New Era.

Fleet and company continued to battle the Soldiers’ Home for supremacy of northeast Kansas baseball, meeting again for a post-season championship series in 1929. The Soldiers’ Home, or “Vets” as they were known, had defeated every African American team they met that summer except Negro League star Ruby Tyree’s Kansas City Royals. The Vets increased their odds of winning the fourth game of the championship series by hiring American Association star Bill Burwell and Western League catcher Vic Szczygiel. Fleet pitched well against the veteran Burwell, going five innings and allowing only six hits, but lost, 5-2. The Bookers won the series and the 1929 title when the Vets failed to secure the pitching services of future Hall of Fame member Grover Cleveland Alexander for the match game.

Shortly before his 1930 release, Fleet was transferred a mile north to the newly acquired Leavenworth Penitentiary Annex. There he would use everything he had learned over the years with the Booker Ts in one final game against Fort Leavenworth’s Colored Detachment No. 2.

Despite its respect for prison ball clubs, the Kansas City Call did not cover the teams regularly. So it was a special day when the Call’s sports section featured a prisoner in a headline story. Fleet was far from perfect, according to the paper, walking two, hitting one, and throwing a wild pitch, but he struck out nine and, more important, allowed no hits. If not a perfect game, it was a perfect way to crown a seven-year prison baseball career.

 The story of Fleet’s feat appeared next to a photograph of Chicago American Giants captain and manager James Brown. The unsuspecting Brown would soon see the third Booker T alumnus to join his team in less than five years. Fleet’s first parole plan had called for him to work in Washington. This plan failed a month before his release when his prospective “first friend” reneged on the job offer after learning Fleet’s skin color. Fleet made his own arrangements and informed the parole board he was going to Chicago, where he would work for the American Giants as a “truck driver and baseball pitcher.” The board approved his plan, and Fleet became the second Booker T. Washington player paroled to the American Giants. Or so it seemed.

 Two weeks after his arrival in Chicago, a dejected Fleet wrote the parole board, “I find it very difficult in getting a position of any kind, also the police are very bad and in other words a parole man is not save [sic] walking around the streets looking for work.” The American Giants forced Fleet to wait another two weeks before finally inviting him to pitch. The tryout would take place in a real game, a baptism by fire, a common Negro League technique for testing a prospective player’s mettle.

 “Jim Brown started Joe Fleet, a newcomer,” the Chicago Defender reported, “and over the period of four and one-half innings he looked as if he had the markings.” But when he gave up two doubles and committed an error to start the fifth inning, Manager Brown, who did not have a reputation as a kind or patient man, removed him from the game. It was his first and last appearance with the Giants. The tryout was a bust.

Memphis manager Candy Jim Taylor liked what he saw in Fleet, at least enough to give him another shot. Fleet received permission from the parole board to move to Memphis on June 18, 1930, where Taylor became his first friend, the role Foster played for Roy Tyler in 1925. At the same time, Fleet became the third Booker T to play for Taylor. David Wingfield spent the 1920 and 1923 seasons with Candy Jim. Roy Tyler played for him in Cleveland in 1926. Despite the commonality, Fleet’s Memphis tryout went badly, and he never played for Jim Taylor or in the Negro Leagues again. Like Wingfield, his trail fades after Memphis.

***

Fleet, Wingfield, Tyler, and Street—the Booker T Four—overcame almost incomprehensible odds in their collective journey from Leavenworth to the Negro Leagues. In doing so, they had taken an instrument of penal control and transformed it into a vehicle of personal liberation. This transformation deserves further consideration.

Baseball ability alone does not account for their remarkable ascent to big league blackball. Talent depends on opportunity; opportunity hinges on contingency. Two contingencies allowed baseball and other arts to flourish at Leavenworth in the early twentieth century: the expansion of the federal criminal code and the continuing problem of idleness.

 Thanks to the passage of the Mann (white slavery), Harrison (narcotic), Dyer (automobile theft), and Volstead (Prohibition enforcement) acts, the federal inmate population grew 650 percent between 1910 and 1935. Leavenworth bulged with bodies. Idleness compounded overcrowding, increasing the tension and violence to which prisons naturally incline. Riots flared. Prison officials rejoiced when inmates found ways to occupy themselves constructively and peacefully.

James V. Bennett, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, recalled the situation in a letter to Leavenworth warden John C. Taylor in June 1962: “In the days when there was no work for the prisoners at Leavenworth . . . the warden and staff were relieved when they could put some fellow like [Robert] Stroud off with his birds and a fellow like [John] Mosher, for instance, allowed to create his war memorial, just in order to give them something to do.”

Like Stroud, better known as the “Bird man of Alcatraz,” and the sculptor Mosher, whose World War I memorials still stand in Brookfield, Missouri, and Quincy, Illinois, the baseball players took advantage of the opportunities found at Leavenworth in the absence of real work. They practiced four hours a day, dedication that showed in two state semipro championships and development of four professionals.

Stroud’s scientific accomplishments, Mosher’s monuments, and the Bookers’ Negro League successes are all positive if unintended consequences of a penal policy that allowed men to follow their bliss, if only because it had nowhere else to lead them.


Timothy Rives is an archivist in the National Archives and Records Administration–Central Plains Region in Kansas City. He has been with NARA since 1998. He holds a master’s degree in history from Emporia State University.

Robert Rives is retired from business. He now teaches marketing communication at Wichita State University.


Note on Sources

The National Archives and Records Administration–Central Plains Region (Kansas City) holds the retired records of the United States Penitentiary–Leavenworth. The Leavenworth holdings include almost seventy thousand individual inmate case files and were the single largest source for this article.

Other Leavenworth holdings used in this study were the inmate newspaper, The New Era, and the warden’s subject files. The Leavenworth [KS] Times and the Kansas City [MO] Star covered the Booker Ts’ games against outside opponents. The African American Kansas City Call and the Chicago Defender reported Negro League baseball extensively. The Call is the source for the quotation in the first sentence of this article.

Brief sketches of the Booker T Four’s time in professional baseball can be found in James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994).

An early version of this paper was presented at the Fifteenth Annual Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.

 

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

 

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