Playing for time: The death-row inmates who received stays of execution for every baseball game they won

Playing for time: The death-row inmates who received stays of execution for every baseball game they won

Everyone loves a good baseball story about winning. This story of baseball, corruption and murder occurs during the same time as baseball legends Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson were making plays that turned them into icons of the game. The baseball players from death row inmates were more infamous than famous, they were playing to win as if their lives counted on it- literally.

death row allstars

In Rawlins, Wyoming in 1911, baseball fans gathered on a hot sunny day, as they did in many a small U.S. town, to watch local teams slug it out on the pitch. But this was no ordinary small-town game. Pitcher and convicted rapist Thomas Cameron was playing for the Wyoming State Penitentiary, and the stakes were high: a loss would result in execution.

‘Individual errors that cost the team the win would result in death,’ write Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian in the book The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption and Murder. A win would score the prisoners, hardened criminals all, time off their sentences.

The notorious team’s shortlived reign – they played just four games, winning all of them – allowed the death-row inmates some brief respite from the monotony of their days. Rawlins was a harsh, conservative town and wrong-doers were punished to the full extent of the law.

‘Desperadoes caught in the act of robbery, rape or murder in the town were not only hanged but sometimes actually skinned,’ write the authors, ‘Various items were made from the hides of these unfortunate lawbreakers, sold as souvenirs, and used as a warning to other would-be felons.’

Team captain George Saban was a convicted murderer who ambushed three sleeping sheep herders and shot them each in the face at close range. During team practice, Saban informed the team, following some poor plays from shortstop Joseph Guzzardo, what the consequences of errors would be.

‘Mistakes on the field would not be tolerated,’ Seng wrote in a letter from prison. ‘He told us that 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.’

This information Saban also made sure was communicated to the town’s gamblers, so that they knew the members of this team was playing for their lives.

‘The idea of literally playing for time was a great incentive for them to be good, and they were one of the best baseball teams in the West,’ author Enss told the Sacramento Bee. ‘They played for only one season and were unbeaten, and a lot of people won a lot of money betting on them.’

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