‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s much more important than that.’
So said Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool football manager. It’s a great line, but that’s all it is. For some unlucky men, though, sport – baseball – really was a matter of life and death
In what promises to be a fascinating book, The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption and Murder, Chriss Enss and Howard Kazanjian tell the story of the death-row inmates of Wyoming State Penitentiary, who for one unbeaten season played the best baseball of their lives – and with good reason.
In Rawlins, Wyoming, in 1911, when Babe Ruth was playing his way into baseball’s history and earning bookies fortunes, other players were on the field for much higher stakes than mere dollars.
Wyoming Penitentiary’s Warden Felix Alston formed the team, making his childhood friend, George Saban, its captain.
Saban, who happened to be serving 20 years for triple murder, was allowed to come and go from the prison as he pleased, to take bets on his team’s games in the local bars – taking a 20pc commission for himself in the process.
It was a lucrative business with the added allure for the locals that many of the men playing on ‘The Cons’ team, as one newspaper described it, would soon be executed.
Saban would provide local gamblers with updates on the team’s players. Joseph Seng was one of those players. He was on death-row for the murder of his lover’s husband.
Seng, like the rest of the team, was under no illusion as to what they were really playing for. The book reveals a letter he wrote from prison, in which he states: ‘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’.
The ‘incentive’ seemed to work because the team never lost.
Seng’s own execution was scheduled for August 22, 1911, but he obviously impressed the warden with his playing skills because he was still alive for the team’s fourth victory, on August 23.
Stories were getting out to local politicians about the goings on in Rawlins. Pressure was mounting on the warden to stop the practice. So, after the team’s fourth win, Alston decided to replace baseball with education for inmates.
What was a cruel and exploitative practice was ended – but that didn’t save Joseph Seng. He was executed on May 24, 1912.
Unfortunately, playing as though your life depended on it was not unique to Rawlins.
George Horner, of whom I’ve written before, was 19 years old when he and his family were sent to Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis, in 1942.
The camp was used for propaganda purposes, to show the Red Cross and the world that Jews were being treated well there. It depicted a model community where people could live comfortably and in a creative and friendly atmosphere.
The reality, however, was that Terezin was a holding camp, whose inmates would later be shipped on to the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
George played piano and accordion in the Terezin cabarets. Frank Grunwald was also an accordion player. The Nazis obviously liked him. He never did play the instrument in either Auschwitz or Terezienstadt, but he informs me that his life was saved from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by his ability to improvise American Jazz music. A talented sculptor, his story is told in the moving documentary Misa’s Fugue.
Others who performed were Alice Herz-Sommer, a child piano prodigy who was forced to play over 800 recitals while she was there. Alice survived the Nazis and outlived everyone of her era,, too. She died in February, 2014, at the grand old age of 111.
And Helmut Spritzer literally whistled for his life as part of the Theresiendstadt orchestra to entertain SS officers Adolf Eichman, Heinrich Himmler and Dr. Josef Mengele
This appreciation of music amongst the Nazi monsters saved many prisoners’ lives. Talented musicians were given better jobs or enabled them to play with the camp orchestra.
The documentary, They Played For Their Lives, tells the story of those musicians in Auschwitz who were forced to give recitals to their tormentors.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, was the cellist of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra. On the programme, she speaks of how she owed her life to her musical ability: “the cello really saved my life because to be in this orchestra was a way of survival, because as long as they wanted music they would be foolish to put us in the gas chambers”.
The orchestra played marches as the slave labourers left the camp for each day’s work and when they returned later in the day. They also gave concerts for the SS who guarded them.
For those musicians who did survive the camps their relationship with music was more than special.
Last year, at the grand age of 90. George Horner invoked that relationship in a moving performance at Boston Symphony Hall. Alongside renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma he played the music he had performed in Terezin 70 years before.
Horner’s life was dangled before him as an incentive to entertain with his recitals, but he has proved that the the purity of music can outlast the most evil of regimes.
The death row baseball players of Wyoming State Penitentiary may not have been as blameless as those condemned to the concentration camps, but they were pawns in a corrupt system that played cruel games with their lives.
‘Playing as though your life depended on it’ is a phrase that will never feel the same again.