The Prisoners Who Played for their Lives

The baseball team from Wyoming State Penitentiary

The baseball team from Wyoming State Penitentiary

‘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

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Wyoming State Penitentiary

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.

Death row player Joseph Seng

Death row player Joseph Seng

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 Horner, Holocaust Survivor

George Horner, Holocaust Survivor

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

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

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.

 

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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32 Responses to The Prisoners Who Played for their Lives

  1. Really playing for their lives! What an incentive! Today prisons in America are such a crazy private business, I think the privatization of our prison system has lead to some terrible results!

  2. As always, I am amazed how you find these great stories. Thanks David

  3. As someone who only ever managed to master a two-chord guitar accompaniment to ‘Horse with No Name’, I feel humbled by this story.

    • That’s two chords more than me, Denise! Thanks for stopping by. I didn’t realise your new book was out. If you want to write an article I’d be happy to include it on the blog. It sounds like a fascinating read

  4. P. C. Zick says:

    Wonderful stories that are hidden from the public. Thanks for finding them and bringing them to us.

  5. Outstanding story. I imagine there are so many more like that one out there.

  6. I hope you’ll publish these stories in a book some time. 🙂

  7. I second Christoph’s idea, David. The behind-the-scenes stories you blog about are amazing. I know you’d find readers interested in a collection.

  8. Susan Abernethy says:

    Love the story about Rawlins, WY. I don’t live far from there and have visited there many times. A very desolate place!

  9. I’m not surprised, Susan!

  10. Chris Rose says:

    Brilliant, David. Fascinating and very informative.
    There are a few American films depicting this kind of stuff – regarding the baseball story, Shawshank Redemption-type films – which we tend to imagine to be pure fiction. And yet there are stories like these to be unearthed, gold now.

    Yes, I would love to have these posts in book form, the lot. You can then work towards a Volume 2 😉

  11. olganm says:

    I’d heard about some of these stories but did not realise there were so many cases. Thanks for a fascinating post (the power of sports and art…)

  12. Thank you for sharing the story of Frank Grunwald within your blog!

    • My pleasure, Jennifer 🙂

      • I am Frank Grunwald. I never played the accordion in Auschwitz – since I did not have
        one. (Neither did I play it in Terezienstadt.) My brother John and I sang and hummed
        American jazz standards – which was a great escape for us. We did not have access to
        our instruments (piano for John and accordion for me.)

        Frank M. Grunwald

      • Mr Grunwald, it’s a huge honour for me that you would comment on this post. I have slightly amended the article to ensure people know that you didn’t play the accordion when you were in the camps. I have yet to see Misa’s Fugue, but from what I’ve read, your story is an inspiration to us all… that you could not only survive the horrors which you experienced but that you could create art from the destruction that surrounded you, is remarkable.

        How one witnesses what you did and still have the will to continue is, in one way, hard to understand. In another, maybe it isn’t, maybe you’re living life to the full in the knowledge of all those who were with you in the camps who never got the chance to do just that. Even so, witnessing such barbarity, meeting such monsters as Mengele… such experiences could lead to madness in some people.

        You have somehow risen above those experiences to make a life for yourself and to become a highly productive member of society. You are a lesson to us all. You witnessed the depths of depravity to which mankind can fall. But you are more than just a witness – you are also a beacon to the heights to which we can all rise, if we have the will. I wish you well and give you my unqualified respect. Take care. – David

  13. Thank you for your eloquent compliments David – however, I consider myself just a lucky
    twelve year old who was able to dodge the gas chamber and after that had little choice
    except for trying to live a relatively normal and productive life.

    Frank

    • We live in an age when many people like to express their outrage through social media. They like to be offended by things and to do all in their power, through political correctness, to stop others having an opinion which happens to differ to their own. If everyone could just try to get on with their lives and stop all the whining, I think we’d all be in a better place. You, who know what real suffering is and who has more right than anyone to express real outrage, should be held up as an example of someone who does just that.

      How do you rise above something as vast as the Holocaust to lead a ‘normal and productive life’? So many people suffer major setbacks – emotional or physical – from which they never recover. You can teach people so much about the power of the human spirit by the way you have lived your life.

      Anyway, I sense you’re not dead just yet and aren’t looking to be venerated, so I’ll leave off with all the praise because I’d like to treat you like the normal, productive person that you have become rather than as some sort of fascinating Holocaust exhibit. You are your own man, Frank, and are not totally defined by those childhood horrors. As we say in these parts: ‘F*&k the bastards!’
      How’s that for eloquence?

  14. That’s VERY eloquent. Thank you!

  15. The first screening of the documentary “They Played for Their Lives” will be at the
    Woodstock film festival on Saturday October 14th. I plan to be there for the Q@A and
    also with my grandson (11) who will be on stage with me playing the piano and me
    playing the accordion. Music and other communication tools are often propagated
    from one generation to the next. I hope some of us will join us at Woodstock.

    • It’s fantastic that you and your grandson will be playing on stage together. What a thrill for you and what a great way to underline that life goes on, no matter what suffering is inflicted on one. The power of music can outlast all the evil that men and women can do in their lifetimes.

      I would be delighted to sit in the audience to enjoy that moment and to hear what you have to say. However, I live in Ireland with a family of six to feed, so I don’t think that will be possible. I wish you all the very best on that day, Frank. I’d love to do a Q&A with you myself for this blog, if you were in favour of that, but if not, that’s no problem at all. Good luck in October. I hope Mengele and all those other scumbags get front-row seats in Hell to watch it.

      • Go ahead David. I will try to answer your questions the best way I can.

        Frank

      • Thanks Frank. I’ve been away from home and, consequently away form a computer a lot of the time in the past two weeks. I’m going to watch Misa’s Fugue and send you on some questions. I think regular email would be a better platform for the Q&A than on this page. My email address is davidandineslawlor@gmail.com if you could send me on your email address I can then send on the questions

  16. Pingback: Interview with a Holocaust Survivor | historywithatwist

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