In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives

In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives

By Shannon Quinn
In 1910, Death Row Inmates Played Baseball For Their Lives

The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars looked like your average baseball team. Healthy young men swung their bats and ran to their bases just like any other. For a prison team, you would think that this was some kind of reward for good behavior. But in fact, it was quite the opposite. These men were all guilty of heinous crimes; most of them rapists and murderers. And every single one of them was on d***h row. This is a story of how a group of criminals were lured by the promise that if they only played well enough, they could commute their sentences, meaning that they were very literally playing for their lives.

The town of Rawlins, Wyoming, which is where the Penitentary was built. Credit: Wyoming Tales and Trails

The Wild West Was Forced To Get With Modern Times

Wyoming was still very much part of the classic wild west culture. Even well into the late 1800’s, most people believed in vigilante justice. Sheriffs were apprehending criminals, instead of a local police force. Professional bounty hunters were chasing down convicts for a reward. Local county jails were too small to house men for a lifetime, so criminals were still being hung in the town square. Men frequented saloons, and gambled on a nearly daily basis.

Baseball is an iconic American sport.  It was such an important past time that it was the number one thing that people like to do after work, aside from going to the bar. Men were able to enjoy a wholesome, family-friendly activity with their sons on the baseball field. Because of its popularity, there was a huge demand for more and more games for people to go see. However, there was of course only so many professional teams. Nearly every local business started amateur teams so that the men could compete with one another.

The original Wyoming State Penitentiary building, which was abandoned in the 1980’s. Credit: Trib.com

The Wyoming State Penitentiary was founded in 1901. It did not have electricity or running water, so the inside was cold, dark, and miserable. And of course, anything that is brand new is open to exploitation. The prison was run by a man named Otto Gramm, a millionaire businessman who wanted to become warden. He decided to create a broom factory inside of the prison and used the criminals as his free labor. In the first 10 years that the prison was open, he earned a profit of $250,000. Back in the early 1900s this was more like making him over $6 million.

In order to make the highest possible profit, Otto Gramm had extremely strict rules for the living conditions of the prisoners. He measured how much food each person got, even down to the number of individual beans that they could have on their plates. The living conditions were abysmal and by 1911, the government began to realize what was going on. They made it illegal for any warden to personally profit off of his prisoners.  (However, now the government profits off of products made by prisoners like license plates, but that’s a story for another time.) Otto Gramm stepped down from his position as warden, but he left a far richer man than when he started. He was replaced by a man named Felix Alston, who had served as the sheriff of Big Horn County, WY.