For many people, sport is almost a matter of life or death. But for one unique baseball team, it was more important than that.
The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars was a team that featured only the hardest of hardened criminals.
For the team’s first game on July 18, 1911, the 12-man roster included three rapists, a forger, five thieves and three killers.
One of those convicted murderers was star player Joseph Seng, sentenced to death for killing his lover’s husband.
The Carbon County Journal’s write-up of the game read: “Joseph Seng, who was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death, played a classy game all the way through. He will petition the governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment sometime this month.”
In fact, Seng’s ability on the baseball field seems to have earned him an extra year of life.
The team was started after a new warden took over at Wyoming State Penitentiary. The previous boss, Otto Gramm, had “mercilessly” used the inmates as slave labour for his broom factory, and many of them hadn't seen daylight for several years.
When Big Horn County Sheriff Felix Alston took over, he promoted plenty of outdoor activities and team sports – and soon noticed that he had the makings of a decent baseball team.
In the early 20th century, a kind of frontier justice was still in force in Wyoming. The lives of prisoners could be very hard.
That’s if lawbreakers reached a jail at all. “Desperadoes caught in the act of robbery, rape or murder in the town were not only hanged but sometimes actually skinned,” wrote Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss in their book about the team.
“Various items were made from the hides of these unfortunate lawbreakers, sold as souvenirs, and used as a warning to other would-be felons.”
The convicts in the state prison could be seen as the lucky ones. They were told that wins would mean time deducted from their sentences. But losses, they were warned, could bring dangerous consequences.
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There was more behind Alston’s plan than just a simple belief in healthy exercise. He was a keen gambler, and along with his close friend George Saban – who was actually an inmate at the jail – he started taking bets on the All Stars’ games.
Saban had been involved in a turf war between rival group of farmers. A war that ended when he ambushed three sleeping sheep-farmers and shot them in the face.
He was jailed for his actions but many in Wyoming at the time – including Alston – thought the killings were justified.
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Alston allowed the triple killer to have “day release” from the jail, drinking in local bars all day and only coming back to his cell to sleep.
And while Saban was in those bars he would encourage locals to bet on the prison team, telling other drinkers little bits of gossip from training sessions.
With substantial sums of money riding on the games, the convicts were under pressure to play well.
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“Mistakes on the field would not be tolerated,” Seng wrote in one letter home. “[Saban] 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.”
Certainly Seng’s execution, set for Aug. 22, 1911, was delayed. Although he nearly met his end on that day anyway when another prisoner deliberately dropped a heavy box of sand from a balcony 25 feet above Seng’s head, missing him by inches.
It didn’t seem to rattle him, though, and he was again a key element in the All-Stars’ second victory a few days later. In fact the team never lost the game – but their winning streak was brief all the same.
Thanks to pressure from embittered former prison governor Gramm, the state of Wyoming launched a crack down on the “sin” of gambling. And while Saban promised drinking buddies the All Stars would soon be back in action they only ever played four games.
Star player Seng, his stay of execution over, faced the hangman on May 24, 1912.
The Carbon County Journal wrote about him one last time. But this time not on the sports pages.
As he approached the scaffold, his “steps were steady, and he went to his death in a manner which stamped him as a brave man,” the paper reported.
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