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30 Sep 2012

The National Forgotten League: Prison Football

Guest column by Dan Daly

Whenever we do statistical analysis of football, we usually start at the AFL-NFL merger, or at the start of the AFL in 1960. What about all the years of professional football before that? There aren't many trustworthy stats from the old-time era, but there are plenty of good stories. Washington Times sports columnist Dan Daly has a new book out, The National Forgotten League that explores the world of professional football before television. It covers everything from personal stories, such as the two one-armed players who suited up in 1945, to the big strategic changes like the rise of the T formation and the arrival of the soccer-style kickers. Think of it like the other half of the Bill James Historical Abstract. FO will bring the stats, and Dan will bring the stories.

This excerpt from The National Forgotten League looks at a little slice of non-professional football in the 1930s: prison teams. And you think the fans in the Black Hole are tough?

It was just a brief item in the newspaper on November 3, 1931 -- two paragraphs, no more. But it would have such an impact decades later on ... well, the movie careers of Burt Reynolds and Adam Sandler, for one thing.

The warden at Sing Sing prison, the Associated Press reported, was starting a football program and was looking for volunteer coaches. The New York Giants "immediately responded," the story said. "They announced that six players, Ray Flaherty, Glenn Campbell, Bill Owen, Butch Gibson, Dale Burnett and Ted Bucklin, would be 'incarcerated' long enough to give the Sing Sing boys a few pointers."

A few weeks earlier, Giants owner Tim Mara had donated enough old uniforms and equipment to get the program started. That's right, the road to The Longest Yard -- the 1974 Reynolds original and the 2005 Sandler remake -- began in 1931 with an NFL team's generosity. (We pause now for a moment of reverential silence.)

The next year, the Giants signed a Sing Sing "graduate," 220-pound fullback Jumbo Morano, and sent him to the Paterson Nighthawks of the Eastern Football League for further development. Morano never played in the NFL, though. (In fact, he kind of fell off the map after that season.) But another Sing Sing alumnus, Alabama Pitts, got into three games with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1935.

This was pretty revolutionary stuff in the 1930s. Prisons in that period were just emerging from the Dark Ages, the era of corporal punishment, No Talking Allowed and -- the ultimate symbol -- striped uniforms. Sing Sing, just north of New York City along the banks of the Hudson River, was a particularly gruesome place, almost beyond description. Not only was it filled with 2,400 of the hardest cases but overcrowding made it necessary to house a third of them in the Old Cellblock, a dank, dreary dungeon built by the prisoners in the 1820s ... and condemned on more than one occasion.

The cells in the Old Cellblock were 3 feet, 3 inches wide, 6 feet, 7 inches high and 7 feet long -- "no bigger than a dead man's grave," in the words of one occupant. They had no windows and no plumbing (only "night buckets" that inmates would empty each morning into an open sewer).

A prison doctor described the environment thusly: "The walls are thick stone, which makes these cells look as if they have been hollowed out of solid rock. A prisoner confined to one of them for the first time invariably suffers an impression of crushing weight, closing in from all sides. Originally, the only light came from a series of small windows in the outer wall across the galleries from the cells, but some years ago this wretched condition was improved by cutting several large windows in the outer wall."

Mercifully, wardens in the 1930s were moving away from the concept of all punishment all the time and toward the idea of rehabilitation. One of the many ways Lewis Lawes, Sing Sing's enlightened leader, tried to bring this about was by forming athletic teams that would play games against outside clubs. Through healthy competition, he figured, the prisoner "learns the necessity of rules, or laws, and cooperation with his fellows. He learns to subordinate his own desires to the good of the whole team, and learns, too, that he must play the game to win. He develops a sense of proportion and values and finds that there is no royal road, or loafer's route, by which a big score can be made."

So in early November 1931, two days after a 14-0 win over the Portsmouth Spartans, half a dozen Giants went up to Sing Sing and showed the convicts how to get in a three-point stance -- the first of several such clinics. In between, inmates with football experience ran the practices and coached as best they could. On November 15, Warden Lawes' warriors -- the Black Sheep, they called themselves -- played their first game against outside competition, taking on the local unit of the state naval militia.

Naturally, it was a home game. Where else would Sing Sing play? It also, predictably, attracted a lot of attention. Newsreel cameras were set up in the guard towers to film the historic event, and newspapers covered it like it was an Important Grid Tilt. There was so much interest, fans had to be turned away. (The stands could accommodate 2,500, but 2,000 of the seats were reserved for prisoners.)

"I never thought I'd live to see anything like this," one older convict told a reporter. "There's youngsters here who maybe don't understand what prison meant to the old-timers. But I have been here a long time, and I know. The days before the warden came here, every day was like the last. Nothing to think about. Exercise periods didn't mean much. The men didn't know what to do with themselves. They had to keep moving, so they'd just walk and talk. And the things they talked about wasn't good for them, or for the prison either.

"Football -- I don't know anything about the game, but most of them do. But it's the idea - see? -- playin' a fine game that the whole country talks about, and that young men like."

Clad in the Giants' red helmets and blue-and-red jerseys, the Black Sheep em-baa-rrassed the militia 33-0. This was such big news that the even the Los Angeles Times, 3,000 miles away, carried a story on the game. It only got bigger after that. The following season, the aptly named John Law, who had played at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne, was brought in coach the team.

"Not only is my name John Law," he told the New York Times, "but the warden's name is Lawes and the football team is made up of lawbreakers. In addition to that, I'm Democratic candidate for Assemblyman from Yonkers and hope to become a lawmaker. It's really a peculiar situation."

That said, Law claimed to be "astonished" at how coachable the players were. And talk about tough! One of his men had lost three fingers in a shop accident, but the coach hoped to have him available by midseason. "Three fingers don't mean much to a good player," he said. "I knew a lad who played with Southern California who had no hand at all, only a stump, but what damage he did was plenty."

Sing Sing's games were nothing like the inmates vs. guards bloodfests you see in the movies. Indeed, they were probably as cleanly contested as any in the country. The prisoners knew they had to be on their best behavior; otherwise teams wouldn't want to play them. (Visiting clubs, meanwhile, minded their manners lest they incur the wrath of 2,000 convicts.)

In many respects they were just like any other football games -- except for the 20-foot walls and guards with machine guns. "Almost the only differences between this and a major intercollegiate game," the New York Evening Journal observed, "were a marked absence of slugging on the field and drunkenness in the stands."

(The general air of civility disappointed Westbrook Pegler, the celebrated sports columnist. After the Black Sheep lost to the Port Jervis Police Department in 1932, Pegler wrote: "There was something almost repugnant about the kind solicitude of the Sing Sing boys for the officers as they helped them to their feet and dusted them off after the [plays].")

Which isn't to say a game at Sing Sing wasn't a little unusual. Against the militia in 1931, the second quarter was shortened to 12 minutes, the third to 10 and the fourth to seven, according to the United Press, "in order to end the game at 4:30 o'clock, when the 'lockup whistle' blew." And because the games were played in a prison, fans were frisked as they entered and had to pass through several security checkpoints before reaching the field. (Their exit was almost as painstaking, so worried was the warden that one of the convicts would escape.)

Once inside, though, fans could buy hot dogs at the inmate-run refreshment stand, laugh at the home team's zany mascot (a pony painted with black-and-white prisoner's stripes to resemble a zebra), root along with the Sing Sing cheerleaders and be entertained by the ever-clever musical selections of the prison band -- such as the Bing Crosby song, "Just One More Chance."

Julius Freedman, the Marv Albert of Sing Sing, did the play-by-play of the games on the prison radio station. His listeners were largely those laid up in the hospital -- or awaiting their fate on death row. A.J. Liebling, then a young reporter for the New York World-Telegram, offered this approximation of Freedman's style:

"Here comes Jim Egan, a great fellow. He replaces Moe Bernstein. No, wait a minute, he replaces Winkie Winkle. No, friends, sorry, I've got it wrong; he replaces -- well, anyway, he is a great fellow."

Sportswriters had as much fun writing about the games as the fans did watching them. The Times' correspondent pointed out that the prisoners seemed particularly inspired in the opening quarter of one contest because "the prison gate lay in the direction of the goal they won on the [coin] toss." Another story, in a not-so-veiled reference to Sing Sing's hot seat, began: "The Big House eleven electrified its cheering section of 2,300 inmates by ... defeating the visitors, the Poughkeepsie All-Stars, 18 to 6."

Headline writers got their jollies, too, coming up with gems like "Sing Sing Chisels Righteous Path to 20 to 0 Victory" and "Cop Team Fails to Shear Wool of Black Sheep." The "Galloping Cons of Sing Sing" were far from a joke, though. They won many more games than they lost against the likes of the Danbury Trojans, the Newark Cyclones and the New Rochelle Bulldogs. (Of course, as the prison's athletic director noted, the team had more than just the home-field advantage. It also had "a self-sustaining nucleus"; some players never "graduated.")

Soon enough, prison football had spread to Missouri State Penitentiary, to Stateville Correctional Center outside Chicago, to San Quentin in California -- to just about everywhere, it seemed. But not everyone was happy about this. Some, such as Cook County (Illinois) Superior Court Judge Marcus Kavanagh, questioned the propriety of such activities.

"Jails were never meant for pity and learning but for punishment and justice," he said in an op-ed piece for the Times. "All things which encourage mental and moral improvement are proper, but is moral improvement attained when a burglar rolls a college boy around in the mud at a football game?"

The eye-for-an-eye crowd ultimately prevailed over the Sermon on the Mount contingent. In 1936, New York's corrections commissioner, Edward P. Mulrooney, issued an order forbidding the charging of admission to prison events. This effectively killed Sing Sing football because the team depended on the dollar it received from each paying customer to buy equipment and cover the travel expenses of visiting clubs. (During the 1933 season, the Black Sheep reportedly cleared a profit of $4,527.)

But the story doesn't quite end there. In 1941, six years Alabama Pitts left Sing Sing for the Eagles, Philadelphia owner Lex Thompson announced his team would give a tryout every season to a paroled convict. The suggestion likely came from his business manager, Harry Thayer. Thayer's father, Walter, had been New York's commissioner of corrections before Mulrooney -- and was a big supporter of the Black Sheep.

Walter Thayer thought football improved a prison's quality of life. "As an example," he said in 1932, "infractions of the rules at [Sing Sing] were the fewest in the institution's history for weeks prior to the games last fall. They knew that even a minor infraction would bar them from witnessing the game."

(In 1943, Thompson's club made news for trying out Don McGregor, a back who'd recently been paroled from Iowa State Penitentiary. McGregor -- like Jumbo Morano, Sing Sing's Nagurski -- didn't make it, but it was the thought that counted.)

Then there's the 1950 Chicago Bears. One of their preseason tune-ups, believe it or not, was a game against the Ionia State Reformatory team in Grand Rapids, Mich. Ionia was a tad undermanned, so the Bears loaned them three players - one of whom, halfback Harper Davis, scored a touchdown for the inmates. Davis then switched back to the Bears and scored a TD for them.

Final score: Bears 53, Cons 12.

(I wish I had a few more details on the game, but unfortunately, as they say, what happens in Ionia State Reformatory stays in Ionia State Reformatory.)

Excerpted from The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football's First Fifty Years by Dan Daly by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2012 by Dan Daly. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu. You can also click our Amazon Associates link in this article, and Football Outsiders will receive a small portion of your payment.

Posted by: Guest on 30 Sep 2012

5 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2012, 9:55am by Travis


by Dean :: Sun, 09/30/2012 - 8:06pm

Sounds like it's worth a read. Will this be the start of an ongoing column? I hope so - I'm always looking for GOOD books about football. It's easy to find something that reads like an excerpt from bleacher report, but to find something that's worthwhile, suddenly the list gets much shorter.

by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 09/30/2012 - 10:01pm

To Dean

Vook definitely worth reading . Will buy book this aeekk. Was looking for it on Friday but not out yet. Should be in store on Monday or Tuesday. Daly one of coauthors of gerta football book The Pro Football Chronicle. One of the truly greats.

by jebmak :: Mon, 10/01/2012 - 1:19am

Love stuff like this.

by Jerry :: Mon, 10/01/2012 - 6:21am

And because the games were played in a prison, fans were frisked as they entered...

How far we've come.

by Travis :: Mon, 10/01/2012 - 9:55am

Here's a first-hand account of '60s New York prison football, as recounted in Sports Illustrated in 1989.

And I agree with Raiderjoe, The Pro Football Chronicle is one of the few truly great football books.