SFK Press is proud to feature our first guest blogger, Lee St. John, author of She’s a Keeper!: Anecdotes from A Southern Girl’s Attic. Previously, we mentioned St. John’s work in our Oct 28, 2016 tribute to “The Best Local Bookstores.”

How the game might have looked if my father had played at Alcatraz.

Some may argue that baseball is still America’s National Pastime but recent polls see a surge in football.  Yet Ken Burns has produced a documentary for PBS on baseball, so it must still be at the top.  And if baseball IS the national pastime, then baseball metaphors must be dominant, too.  So, let’s play ball about what baseball actually is.

Go, Cubbies!

I am proud as punch to say my father was an outstanding baseball player in college at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.  He also had a contract with the Chicago Cubs. Before this, he played on a high school traveling team in 1932, when this story takes place. His team was playing anybody that would host them. And in the Spring of 1932 they were in Atlanta playing some of the guards at the Atlanta Penitentiary while some inmates were allowed to watch.

There was one game when my dad, a pitcher, played in the outfield.  While playing center field, he kept stepping farther and farther into the back field.  Just a little at a time so as to not draw attention doing so. He kept inching back because he saw 2 men sitting on some bleachers and he wanted to ask them a question.  He had heard there was a certain high profile inmate at the Atlanta Pen and he wanted to find out if it was true.  So, little by little meandering towards the bleachers, he got close enough to turn around and ask if this infamous person was indeed incarcerated there.

He circled around to ask quickly as he didn’t want it to seem he was not paying attention to the game and his position.  Was this American gangster, boss of the Chicago Outfit and famous Prohibition era bad ass really there?  Was this crime boss whose seven-year reign of smuggling and bootlegging liquor in the building?  Was this man who was in a league of his own, terrorizing Chicago during Prohibition in the 1920’s and who was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 an inmate in Atlanta’s prison?

Guess who?

This gangster was sent to the Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary in May 1932.  At 250 pounds he was officially diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea.  He also suffered from withdrawal symptoms from cocaine addiction which the use of had perforated his septum.  He was competent at his prison job of stitching the soles on shoes for eight hours a day, yet he was barely coherent when writing his letters.  At the Atlanta Pen he was seen as a weak personality and was just not the mobster from which his legend was made.  He was so out of his depth dealing with the bullying fellow inmates inflicted that his cellmate feared that this thug would have a nervous breakdown.  This cellmate, Red Rudinsky, was formerly a small time criminal associated with this racketeer and saw himself as a protector for this notorious hooligan.

This conspicuous protection from Rudinsky and a few other prisoners drew accusations and fueled suspicion from less friendly inmates that this infamous jail mate was receiving special treatment.  There was never any solid evidence but it became part of the rationale for moving this notorious man to the recently opened Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco.

So, of course, Daddy was curious.  Was he still there?  Backing his way into the outfield, he was close enough now to turn around ask the two men sitting there watching the game take place if Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone was in the Atlanta Penitentiary?

One of the two answered, “He sure is and he’s sitting right here next to me.”

That response came out of left field. I think Daddy may have run back to his original outfield position.

~ Lee St. John