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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Alabama Pitts

The history of baseball is littered with larger than life fictional figures like Sidd Finch and Roy Hobbs. Perhaps even more than their supposed talents, their stories are what make them so memorable and a part of the fabric of America’s pastime. Every now and then a real player comes along and blurs the lines between myth and reality. One of those players was Alabama Pitts, a prisoner doing an 8-16 year stretch in Sing-Sing, who captured the attention and hearts Americans for a few months in 1935.

Edwin Collins Pitts was born in 1910 in Alabama. His father- who died when he was 5 months old- was also named Edwin, and the infant was nicknamed Alabama by his mother to give him a more unique identity. Little is known about his childhood, but given that he enlisted in the Navy when he was 15, it’s safe to assume he grew up in less than desirable circumstances. He served a total of three years before heading to New York City as an 18 year old; a move that changed his life forever.

Unfortunately, Pitts couldn’t catch a break in New York and lived hand to mouth. He turned to crime to make money, participating in a grocery store robbery, which netted a grand total of $76.25. Pitts was caught when he and his accomplice took a cab from the scene of the crime and were pulled over just down the street. Court records indicate that Pitts robbed the store with a gun, while his accomplice stood watch outside. When he was arrested, Pitts was a suspect in a handful of other robberies, but the police could never connect him to those crimes.

Prior to sentencing, Pitts was encouraged by his lawyer to write a letter to the presiding judge.  He, or at least somebody on his behest, wrote, “Your Honor, I am guilty twice over and now fully realize the seriousness of the crimes I committed punishable by long years of penal servitude… It would be tiresome to you and useless to me to go into details of why I have broken these laws. The madness and folly of youth had much to do with it, ably aided by false pride, broken illusions, and shattered ideals… Sir, if you should see fit for your court to show me mercy, I will try in every way to be worthy of your kindness and goodness.” The plea fell on deaf ears and he was sentenced to 8-16 years in Sing-Sing Prison.

In the years leading up Pitts’ arrival at the prison, reformative measures had been enacted to give inmates a better chance at rehabilitation; including athletics. Pitts became a model prisoner, heavily involved in sports. He was the star of their football team, the Black Sheep, coached by volunteer John Law, a former Notre Dame player under Knute Rockne.

In particular, Pitts excelled in baseball at Sing-Sing, playing in exhibition games against the Yankees and Giants. He starred as an outfielder, hitting .500 with 8 home runs in 21 documented prison exhibition baseball games. His exploits began garnering him national recognition and the Los Angeles Times even dubbed him “the most prominent jailbird athlete in America.”

Because of the publicity and his positive rehabilitation, the Sing-Sing warden arranged to have three years reduced from Pitts’ sentence for good behavior. Coming up for release in 1935, he worked out for a couple of professional football teams and was even offered a $200 a month contract by Johnny Evers, the manager of the Albany Senators in the International League. Needing a steady job, he accepted Evers’ offer, a move that immediately thrust him further into the public spotlight.

International League President Charles H. Knapp refused to allow Pitts’ Contract to stand, appalled at the notion of a former felon playing in his circuit. His decision was upheld by W.G. Bramham, president of the minor leagues. This began a firestorm of response, with many being in Pitts’ favor. He fueled the fire by insisting he only wanted to play baseball because he loved the game, claiming, “You don’t think I’m trying to get into baseball for the money? I love the game.” He was released from prison on June 6, 1935 to a large media crush. Even though his signing was invalidated, he plotted an appeal and began travelling and training with Albany.

An executive committee of the National Association agreed to hear Pitts’ appeal, but ultimately ruled against him. Pitts next announced he would appeal to the highest baseball authority, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. While awaiting that decision, he received an overwhelming outpouring of support, including job offers to play professional football and act in Hollywood.

Almost overnight, the Pitts case became the hottest news story in America.  Journalist Henry McLemore proclaimed, “Alabama may prove to be unfit for baseball, but in my book- and I believe there are thousands of baseball fans who have the same sort of book- a guy should be given a chance, at least.”

Both strong and strange reactions popped up all over the country. Congressman Raymond Cannon from Wisconsin offered his legal services. Evers and the Albany club considered requesting an official pardon for Pitts, which if granted would have made the objection to his signing a moot point. One man, Max Berger, from Otisville, New York, died of a heart attack in the midst of having a spirited debate with a customer at his store over the Pitts’ case. Even John Costello, the manager of the grocery store that Pitts robbed, weighed in on Pitts’ side, stating, “If the parole commissioner thinks it safe for society to send Pitts out, it ought to be safe for baseball players. My sympathies are entirely with Alabama in this controversy.”

Finally, on June 17, 1935, Landis ruled that Pitts could play for Albany, but stipulated that he could only play in regular season games to prevent Albany from taking advantage of his popularity by playing him in an abundance of exhibition games to make money. Landis explained he had made his decision because “Many reputable people approached me in Pitt’s behalf. The opinion of many of those people is one that there has been a complete reformation in Pitts’ character. This fact and the fact barring him from baseball would perhaps have a destroying effect on his entire career provide the reasons for my action.”

Pitts was ecstatic to finally be cleared to play, telling reporters, “The judge has finally earned his salary. His decision is the best boost in the world. I’m just raring to go. Judge Landis’ ruling to let me play ball makes me the happiest man in the world. I won’t do anything to make him regret it.”

When Pitts reached Albany he was ready to play, exalting, “I’m raring to go. I tell you now that I won’t make anybody regret giving me an opportunity.” Evers told the press that Pitts would “remain with the Senators the remainder of the season regardless of whether he makes good or not.” Albany knew the notoriety he brought and wanted to take advantage of that as much as possible.

Everyone was anxious to see how Pitts would do against professional competition and he was thrown into the fire almost immediately, collecting 2 hits in his debut on June 23, 1935, and lauded for stellar defense in the outfield. He continued to be a sensation, even eclipsing his future Hall of Fame teammate, Hack Wilson.

Ultimately, Pitts was very good defensively, but not a great hitter. He also suffered from a continual string of injuries that prevented him from gaining momentum. He bounced around the low minors until 1937, playing sporadically because of his inability to stay healthy.

It is difficult to know how dedicated Pitts was to becoming a professional baseball player because he definitely capitalized on his newfound fame in any way he could. In the fall of 1935 he signed $1,500 contract to play professional football as a fullback with the Philadelphia Eagles, and appeared in 3 games. He also toured with the Alabama Pitts All Stars, a New York professional travelling basketball team during the 1935 offseason, playing sparingly, but using his name as the big drawing card.

As Pitts’ professional baseball career wound down, he moved to North Carolina, got married, had a child, and worked in textile mills and coached high school baseball. He also tried to downplay his criminal past, usually claiming that the robbery he was convicted of netted only $10 and that he had played only a minor role. His last professional season came in 1940, when he played for the Hickory Rebels in the Tar Heel League. He hit .302, but was unable to play regularly because of the persistent injuries.

On June 6, 1941, Pitts played a baseball game for a Valdese, North Carolina mill team, and went to a tavern afterwards to celebrate. Around 3 a.m. on the 7th he tried to cut in on Newland LeFevers, who was dancing with his girlfriend. LeFevers pulled a knife and slashed at Pitts, severing the auxiliary artery in his right armpit. Pitts was dead within a couple of hours. LeFevers was convicted of murder, but the sentence was overturned after he had served a few months because evidence was presented showing Pitts was drunk and acting aggressively at the time of the altercation.

In his professional baseball career, Pitts played a total of 171 games, hitting .265 with 6 home runs. Such modest numbers are offset by his legend, which was already firmly in place before he ever stepped into the batter’s box for his first game. Although he is barely remembered today, for a few weeks in the summer of 1935, Alabama Pitts was one of the most talked about people in the United States; an unlikely turn of events for an ex-con from Sing Sing.


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