Tuesday, December 6, 2016

He mighta been big league

Today, let's talk about John Dillinger, and not for the reason you might have been thinking...

John Dillinger was a bad guy in the 1930's, when being a "bad guy" meant sticking up banks with guns and driving away really fast in a Ford V-8 car while shooting a gun. This was very tricky stuff, considering that all Fords in that era had manual transmissions.

Of course, to be a really bad guy nowadays, you need to be a global terrorist, or a banker.

Which leads us back to Dillinger, who was also in the business of removing bank deposits and re-depositing them elsewhere. Like his pockets.

But he might have gone down another path - he might have played major league baseball, so talented was he at American's pastime!

Dillinger in uniform for a town ballclub
(he's the player farthest right, top row)
In those days, the path to the big leagues ran through each of the little town across the nation, all of whom had a town baseball team that would play the team from the next town over on a Sunday afternoon. From those games, scouts would pick the best prospects and sign them to play in Kankakee, Ashtabula or Terre Haute, with a chance to get to the majors someday.

In 1924, 21-year-old Dillinger finished playing for his local nine and fell in with splendid companions named “Pete” Pierpoint and Edgar Singleton, who was actually JD's cousin, although twice his age, and an umpire in the baseball league. In September of that year, Singleton and Dillinger robbed a grocery store in Mooresville, Indiana.  During the robbery, Dillinger conked the grocer with an iron bolt. The man was not seriously hurt, but the two crooks were "nabbed" and sent to the Big House.  Singleton had a prior record but only received a sentence of 2-14 years, while the younger Dillinger, a stranger to the justice system theretofore, was sent up for 10-20 years.

At Pendleton State Reformatory, Dillinger worked in the shirt factory (but that isn't where the Pendleton shirt was invented) and played on the baseball team, getting known around the Indiana State Prison Baseball league as a pretty good ballplayer.

By 1929, Dillinger was eligible for parole, and the day before his hearing he played very well in a game that was watched by the governor of Indiana, Harry Leslie, who is said to have commented that JD should have been playing major league ball. Parole was denied, and Dillinger became embittered about the notion that he was kept in prison because of his baseball talent - and a certain credibility was given to this thought because, the next year, he was transferred to the largest prison in the state, Michigan City - which was similar to making the big leagues in baseball.  They even wore stripes, but not pinstripes like the Yankees.

Prison humor is a sideline I enjoy. I often call people on their cell phones to share it.

In a turn of events that was bad for baseball and bad for his own longevity, John Dillinger refused to play ball for the new prison, spending his time instead consulting with older, more experienced crooks and bandits, taking the Master's Degree in Advanced Hooliganism.

At a trial, handcuffed to a deputy
So it was that Dillinger finally obtained his release in 1933. Right away, instead of grabbing a bat and glove and getting out there on the diamond, he a) helped ten prisoners escape from Michigan City (one of them was a former baseball teammate)  b) began robbing banks all around the midwest and c) attending as many Chicago Cubs games as he could.  

The Cubs finished 3rd in the National League that summer of '33, and were on their way to another bronze finish in '34 when they lost their #1 fan. John Dillinger, who was so angered by being kept in prison that he quit playing baseball, should have gone to the ballpark on July 22, 1934, instead of going to see a crummy Clark Gable movie called "Manhattan Melodrama," because the FBI gunned him down as he left the Biograph theater in Chicago.

It might have been nice had the Indiana prison system been as interested in Dillinger's rehabilitation and re-entry into polite society as they had been in his athletic ability. But then again, it would have been nice if he had confined his stealing to second or third base, so there you go.

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