Part of my recent vacation landed me in center field, in jail, roughly 210 feet from home plate, and a mile and a half off the northern tip of San Francisco. I took several pictures with my iPhone, all the while wondering how it would feel to be truly locked up, my only connection to sports that stark crater of poured concrete, with its asymmetric walls, that once served as ballpark and recreation yard in Alcatraz.
According to the jailhouse’s audio tour, radio privileges came late to The Rock, with the best-behaved inmates allowed to listen to baseball games and a few music stations while locked up in their tiny, drafty hovels. In the years that Alcatraz operated as a federal pen, 1933-63, the Yankees won 16 World Series titles. Some solace, I thought, finally to be granted a radio, a precious conduit to the outside world, only to have to listen to the Bombers win again and again.
All of a sudden, the horrible Red Sox years that served as my introduction to the game in the early ’60s looked pretty good. Freedom has a way of turning losers into winners, especially in contrast to, say, sitting adjacent to a psycho Al Capone in the chow hall or hearing scores of murderers, rapists, and bank robbers hoot and holler over Mantle and Maris. One of the main corridors along one of the Alcatraz cell blocks was known as “Broadway.’’ Endearing.
The last World Series game played with prisoners in residence at Alcatraz had the Yanks edge the Giants, 1-0, in Game 7 on Oct. 16, 1962. It was played at Candlestick Park, not much of a boat ride, or swim, from the 22-acre prison rockpile. It would be another 27 years before the Giants made it back to the World Series. When the last inmate took the 15-minute ferry ride across San Francisco Bay on March 21, 1963, Alcatraz was officially out of the lockup business.
Now part of the National Park Service, The Rock remains a creepy place, its tours at $28 a pop not really my idea of a “must do’’ vacation stop. The same family vacation to northern California also included a couple of days in majestic Yosemite, and later a guided kayaking tour around Moss Landing, a marine wonderland about 100 miles south of San Francisco that teems with sea otters, harbor seals, and large, lumbering sea lions, their stench as fetid as their bark is strong.
But give me Yosemite’s towering sequoias and the Pacific’s smelly sea beasts over the stark, dilapidated cells of Alcatraz. Although vacant, its cell doors left unlocked for decades, most of its former residents now dead, it is a soulless, haunting monolith. America has made advances in the art of human warehousing the last 50 years, with Alcatraz a cruel and lingering reminder of how far we needed to go.
To stand there in center field, looking straight in at the weed-infested infield, it was impossible to think that baseball, or any recreation, could have offered prisoners any joy, or as much as a momentary escape. Yet baseball no doubt kept some of them sane, or perhaps contained their insanity, if only because it allowed them to view life for 30 or 40 minutes a day without the filter of vertical bars or a guard’s glare. Standard attire at the Rock had all guards outfitted in neckties, very similar to major league umpires of the day. Guards wore red. Umps wore black.
I’ve been in jail before, also just as a visitor, during my student days at Boston University. To fulfill the requirements of Sociology 101 in 1972, I attended a handful of “lifer’’ meetings at what was then Walpole State Prison. An oh-so-worldly 19-year-old of the Boston suburbs, I surrendered belt, watch, and wallet before entering, then spent the next couple of hours of a few Sunday nights making small talk about the outside world with guys sentenced never again to step foot beyond their indoor world. Awkward, especially if you’re a rube with a rap sheet that entailed a total of one speeding ticket. My lifer “buddy’’ was in Walpole because he killed his wife. A fit of passion, he said, having returned home early from work one day to find her with her lover. The rest of his story involved an insane rage, a large kitchen knife, and two mutilated lovers, all of which he tailored into a totally understandable, if not forgivable, tale.
Sweating like a steel worker heaving coals into a blast furnace, I feigned sympathy and silently prayed a string of “Our Fathers’’ and “Hail Marys’’ and “I Promise Never To Do It Agains.’’ Had his father-in-law not pressed charges, he said in all earnestness, the cops and courts would have let the whole thing slide as a crime of passion. Okey-dokey.
Not a story easily forgotten, obviously. Equally embedded in my memory, all these years later, is the sound of the prison gate that locked behind me each Sunday as we became part of Walpole’s general population. I don’t know if the other students felt the same, but each week the gate’s steely, snapping thud horrified me. I knew I’d be free to leave in a couple of hours, albeit with prayers to stack the deck, but the sound spoke of finality, authority, despair, helplessness.
Minutes after returning from the Alcatraz ball field, back inside prison walls, I shouldered in with a small group that a Parks Service employee led to the dozen or so cells once used for solitary confinement. Offending prisoners, he said, would be locked in those cells for days, in total darkness, not allowed to see anyone, unable to talk to anyone but themselves or whomever or whatever their imaginations conjured.
“Now,’’ he said, smiling while brandishing a large cell key, “who here would like to to be locked up in solitary confinement?’’
Amazed, I watched eight or so visitors eagerly shuffle though the cell door to volunteer for the express trip to darkness. I moved aside, with one giant, deliberate step. Not for me. And with a dramatic sweep of his arm, the tour guide slammed the door shut, summoning that same horrifying noise that I remembered from Walpole four decades earlier.
“What they don’t know,’’ the guard confided in me with the tourists contained, “is that the door doesn’t lock. The key’s just for show. But this gives them the idea.’’
True, too, of the Alcatraz ball field, I suppose. Other than home plate and the vague outline of the basepaths and pitcher’s mound, it barely resembled a diamond. But in a place where hope was vacant, where life shrunk, where some men were crushed by days and nights of total darkness, the chance to play ball was as good as it got.