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'A Walled and Womanless Place'
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Once, San Francisco had hundreds of semi-professional baseball teams, the best of them traveling regularly to play the excellent inmates' team at San Quentin Prison across San Francisco Bay. I especially remember a game I played there as a shortstop for one of the city teams, Johnnie's Billiards....

The sun reflected almost blindingly off the whitewashed adobe cell blocks beside the main gate as we approached the prison, carrying satchels that held our uniforms and equipment, walking along a path surrounded by beds of the brightest, reddest flowers. A bell rang sharply as each of us passed through the beam of an electric eye that unerringly ferreted out the metal buckles of our uniform belts and the steel of our spiked playing shoes.

Then, suddenly, we plunged into a world of men clad uniformly in pale, faded blue and living in gray shadow, a world of high buildings and clanking steel doors and gates -- "a walled and womanless place called prison," as Caryl Chessman, the most famous of San Quentin's inmates, would describe it in the international best seller, "Cell 2455, Death Row," that he was at the moment writing in just that location.

San Quentin was the world's largest prison, yet not large enough; four thousand men were far beyond the number it was designed for. The men were everywhere, blue figures pacing or talking warily with each other, wedged, it seemed, into every foot of the central yard. Massive concrete and steel structures surrounded them, and guards who stared down anxiously from gun towers and narrow catwalks. The guards cradled shotguns and swiveled their necks like nervous baseball pitchers with men on base.

The inmates were in the yard only a few hours each day. Most of the time they were inside. A little exercise and conversation in the yard, a movie once or twice a week, writing letters, reading, or listening to radio programs piped into their cells until lights out and the imposition of absolute silence at 10:30 p.m. -- that was their recreation.

That and a weekly baseball game, the prisoners' rare chance to smell and feel earth and grass, to give and receive cheers, to win the favor of those who controlled their lives.

The men spent most of their lives in the cells that were stacked tier on tier, in corridor after corridor. Two men occupied each of the tiny barred rooms that offered no privacy and no dignity, and barely enough space for a wooden table and stool, a sink and a toilet on the back wall, and two narrow bunks, one above the other.

Hordes of seagulls soared above the broad bay that sparkled just outside, high above the prison, high above the prisoners, high above even their guards, gliding freely and effortlessly to the San Francisco shore.

The prisoners knew why the gulls chattered so loudly and gleefully, like the most excited of infielders. And we knew why the prisoners cheered Blackie Schwamb so loudly and gleefully.

They were shouting encouragement even as we took the field for batting practice.

"Look at them guys, Blackie ... Dog meat! ... You'll chew 'em up today. Chew 'em up!"

He was even bigger than we'd thought. Blackie Schwamb was, in fact, six-foot-five, a well-muscled right handed pitcher who threw a baseball very hard.

Just five years before, Schwamb pitched in a dozen games for the St. Louis Browns of the American League. He might have been pitching yet in the major leagues if he and a buddy hadn't ended an off-season tour of bars and poker parlors on the outskirts of Los Angeles by fatally beating and then robbing a physician whose wallet had attracted them as they sat drinking with him.

That got Schwamb a life sentence and star billing on the San Quentin Pirates. He undoubtedly had the most loyal and vociferous body of fans any pitcher could claim -- far more, certainly, than any pitcher on the hapless St. Louis Browns.

Schwamb's shouting fans in blue sat behind heavy wire fencing that covered the front of the entire grandstand. They were closely guarded; but it wasn't like inside. No one challenged their right to express their emotions and opinions as loudly as they wished -- though only, of course, on such matters as how great Blackie Schwamb looked striking out still another batter from the outside world of the free, or what a bum the umpire was for not calling a strike.

We got lucky. Schwamb sometimes was as wild as he was fast. With the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, he walked in what proved to be the winning run. (Can't say, however, that I had much to do with the victory. Schwamb struck me out four times, to the great and noisy delight of the inmate crowd.)

"How about a tour?" our manager suggested after the game.

Our first stop was our last, the squat apple green gas chamber. We stood fidgeting nervously outside, peering into the grimly barren room through thick windows set into the front wall.

A guard moved to the doorway. "See those pans in front of the two chairs ... They pull the levers on the wall over here on the outside ... cyanide pellets drop from up in the ceiling into a pool of acid in the pans. The fumes -- the gas -- rises, and they're gone."

I could almost smell the gas, the "sickeningly sweet" odor of almonds and peaches the guard described.

I didn't talk much about our victory over Blackie Schwamb after that. I was particularly struck by what the guard had said about why there were two chairs.

"Man, you hear him?" I asked my teammates. "'So we can do two at a time when we need to.' Two at a time! And what the hell was that need to business? A hell of a thing to do to anybody, whatever they did."

Not everyone agreed, but agree or not, it was a question most of us mainly twenty-somethings had never before thought of raising. Sure, capital punishment was discussed in those sections of the newspaper we skimmed on the way to the sports pages, but this was different. We couldn't feel it when we only read about it.

Copyright Dick Meister