Baseball at Folsom Prison gained national notoriety on February 8, 1942 when a game between the prisoners and an all-star team of professional players from the Sacramento area was stopped after seven innings because of a jail break.
The Sacramento All-Stars, which included major leaguers Joe Marty (Christian Brothers), Stan Hack (Sacramento) and Wally Westlake (Christian Brothers), were leading 24-6, when inmates Elvia E. Mead and Philip Gardner stopped watching the game, cut a hole through a fence and escaped. Both were serving life sentences, Mead for murder and Gardner for burglary. The men swam down the American River for nearly three hours before they were captured.
All the best ballplayers from the Sacramento area spent time in Folsom Prison. Fortunately, after playing nine innings against the inmates, they all left free men.
Folsom Prison, which opened in 1880, is the second oldest prison in California after San Quentin. During a 32-year period, 93 prisoners were executed at the maximum-security institution.
Baseball games among the inmates began in 1904 and by 1913 the gates opened to outside competition. The first team to play inside the prison walls was Christian Brothers High School which included future major leaguer Kettle Wirts.
When Major League Baseball barred pros from playing in the Sacramento Winter League in the 1950s the local pros traveled to Folsom Prison for games.
The Sacramento All-Stars, Ed Sparks Stars, Julius Style Shop, South Sacramento Merchants, Solons Rookies, Silver Dollar Café, Dale’s Service, Russell Brothers, Monte Carlo, McClellan Peacemakers and Aerojet Generals were among Sacramento-area squads that played within the prison walls in the 1940s through the 1960s. The teams were made up of major-league and minor-league players from the Sacramento region and often were featured in games on the Fourth of July.
The Sacramento Stars were a regular visitor to the prison. In 1951, the team sported major leaguers Woodie Held (Sacramento), JoJo White, Richie Myers (Elk Grove) and Johnny Briggs (Folsom) and major-league manager Johnny McNamara (Christian Brothers.).
In addition to the major leaguers from the 1951 Sacramento All-Stars, there were Jimmy Westlake (McClatchy, Sacramento JC), Charley Schanz (Christian Brothers, Sacramento JC), Alex Kampouris (Sacramento, Sacramento JC), Gordon Jones (Sacramento, Sacramento JC), Fred Besana (Lincoln, Placer JC), Tommy Glaviano (Sacramento), Joe Kirrene (Christian Brothers) and Cuno Barragan (Sacramento, Sacramento JC.)
Among minor leaguers who appeared were Ray Newman (McClatchy), Don Saner (Elk Grove, Sacramento JC), Harry Dunlop (Christian Brothers), Lou Almendariz (Christian Brothers), Dan Ahtipas (McClatchy), Hal Perry (Grant), Merrill Silver (Grant), Tom Torchia (Sacramento), Rudi Rodoni (Sacramento), Gene Roenspie (Elk Grove), Frank Bowa (Sacramento), Angelo Dal Porto (Sacramento), Jim Deyo (Grant), Tony Stathos (McClatchy, Sacramento JC), Don Van Buskirk (Grant), Al Jacinto (Clarksburg), Bill Werry (McClatchy), Gene Petralli (Sacramento), Ralph Rose (McClatchy), Tom Agosta (Sacramento), Jack Steinagel (McClatchy, Sacramento JC), Augie Amorena (Sacramento, Sacramento JC, Sacramento State), Chris Christin (McClatchy, Sacramento JC), Al Anicich (Christian Brothers), Del Bandy (Folsom, Sacramento JC, Sacramento State), Richard DeFazio (Sacramento, Sacramento JC) and Joe Borich (Christian Brothers.)
Buzz Berriesford (Sacramento, Sacramento JC), remembers his prison visit with Julius Style Shop in 1951.
“When we got there, we all walked through something like you do in airports today and were checked out for weapons,” Berriesford said in an interview before his death in 2016. “Then we were taken through the cell block on the way to the ball field.”
The former minor-league pitcher said the playing condition left a lot to be desired.
“The diamond was very gravelly and the right fielder stood well below the rest of the players on the diamond with a cell block behind him,” he said.
With Julius Style Shop leading by nine runs late in the game, Berriesford got himself picked off first base. That caused one inmate in the stands to get quite upset.
“In my opinion, the pitcher balked to get me,” Berriesford said. “Then suddenly this black convict stands up in the bleachers and starts yelling ‘Slim, don’t you never come back.’ I presumed he had a bet on the game and had us beating the prison team by more than 10 runs.”
Berriesford and Ronnie King (Christian Brothers) played in a game when there was a stabbing behind the third-base dugout.
“There were these two cons who were never allowed on the same side of the prison yard at the same time,” King said. “When Woodie Held (Sacramento) got up and doubled off the left-centerfield cell-block wall, his blast distracted everyone including the guards. So, the con on the first-base side sneaked over to the other side and knifed the other con. There was blood everywhere.”
King always looked forward to playing at the prison for a couple of reasons.
“The cons made baseball shoes and I would get my baseball shoes from the cons,” King said. “And, after the game, we’d get a good steak dinner.”
One of the residents of Folsom Prison was former major-league pitcher Ralph “Blackie” Schwamb, who in 1949 at the age of 23 was imprisoned for life for the murder of Long Beach doctor Donald Buge.
At the time, the 6-foot-5 right-hander pitched for the St. Louis Browns. He also worked for Los Angeles mob boss Mickey Cohen and got involved in guns, gambling, booze and the dark side of nightclub life.
Schwamb, who was 1-1 in 12 major-league games, possessed a 100 mile-an-hour fastball and an equally impressive curveball. Scouts from across the country traveled to California to watch him pitch.
He once pitched a perfect game against an all-star team that had five major leaguers. In 10 years of incarceration and 70 prison games, he threw three no-hitters and compiled 720 strikeouts. He accomplished that with a team that had no professional experience and on a ball field that was described as hitter friendly.
Schwamb, who was incarcerated at San Quentin before being transferred to Folsom, became the greatest prison baseball player of all time. His life story is told in the book “Wrong Side of the Wall” written by Eric Stone.
Schwamb, who pitched in the Sacramento Winter League, got out of prison at age 34 in 1960 and failed in his comeback attempt as much because of his indiscretions as his failing ability.