Game Day at the Ohio Pen

2020-04-30T15:01:38-04:00January 31, 2020|

Remembering the Ohio State Penitentiary Hurricanes—and the day my father played against them in 1965

 

By David Martin

My father grew up in Barberton, Ohio, a blue-collar town near Akron that celebrated Labor Day like the Fourth of July. After graduating from Kent State in 1963, he returned to Barberton to teach fifth grade. When the school year ended, he wrote for The Barberton Herald and played softball. My father loved the game. He put together teams to compete in tournaments around Akron. “We had no uniforms,” he told me. “We just got a good team together and played.”

In 1965, my father took a job with the state teachers association, and he and my mother, a B.H.S. classmate, moved to Columbus. When they got settled, my father found a park on the city’s northeast side where he would watch fast-pitch softball teams play. The church my parents found fielded a slow-pitch team, and Dad joined.

Some of the softball players my father had recruited for the Akron tournaments were police officers. The cops had their own team, and, late that summer, after my parents had moved to the state capital, the police team had scheduled a game against one of the top teams in Columbus. One of the cops who knew that my father had moved to Columbus called and invited him to round out the roster.

On the day of the game, my father left the apartment he and my mother rented and drove downtown. When he got out of his Ford Falcon, gear in hand, he looked up at the thick gray walls of the old Ohio State Penitentiary. Inside the gates waited the day’s opponents: the Hurricanes, the softball team of the Ohio Pen.

 

Columbus grew up with its downtown penitentiary, a classic “big house” with forbidding turrets atop three-story limestone walls. The largest prison in the world when it was built, the Ohio Pen opened on Spring Street in 1834, the same year the city received a charter. The penitentiary took in its first prisoners before the cornerstone was set on the state capitol building (1839) and Charles Dickens arrived by stagecoach in 1842, collecting material for American Notes.

The prison expanded several times and held more than five thousand people at its peak. Over the years, it confined Confederate raiders, members of the Dillinger gang, the writers O. Henry (The Gift of the Magi) and Chester B. Himes (A Rage in Harlem), and men who were injected with Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells. Himes survived the 1930 fire at the Ohio Pen that killed 320 people, the country’s worst prison disaster.

Baseball, of all things, put the penitentiary in the spotlight in 1916, when the prison team received permission to venture outside the walls to play an amateur team in Columbus. Stories about the game, which noted that the prison’s thirty-piece band would also make the trip, ran in newspapers across the country. The game was not a stunt; the penitentiary was serious about sports. In the 1920s, the Ohio Pen baseball team played in the city’s Merchants and Manufacturers league. When the team won the league championship in 1926, the governor attended the banquet.

Ohio’s penal system was hardly alone in allowing incarcerated people to play organized sports. Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees played an exhibition against the prison team at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility on an off day during the 1929 season. But Ohio was “famous for one of the most comprehensive prison sports programs in the U.S.,” according to a 1941 photo feature in Life magazine.

By the time Life visited, the players had switched from baseball to fast-pitch softball. (Too many hard balls were flying over the wall.) The Life spread included photos of two all-star teams, one white and one “colored.” The prison fielded an integrated team when teams from Ohio and surrounding states visited the prison for games on Saturdays and Sundays. The visiting players’ wives watched from a grandstand caged off from the incarcerated spectators.

New to Columbus, my father was unfamiliar with the lore of the Ohio Pen. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I had never been in a prison. But I walked in the front door surrounded by those huge, rock-like walls.” He met his teammates in an anteroom inside the gate. Before leading them into the prison, the guards told them to leave behind aerosol cans and put their gloves and other equipment in a push cart.

The Ohio Pen was a city within a city, with numbered streets running between multiple buildings. Music from transistor radios let my father know when his party approached the two cell blocks that faced the courtyard. “You could see the inmates,” my father said. “Although you didn’t stare at them, I could just sense you were very near the cells.”

The ballfield, named for O. Henry, sat in the rear of the prison, near the power plant, which emitted what my father remembers as a loud hissing sound. The Hurricanes took the field in uniforms with the team nickname printed across the front of the jerseys. One of my father’s teammates said he recognized the second baseman. “We sent him up on bad check charges,” he said.

My father, a sub, watched most of the game from the visitor dugout. He was impressed by the prison team. “They were good,” he said. “They had obviously played softball for some time.” The umpires, also incarcerated, called a strict game. My father went in in the sixth inning, with his team trailing. He jogged out to right field. Taking his position, he felt close to the men in prison garb sitting along the foul line—“very few steps, there was almost no foul ground,” he said. A little nervous, he kept his eyes focused on home plate.

When one hitter came up to bat, some of the men tried to get his attention. “Right fielder,” they said, “you gotta move this way.” They thought he should position himself closer to the foul line. My father ignored them and kept staring at home plate. Sure enough, the hitter sliced a ball down the right-field line for a base hit. As my father ran toward the foul line to retrieve the ball, the men scolded him for not listening to their scouting report. “Right fielder, we told you he hits the ball down here,” they said. My father learned after the game they bet cigarettes on every batter.

My father had one at-bat. He stepped up to the plate and let two pitches whiz by, both strikes. He anticipated the pitcher would next throw him something outside the strike zone, hoping he would chase it. Instead, as it approached, the pitch looked like it might cross the plate. Caught off-guard, my father made a “very lukewarm” swing and missed. Strike three. “Not a good way to end,” he said later.

After the game, the police team went into a room in a building near the field to change out of their spiked shoes. My father remembers being surprised when the prison team also entered the room. Some of the police officers pulled gloves and other equipment from their bags and gave them to prisoners. A ballcap with a police logo was a popular gift. “I didn’t know that tradition, or I might have packed an old set of spikes,” my father said. The exchange lasted only a few minutes, and then the visitors were led out of the prison the way they came.

 

In my father’s recollection, the prison team won the game. His memory is correct. We found an account of the game on a recent visit to the library at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, which keeps copies of the prison’s newspaper in bound volumes. A story about the home team’s 5–2 win over a “cop-studded” Akron team appeared on the front page of the September 4, 1965, edition of the Ohio Penitentiary News. The Hurricanes were led by first baseman Vince “Hunky” Dalchuk, who hit two home runs in the game. “Eight of the Akron starters were policemen,” the story noted.

My father did not remember the name of the police team’s sponsor, Hiney Printing Company. But he recognized the slightly misspelled name of a teammate, a future Barberton police chief, in the game story. “This has got to be it,” he said, reading the story.

The game against the cops closed out the Hurricanes’ 1965 season. In a few years, outside teams would stop visiting the prison altogether. Aging and overcrowded, the penitentiary experienced riots in the hot summer of 1968. A disturbance in August turned into a stand-off that left five people dead. The following spring, visiting softball teams were no longer invited to the prison.

Ideas about crime and punishment were changing, too. Richard Nixon ran a “law and order” campaign to win the White House, and even more moderate politicians, like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had quelled the 1971 prison uprising at Attica, were eager to show they were tough on criminals. Faith in the criminal justice system’s ability to rehabilitate offenders languished.

In 1972, the state opened the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, near Lucasville. The maximum-security facility reflected the shift in thinking. Incarcerated people sent to the prison from the Ohio Pen complained, among other things, about the lack of recreational opportunities. “In the OP, you’d get fresh air every day,” a man held at Lucasville grumbled to a reporter in 1976. (Lucasville made national news in 1993, when nine incarcerated men and one guard were killed during a riot that lasted eleven days..)

After the prison in Lucasville opened, the Ohio Pen continued to process new men and treat patients at its hospital. But its days as a big house were over. In 1979, a judge ordered the state to close the prison. The last people held in the prison departed in 1984. In their absence, a film crew went inside the walls to shoot scenes for a made-for-TV movie about a defense lawyer who falls for her client (the latter played by Alec Baldwin).

For years, Columbus struggled with the question of what to do with the pen. Was it a historical site or an ugly relic taking up valuable real estate? In 1990, Buck Rinehart, the rambunctious mayor at the time, invited reporters to watch him operate a wrecking machine that started to demolish a building on the prison site. The city did not have a permit to begin the work. Preservationists were horrified. Later, Rinehart talked about turning the prison into a tourist attraction. But the city council president thought it was ghoulish to shuffle crowds through a prison where more than three hundred people died in the electric chair. As officials dithered, a section of the penitentiary wall collapsed, demolishing cars parked next to the prison.

Eventually, a wrecking ball leveled the Ohio Pen’s walls. The developers of a downtown sports arena wanted the site cleared. Nationwide Arena, home to the city’s expansion National Hockey League franchise, opened in 2000. A parking garage for the Arena District, as the area is now known, went up on or near the spot of prison ground where the mighty Hurricanes competed against the top amateur softball teams from around Ohio.

The excitement of a new arena and an adjacent entertainment district made it easy to forget the hulking penitentiary that once stood less than a mile from the state capitol . The only historical marker on the site honors John Hunt Morgan, the Confederate raider who led an escape of the prison in 1863. (Union forces killed Morgan the following year.)

 

For many of us, the carceral system exists out of view. The prison in Lucasville that effectively replaced the Ohio Pen is located in one of the most remote part of the state. (Racial tension stemming from predominately white guards monitoring large numbers of Black offenders was cited as a contributing factor to the riot.) The Ohio Pen, by contrast, was woven into the fabric of one of the state’s largest cities. Researching this story, I was struck by how open the penitentiary was, how it was nearly a public space. In addition to welcoming sports teams from the outside, the penitentiary offered tours and had a gift shop. The Christmas pageant was a hot ticket in Columbus.

Make no mistake, the men (and women, up to 1913) sentenced to the Ohio Pen endured exploitation and cruelty. The experiment that sent syringes full of HeLa cells to the Ohio Pen in 1956 is today regarded as highly unethical, to cite one example. Still, it’s interesting that amid all the reforms—from air-conditioned cells to online college instruction—prisoners in the U.S. are in some ways more removed from society than they were when the Ohio Pen operated. Names of Hurricanes players would sometimes appear in the newspapers that covered the local softball teams’ visits to the penitentiary. At one time, the Ohio Pen’s prison band had a weekly show on a Columbus radio station. (Like the softball team, the prison band had a nickname. The musicians were known as the Rogues of Rhythm.)

It’s easy, when prisons are out of sight and mind, to forget the lives of the people and communities affected by them. Last fall, Ohio University Press published a book, Fire in the Big House, about the deadly 1930 fire at the Ohio Pen. The author, Mitchel P. Roth, a criminal justice historian at Sam Houston State University, writes in the introduction to the book that he was astounded by how little attention the disaster had received from scholars. The townsfolk, Roth found, were similarly uninformed. “When I was doing my research in Columbus,” he told me, “most people had no clue that it had ever happened.” ■

 

 

David Martin is an investigator in Kansas City, Missouri. Previously he worked as a writer and editor at alternative newspapers in Columbus, Des Moines, Cleveland and Kansas City. He was born in Columbus and grew up in a neighboring suburb.

Cover image of the 1966 Ohio State Penitentiary Hurricanes. Photo by David Martin.

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