Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Greatest Prison Baseball Player of All Time

Ralph “Blackie” Schwamb was the greatest prison baseball player of all time. “Wrong Side of the Wall” by Eric Stone is his story. In the late 1940s, at the same time as he was working his way up into the major leagues with the St. Louis Browns, Schwamb was working for gangsters in L.A. In 1949 he committed a murder while collecting on a debt for a bookie, was sentenced to life in prison and then put together a great career behind bars against surprisingly tough competition.

In San Quentin and Folsom prisons he pitched three no-hitters against teams made up almost entirely of major and high-level minor leaguers. He did that while backed up by a prison team with no professional experience, on fields that were very much hitters parks. He got out of prison in 1960, after 10 years, and nearly made a comeback when he signed by the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League.

Sports Illustrated' review
March 21st issue
The Best Behind Bars
It's hard not to groan at the subtitle of Los Angeles journalist Eric Stone's book The Wrong Side of the Wall: The Life of Blackie Schwamb, the Greatest Prison Baseball Player of All Time (Lyons Press, 310 pages, $21.95). Greatest prison baseball player? Is there no limit to baseball writers' appetite for minutiae? What next -- Isidor Lipschitz: King of the Borscht Belt Summer League?

But given that our nation has watched a parade of ballplayers from Darryl Strawberry to Ken Caminiti march to the beat of their own self-destruction, it's useful to remember that there's nothing terribly modern about the spectacle of an athlete throwing it all away. Schwamb was a gifted righthander who pitched only a dozen games for the St. Louis Browns before being jailed for the brutal murder of a Long Beach, Calif., doctor in 1949. He was also a legman for the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. Stone, whose uncle played in a semipro league against Schwamb, hoped to discover "how someone [like Schwamb] with so much right in his life could go so utterly wrong."

Stone found the answer not in the rough-and-tumble world of the 1940s minor league circuit, which he vividly evokes, nor in the even rougher, more sordid world of organized crime in L.A. Rather, he discovered it in a broken-down old man he encountered living in a metal-slab-sided house in Lancaster, Calif. For four days Schwamb told Stone colorful yarns about his tragic, booze-soaked life. But on the fifth day, when Stone confronted Schwamb about the night he beat Dr. Donald Buge to death with his fists, Schwamb replied with a flood of tears. Then, collecting himself, he told Stone to "get the hell out of here before I [mess] you up." Clearly Blackie Schwamb was doomed to destruction for a simple reason: He couldn't find the courage to look at his reflection in the mirror.
Issue date: March 21, 2005

What do people think?
"Eric Stone's riveting account of Blackie Schwamb's great baseball talent and equally great character defects is so much more than a sports story. It is a fascinating trip along a life on the edge, in and out of trouble, golden opportunities and missed chances. Damon Runyon would have been proud to tell the tale of Blackie." —Tom Brokaw, longtime NBC anchorman and best selling author.

"Blackie Schwamb's story is classic tragedy--flawed, physically brilliant, unable to deal with his demons. This is not a "sports" story, it is Eric Stone's brilliant study of a flawed man with a great talent who had such a talent that he started against Bob Feller, went to The Mob and ended up pitching in prison leagues. Stone weaves the life of this tragic figure against the tapestry of the lifeline of both L.A.and The Mob. It is brilliant, chilling and real." —Peter Gammons, three-time National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association National Sportswriter of the Year, ESPN Baseball Tonight studio analyst.

"Baseball rarely edges into noir, but this compelling biography by Eric Stone reads as if it had been filmed in black and white in the golden age of film noir Hollywood. Mesmerized by the waste of it all, yet tempted to hope because of his talent, we follow the story of a brilliant but flawed player, Blackie Schwamb, whose career was derailed through the tragic consequences of gangland connections." —Kevin Starr, University Professor in History, University of Southern California, California State Librarian Emeritus, author of "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003" and the other six volumes of the "Americans and the California Dream" series.

"Blackie Schwamb pitched in the American League for the St. Louis Browns. Blackie Schwamb pitched in Folsom and San Quentin... You’ll finish "Wrong Side of the Wall" asking yourself, ‘What if...’" —Joe Garagiola, former major league ballplayer, radio and television broadcaster, and bestselling author of "Baseball is a Funny Game."

"As a ten-year-old St. Louis Browns fan, I saw the apple-cheek side of baseball and loved it. Eric Stone’s look at the dark underside is eerie, fascinating, and impossible to put down." —Win Blevins, author of "Beauty for Ashes" and numerous other award winning historical fiction and non-fiction books.

For more info, seek Eric Stone's website at

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