The team we would be competing against played only home games. It seemed to give the players an advantage, but it was not a topic for debate. The softball team for the Baltimore City Detention Center didn’t travel.
An inmate had written to the manager of our team, Dick Irwin, asking if we’d be willing to play his club. Irwin managed The Baltimore News American 10-Stars, which recognized the final edition of the paper each day and the number of players on a slowpitch softball team. The Stars’ part had a nice ring, but it hardly described us.
Irwin had been a Baltimore City policeman before he became a reporter with The News American, where he wrote a daily police blotter — a roundup of crime in the metropolitan area. He did it so well that he took the blotter to The Evening Sun and then The Sun in a 44-year career appreciated by co-workers, police and readers. Irwin always got the facts right, was always fair and seemed ever-so-serious until you got to know his deadpan sense of humor.
He loved to play softball and took the sport seriously, wearing metal spikes and catching gear that looked a little out of place on a left-hander.
He continued to correspond with the inmate, whose name was James, about the possibility of a game.
Eventually, all those who had to sign off agreed to allow the game to take place. It was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon. We didn’t know what to expect but were excited for the opportunity to play a game inside the prison.
I’ll never forget walking in, and how strange it felt. Everyone had to sign in and be checked, along with our softball equipment. When the gate closed behind us, it was a bit unnerving, but we tried not to show it.
When we walked out to the field, the one set of stands was filled with inmates. It was a bit intimidating as we started to loosen up. Then we met our opponents, who were delighted by our presence; they were tired of playing each other. James greeted Dick and the rest of us. After the game, he told me he was in for manslaughter. He was very matter-of-fact about it.
My usual position was shortstop but for some reason I was asked to play first base that day. I remember one play in particular. I took a wide throw from our third baseman, which caused me to move into the basepath — the path of an inmate who was running full speed down the line. He would have been within his rights to take me out at first, but he went around me to avoid contact.
After the game, James told me that I was fortunate — that any other time he would’ve driven the first baseman into right field. I believed him.
The game was competitive, and probably one of our best efforts. We lost, 13-12, which seemed to be OK with everyone. As we shook hands afterward, the exchange seemed natural. They appreciated our visit and the fact that once the game began, it was just a game; they could focus on something else.
We had a remarkable experience and talked about doing it again. There wouldn’t be a next time, though, and I don’t know how it would have eclipsed that day.
James thanked us as he walked with us for as long as he could. I’m glad we got to go inside, but I also was glad to get back outside. I couldn’t help but think how I would cope with such an existence. We got just a glimpse of it, and it was on a good day.
I had anticipated that we might encounter some hostility, but we were treated well. Many of the players were convicted of horrible crimes, but they didn’t seem horrible that day.
It was hard to know how to feel about people for whom I had a strong opinion going in. Afterward, I had to adjust my black-and-white lens. There were shades of gray that I didn’t expect.
On that day, they were just players on the opposing team. Good sports and gracious winners.
And we were glad to be the visitors who would be going back to our everyday lives.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.