Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the baseball urban legends featured so far.
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A convict signed a contract to play professional baseball…while still in prison!
For at least a century (and very possibly longer than that), a very popular sport within prisons in the United States has been organized baseball. One of the biggest problems within prisons is finding things for the prisoners to do, and organized sports do a very good job at filling in those open hours in the lives of the inmates. In San Quentin Stat Prison in California, one of the largest prisons in the United States, they have been playing organized baseball since 1920 and are one of the few prisons that actually allows its prison baseball team to travel outside of the jail to play away games. As successful as having a baseball program is with most prisons, it was especially successful for one prisoner at Oregon State Penitentiary who actually signed a deal to be a professional baseball player while still a convict at Oregon State Penitentiary in 1942. Read on to learn Keith Crosswhite’s tale.
On October 2, 1931, 19-year-old Keith Crosswhite robbed a wienie roast in the Ozarks in Missouri with his partner in crime, the 28-year-old John Owen. Owen, the son of a preacher, was a real piece of work. He had actually worked as a deputy constable for a time but was let go for his aggressive brutality on bootleggers. There was little doubt that Owen was the driving force in their partnership (after all, Owen was practically ten years older than the still-teenaged Crosswhite). This is not to say that Crosswhite was a choir boy, though. When they robbed the weenie roast, Crosswhite was out on bail for a charge of attempted rape on a young girl in Springfield, Missouri. So Crosswhite was no doe-eyed innocent. Still, when they were pulled over on October 18, 1931 while driving through LaGrande, Oregon (with a sixteen-year old girl in the backseat of the car, by the way) by a Oregon State Policeman named Spud Helms, it was Owen who handled the situation particularly poorly. Helms suspected the pair of a robbery in Idaho Falls, Idaho. His interview of the men ended in bloodshed as Owen pulled a gun on Helms and shot him twice (once in the hand and once in the abdomen). The men fled to the mountains of Oregon, but a posse was formed and eventually brought them to justice.
Crosswhite’s father was a noted lawman back in Springfield, and he took his son’s troubles hard. After visiting his boy, Ollie Crosswhite lamented, “My son and I always were pals. My son was always a good boy until he came under bad influence.” Toward the end of 1931, things went from bad to worse for the Crosswhites when Helms died from his injuries. Owen did not confess to firing the gun, so both he and Crosswhite were convicted of the same crime – second degree murder. As bad as things were for Crosswhite, the big man kept himself composed. He broke down, however, when he learned that his father, the popular deputy, had perished in the infamous Young Brothers Massacre, the largest mass killing of policemen in the United States until the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 (Crosswhite and nine other police officers plus one civilian went to go check out the suspected whereabouts of the Young Brothers, two outlaws on the run in the Ozarks. They found their hideout but the Young Brothers were waiting and slaughtered six of the eleven men, wounding three others).
Perhaps it was his father’s death or the plight of his mother having to raise his five young siblings alone, but whatever the reason, Crosswhite began to live up to his father’s remembrances of him once he started his life in prison. He was the proverbial model prisoner. Not only was he a model prisoner, but boy, could Crosswhite throw a baseball! Heck, Crosswhite was a great athlete period. In 1940, he won a gold watch at a prison track meet. It was his skills as a baseball pitcher, though, that would bring him his greatest fame. Crosswhite, who gained the nickname “Big Luke” while in prison, put on quite a display as the star pitcher for the Oregon State Penitentiary baseball team beginning in the late 1930s. He dominated both college and semi-pro teams. Here is a photo from when Reed College played against him around this time…
Eventually, his fame grew large enough that the prison team began scheduling games against minor league baseball teams, as well. After picking up four wins against the Salem Senators, a Class B Western International League team (roughly the equivalent of a Single A baseball team today), the Senators made an unusual offer – they wanted to sign Crosswhite.
Obviously, their intent was as much for the publicity than their actual interest in the 29-year-old’s skills as a baseball player, but for whatever the reason, on August 7, 1942, Warden George C. Alexander allowed Crosswhite to sign a contract with the Senators’ Business Manager Al Lightner to play professional baseball. With one notable caveat, though – he could only pitch home games. He would not be allowed to travel with the team. The news traveled throughout the country and caused a bit of an outcry and sadly, Crosswhite’s professional career ended before it even had a chance to begin. W. G. Bramham, national commissioner of minor league baseball, declared the Senators’ signing to be illegal.
Luckily for Crosswhite, though, the new year found him released from prison. A mixture of Owen finally confessing to doing the actual killing and the demand for workers to work in factories during World War II saw Crosswhite’s prison sentence commuted by the Governor of Oregon. However, the minor league banning stayed intact, and Crosswhite was unable to get a job pitching for any minor league team. He moved back to Springfield where he played semi=pro and raised a family. He passed away in 1997.
The legend, therefore, is…
Thanks to Will Swarts for information on Crosswhite, the Eugene Register-Guard for their contemporary accounts of Crosswhite’s attempts to play pro ball and Bruce Davis for his book We’re Dead, Come on in (which is about the Young Brothers Massacre – that is apparently what the brothers said when they were finally caught. They were surrounded by police in Houston and ultimately shot themselves and shouted to the police as they died, “We’re dead, come on in”) for the Ollie Crosswhite quote.
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