- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

Though I’ve yet to see the movie — it opens nationwide tomorrow — I suspect the remake of “The Longest Yard” features more (Chris) Rock than rock pile. Adam Sandler as an NFL quarterback-turned-convict? Not a whole lot of verite in that cinema. (At least Burt Reynolds, who had Sandler’s role in the original film, played some college ball at Florida State.)

So let me tell you about a real prison football team, just so you’ll know the difference. Let me tell you about the team they had at Sing Sing from 1931 to ‘35. The Black Sheep, they called themselves.

Prisons in that period were just emerging from the Dark Ages, the era of corporal punishment and No Talking Allowed and — the ultimate symbol — striped uniforms. Sing Sing, just north of New York City along the banks of the Hudson River, was a particularly gruesome place, almost beyond description. Not only was it filled with 2,400 of the hardest cases, overcrowding made it necessary to house a third of them in the Old Cellblock, a dank, dreary dungeon built by the prisoners in the 1820s … and condemned on more than one occasion.

The cells in the Old Block were 3 feet, 3 inches wide, 6 feet, 7 inches high and 7 feet long — “no bigger than a dead man’s grave,” in the words of one occupant. They had no windows and no plumbing (only “night buckets,” which the inmates would empty each morning into an open sewer).

A prison doctor described the environment thusly: “The walls are thick stone, which makes these cells look as if they have been hollowed out of solid rock. A prisoner confined to one of them for the first time invariably suffers an impression of crushing weight, closing in from all sides. Originally, the only light came from a series of small windows in the outer wall across the galleries from the cells, but some years ago this wretched condition was improved by cutting several large windows in the outer wall.”

Mercifully, wardens in the 1930s were moving away from the concept of all-punishment-all-the-time and toward the idea of rehabilitation. One of the many ways Sing Sing’s enlightened leader, Lewis Lawes, tried to bring this about was by forming athletic teams that would play games against outside clubs. Through healthy competition, he figured, the prisoner “learns the necessity of rules, or laws, and cooperation with his fellows. He learns to subordinate his own desires to the good of the whole team, and learns, too, that he must play the game to win. He develops a sense of proportion and values and finds that there is no royal road, or loafer’s route, by which a big score can be made.”

Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants, helped the football team get started by supplying it with old uniforms and equipment. By their second season, the Black Sheep were being put through their paces by the aptly named John Law, who had previously coached Manhattan College and played at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne.

“Not only is my name John Law,” he told the New York Times, “but the warden’s name is Lawes and the football team is made up of lawbreakers. In addition to that, I’m Democratic candidate for Assemblyman from Yonkers and hope to become a lawmaker. It’s really a peculiar situation.”

That said, Law claimed to be “astonished” at how coachable the players were. And talk about tough! One team member had lost three fingers in a shop accident, but the coach hoped to have him available by midseason. “Three fingers don’t mean much to a good player,” he said. “I knew a lad who played with Southern California who had no hand at all, only a stump, but what damage he did was plenty.”

Sing Sing’s games were nothing like the inmates vs. guards bloodfest in the first (and presumably second) “Longest Yard.” In fact, they were probably as cleanly contested as any in the country. The prisoners knew they had to be on their best behavior; otherwise, teams wouldn’t want to play them. (Visiting clubs, meanwhile, minded their manners lest they incur the wrath of 2,000 convicts.)

In many respects, they were just like any other football games — except for the 20-foot walls and guards with machine guns. Indeed, the New York Evening Journal observed, “Almost the only differences between this and a major intercollegiate game were a marked absence of slugging on the field and drunkenness in the stands.”

Visitors were frisked as they entered the prison and had to pass through several security checkpoints before reaching the field. (Their exit was almost as painstaking, so worried was Lawes that one of his prisoners would escape.) Once inside, though, fans could buy hot dogs at the inmate-run refreshment stand, laugh at the home team’s zany mascot (a pony painted with black and white prisoner’s stripes to resemble a zebra), root along with the Sing Sing cheerleaders and be entertained by the ever-clever musical selections of the prison band — such as the Bing Crosby song, “Just One More Chance”:

I’ve learned the meaning of repentance.

Now you’re the jury at my trial.

I know that I should serve my sentence.

Still, I’m hoping all the while

You’ll give me …

Just one more chance.

Julius Freedman, the Marv Albert of Sing Sing, did the play-by-play of the games on the prison radio station. His listeners were largely those laid up in the hospital — or awaiting their fate on Death Row. A.J. Liebling, then a young reporter for the New York World-Telegram, offered this approximation of Freedman’s style:

“Here comes Jim Egan, a great fellow. He replaces Moe Bernstein. No, wait a minute, he replaces Winkie Winkle. No, friends, sorry, I’ve got it wrong; he replaces — well, anyway, he is a great fellow.”

Sing Sing’s games received surprisingly thorough coverage in the newspapers, at least in the beginning, before the novelty wore off. Sportswriters tended to type their stories with tongues planted in cheeks. The Times correspondent pointed out that the prisoners seemed particularly inspired in the opening quarter of one contest because “the prison gate lay in the direction of the goal they won on the [coin] toss.” Another dispatch, in a not-so-veiled reference to Sing Sing’s Hot Seat, began, “The Big House eleven electrified its cheering section of 2,300 inmates by … defeating the visitors, the Poughkeepsie All-Stars, 18 to 6.”

Yet another recounted a strange scene just before the kickoff: A “gray-clad convict” was standing before the inmate grandstand with a megaphone, calling out a series of numbers. What on earth was he doing, an opposing player wondered, announcing the team’s signals to the entire prison? “No,” the player was informed, “he’s calling out the numbers of men who have visitors out in the waiting room.”

Headline writers had their fun, too, coming up with gems like “Sing Sing Chisels Righteous Path to 20 to 0 Victory” and “Cop Team Fails to Shear Wool of Black Sheep.” Truth be known, though, the Sing Sing club was pretty good. It won many more games than it lost against the likes of the Port Jervis policemen, the Danbury Trojans, the Newark Cyclones and the New Rochelle Bulldogs. (Of course, as the prison’s athletic director noted, the team had more than just the home-field advantage. It also had “a self-sustaining nucleus”; some players never “graduated.”)

One who did, two-sport star Edwin “Alabama” Pitts, played briefly for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and in baseball’s minor leagues. Pitts was Exhibit A for Warden Lawes, the most shining example of what athletics could do for a Lost Soul. When Alabama arrived at the prison, Lawes once recalled, “he had no sense of responsibility and was nothing more than a pugnacious young hoodlum.” By the time he left, he was working as a trusty at the warden’s residence and tending to the prison zoo, “with particular attention to the foxes,” according to the New York Herald Tribune.

At first, baseball wasn’t going to let Pitts, a convicted robber, into its noble ranks. Finally, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, guardian of the game’s honor, relented — but not before there was a lengthy public discussion about crime and forgiveness, about what was and wasn’t owed a convict after he’d paid his debt to society.

That was the thing overlooked amid all the jokes about the “Galloping Cons of Sing Sing.” The prisoners weren’t just battling local athletic clubs or semipro teams, they were battling reactionary forces — such as Cook County (Ill.) Superior Court Judge Marcus Kavanagh — who questioned the propriety of such activities.

“Jails were never meant for pity and learning but for punishment and justice,” Kavanagh said in an op-ed piece for the Times. “All things which encourage mental and moral improvement are proper, but is moral improvement attained when a burglar rolls a college boy around in the mud at a football game?”

Warden Lawes found baseball’s treatment of Pitts lamentable but hardly surprising. “The public now has before it a vivid picture of what a man faces when he leaves prison,” he wrote in the same newspaper. “If an individual is to be denied employment only because he is a former prisoner … what incentive is offered those men to prepare for a law-abiding life?”

The eye-for-an-eye crowd ultimately prevailed over the Sermon on the Mount contingent. In 1936, the state commissioner of correction, Edward P. Mulrooney, issued an order forbidding the charging of admission to prison events. This effectively killed Sing Sing football because the team depended on the dollar it received from each paying customer to buy equipment and cover the travel expenses of visiting clubs. (During the ‘33 season, the Black Sheep reportedly cleared a profit of $4,527.)

Somebody should make a movie about that sometime, the true story of an actual prison football team. Alas, this isn’t how Hollywood thinks. Hollywood thinks: If we just can get Adam Sandler and Chris Rock on board — along with Burt Reynolds in a supporting role — we can make the same silly picture we made in 1974 … and do even bigger box office.

Lawes anticipated as much all those years ago. “I knew,” he said, “that some of our guests [at the games] — gentlemen of the press and others — would find here and there an inspiration for a comic strip.”

And so we have “The Longest Yard,” warmed over.

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