Signing ex-cons is not new for the Philadelphia Eagles, who set the sports world on fire last week by giving a contract to convicted dogfighter Michael Vick.
The franchise made the same move nearly 75 years ago with Alabama Pitts - a signing that got the attention of the entire country during the infancy of the National Football League.
Edwin Pitts grew up a tough kid in Opelika, Ala., joining the Navy at 15 after the deaths of his father and stepfather. He got out when he was 19 and landed in New York with no money or prospects amid the Depression.
Pitts and an accomplice, armed with a gun, robbed a grocery store of a reported $76.25. They were caught, and Pitts was sentenced to Sing Sing Prison for a term “not less than eight years and no more than 15 years.”
Pitts found his calling in prison - athletics. The prison ran an active athletics program, and Pitts was a standout in football, basketball, baseball and track. His skills made him a legend on the prison circuit.
Johnny Evers - a member of the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs infield and the general manager of the International League’s Albany Senators - signed Pitts to a $200-a-month contract in May 1935, when he was a month from parole.
Because times were tough for spectator events - pole sitting and other gimmicks were used to get attention - the signing of Pitts was considered a publicity stunt, particularly because the Senators were in last place and not drawing well.
Charles H. Knapp, president of the International League, said the signing was not in “the best interests of the game” and refused to approve the contract. But Pitts by then was a national folk hero. The New York Times wrote that the decision to keep Pitts out of baseball was “unfortunate in every way.”
As with the Vick case, people all over the country debated the issue. A store merchant in Otisville, N.Y., suffered a heart attack in an argument about Pitts. Filmmaker Hal Roach offered him a job. Pitts eventually even appeared on Kate Smith’s radio show.
Pitts had one last hope for his baseball career: an appeal to commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a hard case who seemed unlikely to rule in the convict’s favor. But Landis surprised many by ruling that Pitts could play, on one condition - he must be used only in games that mattered. Landis didn’t want Albany to use Pitt only as a publicity gimmick for exhibition games.
Nearly 8,000 fans watched Pitts make his debut June 23, 1935, against Jersey City. He was an immediate success, going 2-for-5, but he couldn’t stay healthy. A shoulder bruise, a sprained finger and a spike injury that led to blood poisoning all slowed him down.
Pitts wound up batting just .233 in 43 games and was a terrible outfielder. None of that got in the way of his status as a folk hero and media darling.
In Philadelphia, Bert Bell needed a media darling. His Eagles were struggling at the gate, and Bell offered Pitts a short-term contract for a then-remarkable amount of money - $1,500.
Pitts would be worth that in publicity at a time when pro football still was relegated to small newspaper articles and competing with many other sports for attention. That amount also was necessary to outbid the other teams seeking his services, Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.
The Eagles already had been in training camp for three weeks when Pitts arrived in Philadelphia on Sept. 10. Pitts didn’t disappoint reporters, telling them that his weak batting average and fielding problems were in part due to night games, which had just started that season.