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.
“You see, where I was we didn’t get out much at night,” Pitts joked. “If any did, it wasn’t to play ball.”
Reporters loved him, and so did Eagles fans - more than 20,000 came for their Sept. 13 opener against Pittsburgh. They chanted, “We want Pitts, we want Pitts,” during the game but left disappointed - Pitts, a halfback and defensive back, did not play.
Pitts finally played in a Sept. 26 exhibition against the Orange Tornadoes. He didn’t distinguish himself as a running back but showed promise as a defensive back.
Pitts made his NFL debut Oct. 9 in Pittsburgh, intercepting two passes in a 17-6 loss. Eagles fans finally got to see him Oct. 13 against the Chicago Bears. Another big crowd - more than 22,000 - came to cheer the prison legend, who caught a 20-yard pass late in a 39-0 loss.
But that was the end of Pitts and the Eagles. His contract was up, and this time Bell was not willing to spend so much money: He offered Pitts $50 a game.
“Pitts has a bright future,” Bell told reporters. “And we appreciate that he tries all the time and eventually should be a top-flight player. But he lacks experience and needs a lot of work.”
Pitts declined the offer, saying he would stick with baseball.
He never became more than a mediocre minor leaguer. He opened the 1936 season with Albany but by April 10 was demoted to the York club in the New York-Pennsylvania League, where he hit just .224.
The team moved to Trenton in July, and Pitts was released by the end of the month. He played 27 games for Winston-Salem in the Piedmont League in 1937 before being let go.
Pitts settled down in Valdese, N.C., where he worked in a mill, married and raised a family.
He played semipro baseball until 1940, when a minor league franchise was started in Hickory to play in the Tar Heel League. Pitts put up respectable numbers, batting .302 with 39 RBI in 64 games. The franchise closed up shop for a season in 1941 when the league disbanded, and Pitts went back to play semipro ball in Valdese.
This is where the legend of Alabama Pitts meets a tragic, Hollywood-style ending.
After playing Valdese on June 6, Pitts went to a dance hall, where he cut in to dance with a woman. The man who had been with the woman stabbed Pitts, who bled to death at Valdese General Hospital.
Newspapers around the country wrote about the remarkable career and death of Alabama Pitts. Fans in Philadelphia who had adopted Pitts as their hero wondered what might have been for this jailhouse legend if fate had dealt him a different hand.