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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

He Threw It All Away
Book Review by Tom Goldstein

Eric Stone. Wrong Side of the Wall: The Life of Blackie Schwamb, the Greatest Prison Baseball Player of All Time. Guilford, Conn.: The Lyons Press, 2005, 318 pp., $21.95, cloth.

Wrong Side of the Wall is the true story of a talented young athlete in the days before special ability in sports was a ticket to riches. Faced with a choice of probable success in the revered but grueling world of Major League Baseball or the easy money, fast times, and glamour of organized crime, Ralph "Blackie" Schwamb tried to have it all. But the pull of the underworld was inevitably too strong, and Blackie, a rising star pitcher for the St. Louis Browns at twenty-two, was behind bars for a brutal murder at twenty-three. —from the dust jacket

Ralph "Blackie" Schwamb came from a background of hard-drinking men, and by sixteen he had quit school and was getting drunk and into trouble. After one such incident, Blackie was put in jail for two days, and as a condition of probation was required to join the military on his seventeenth birthday. Schwamb enlisted in the navy, figuring there would be less action at sea, but once he completed basic training and went on active duty, his drinking got him into trouble again. Assigned to a flight squadron at San Diego Naval Air Station, Blackie got drunk, was declared AWOL, and spent twenty days in confinement. A few weeks after his release, he went on another bender and failed to return to base. The next morning, the ship he was assigned to left for the Pacific without Blackie aboard, and he was declared a deserter, ultimately landing him in the brig for another thirty days. This was a pattern he continued to repeat until he found himself facing a general court martial. He was convicted and sentenced to two years at the navy's Terminal Island prison, and if not for the war coming to an end in August 1945, might have served out his term. But the navy wanted to be rid of Blackie as much as he wanted to be out of uniform, so he was sent back to civilian life with a bad conduct discharge and $25. All told, he'd spent more than half of his two years in the navy behind bars. It was not a good omen.

Schwamb had always been drawn to the fast life of gangsters, crime, and broads, and soon after his separation from the military he had graduated from pool halls and petty crime to working as an enforcer for the flamboyant Mickey Cohen, a mob-connected gangster who controlled various rackets around L.A. and moved among the Hollywood elite. At six-foot-five, Blackie was an imposing figure, and if his presence alone didn't persuade those with gambling debts to pay up, he knew how to use his fists.

Blackie was a gifted athlete as well, and occasionally he earned money pitching for a semipro team based in Los Angeles. The club was in some way loosely affiliated with the St. Louis Browns, a perennial American League doormat that during the war years of depleted major league rosters had somehow managed to put together a team that won the pennant in 1944. By 1946, however, the Browns had returned to mediocrity, so they were in search of whatever talent they could land. For a mere $600 signing bonus they got Blackie Schwamb, an unknown kid with a major league fastball.

By then, Blackie had married a sweet gal from Minnesota, but it hadn't changed him any. He was still drinking heavily, chasing women, and hustling for Mickey Cohen. Still, he managed to show up for training camp in the spring of 1947, and was eventually farmed out to Class C Aberdeen of the Northern League. Blackie started off well for the Pheasants, winning five games against no defeats and posting a 1.62 ERA, but he tore ligaments in his ankle and was sidelined for six weeks. Bored, he mostly drank while on the disabled list, and pursued a torrid affair with a local woman. That eventually got him run out of Aberdeen, so the Browns sent him to Globe-Miami in the Arizona-Texas league for the remainder of the 1947 season. Blackie continued his drinking—by his own admission, he was drunk or hungover in every game—but his pitching talent kept the Browns interested. After spending the winter pitching for a team in Mexico, he was back in the big league training camp the next spring, and this time showed enough promise to get assigned to the Triple A Toledo Mud Hens. Blackie was erratic and mostly wild in Toledo, winning just one game against nine defeats, but the Browns, desperate for pitchers and always operating on the cheap, called him up to the big leagues. He was twenty-two years old.

What for some would have been the ultimate dream come true was just another chance for Blackie to drink and womanize. He stayed out all night, pitched drunk, and somehow managed to record a victory for the hapless Browns. Before the end of the season, however, he had been suspended from the team. The following spring the Browns gave him another shot, but he refused to play without a raise of his $5,000 salary, so the big league club cut him loose. Blackie caught on briefly with Little Rock, going 2–0 with the Travelers before he jumped the team and was released. At this point, Blackie returned to Los Angeles, thinking he could catch on with his hometown team, the L.A. Angels of the Pacific Coast League. They even offered him a contract. But Blackie suddenly got cold feet—perhaps terrified of being reunited with his wife (and young child)—and opted instead to join a team in the Canadian Provincial League.

Blackie pitched fairly well in Canada, but his wife got sick and wanted him back in California, so he took a leave from the team at the beginning of August to check in on her. He never returned. Two months later, out on bail for a string of armed robberies he'd committed while drunk, Blackie was arrested for the murder of a local doctor.

In every tragedy there is always the question of why, and author Eric Stone certainly does his best to probe the reasons. Whether such a story is deserving of a book, however, is another matter. Stone, an experienced freelance writer, had learned of Blackie, the infamous murder, and Schwamb's amazing pitching accomplishments at San Quentin and Folsom prisons, while growing up in Los Angeles. "On the prowl" for a good story, he managed to track down an elderly Schwamb for a series of interviews in August of 1986. From that material there was certainly enough to craft a long magazine article, but to produce a book, Stone was required to provide a whole lot of filler. If you're into the history of crime and politics in L.A., you'll be fascinated by the thorough detail that Stone includes on those topics. And he certainly goes to great lengths to learn as much as he can about Blackie from the various court, prison, and parole records that he was able to access. But sometimes an informative book still doesn't captivate. As noted in a review by Publisher's Weekly, "the narrative lacks inventiveness. Aside from providing historical context, Stone merely ticks off events in Schwamb's life; this results in a leaden tour from hangover to hangover, punctuated by blown chances and missed opportunities." There are also no photographs with the text.

In Stone's defense, there probably wasn't all that much of a story to begin with: Blackie Schwamb was an incorrigible drunk, he was often volatile and angry, he acted impulsively, and one day went too far. Like a lot of criminals, Blackie could be charming, engaging, articulate—he even tried his hand at writing. But in the end, his sad, painful life was one dominated by an addiction that he appeared to accept. Stone suggests that in today's world Schwamb might have gotten the help he needed and straightened himself out—at least enough to have had a major league career. Perhaps. But all the rehab in the world didn't cure talents like Steve Howe or Darryl Strawberry. Some people just can't avoid a destructive path in life.

Stone's eight-page introduction to the story is the most fascinating part of the book. It can also be read online at his website, www.ericstone.com. Unless you're one of those readers captivated by personal train wrecks, that might be enough to satisfy your curiosity.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher and editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly. Having grown up a fan of the Washington Senators, he's a sucker for stories of heartbreak and tragedy.

© 2006 Tom Goldstein

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