SI Vault
Malcolm Braly
August 10, 1970
For a man doing time on the yard, sports offer a touch of normality and tangible contact with his life outside. In short, the con who plays inside stays inside—at least until the end of his sentence
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August 10, 1970

Prison Games And Other Escapes

For a man doing time on the yard, sports offer a touch of normality and tangible contact with his life outside. In short, the con who plays inside stays inside—at least until the end of his sentence

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Our first game was also the last. The loggers and millhands showed up two hours late and already well oiled. They had prepared for the game in a bar, and they had invited along some girls who happened to be at the plank. They also loaded up with extra beer, which they left in the cars for use when they were at bat. The girls served as mascots on their bench. Some of us had not seen a girl or smelled the odor of real beer in years.

The camp guards viewed this with abject dismay. They considered the combination of beer, girls and convicts the same as gasoline and matches in a dry forest. They fully expected us to rise up like starving animals and riot. None of us was likely to freak out over beer—we made and drank our own in secret—but the girls were something else. None of them would raise anxieties among average go-go girls, but in our famished appreciation they were sex queens. To a man we stared, each of us hoping feverishly to make a grandstand play and create a moment of personal excitement. In addition, we looked splendid—all marvelously equipped in new shoes, shirts and caps, with 20 new balls and a forest of bats—while the loggers took the field in T shirts and jeans. One of the loggers looked our gear over and remarked that he may have made a mistake when he decided to work for a living. The oldest man on our team was 30; the loggers fielded a 70-year-old Indian, and he was one of their stars. Also, they were drunk and getting drunker.

It was a rout. It got so bad we put in Wally to pitch so they could get some hits, but Wally misunderstood and succeeded only in walking five men.

To show what sports they were, the loggers smuggled us a few cans of beer, enough for a swallow or two apiece, and the ladies' men among us managed to strike up conversations with the girls.

When the loggers and the girls left, the guards called us together and said: "That crap just came to a screeching halt." It heralded the end of our extracurricular season. The spring and summer stretched ahead, but we still had the league games on the radio and TV, and in the evenings we sometimes played work-up. The golfers were smug.

When I look back on those years, there is one figure who still stands out larger than life—Rusty Calder.

Rusty was a boxer with such a marvelous combination of power and grace that he was a joy to watch. The beauty of his ringwork made you realize that all dancing is only an extension of this primal art. Rusty had been a promising club fighter with an unbroken string of knockouts, but before he could be brought along he was arrested and convicted for robbery. He claimed the boxing establishment had held him back because he wouldn't sign himself over to them, but he also suffered severely from asthma, and maybe like so many of us he had some critical short circuit in his mind.

No sport is larger in the prison's unconscious than boxing. It is the primitive encounter, slightly stylized, in a setting where violence is always imminent, and a man who's tough with his hands is feared and respected even if he's a mindless bully. Rusty was no bully. He was mild and wryly humorous, but then he could afford to be.

He was great for our morale because he made a practice of Kayoing the professional fighters who came to box exhibitions. They came expecting a light workout, and Rusty savaged them like a tiger at a goat. But then his asthma grew so serious he could no longer fight. In time he was paroled and then a few months later we heard he had been shot and killed in a supermarket robbery. Prisoners are not noted for sentimentality, but Rusty Calder had stood for something in our common mind, and years after his death you would hear his name and someone would be trying to convey the quality of his style. He was our Bix Beiderbecke—young, brilliant and doomed—and, for a while, at least, he had helped us all escape.

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