It's hard not to groan at the subtitle of Los Angeles journalist Eric Stone's book The Wrong Side of the Wall: The Life of Blackie Schwamb, the Greatest Prison Baseball Player of All Time (Lyons Press, 310 pages, $21.95). Greatest prison baseball player? Is there no limit to baseball writers' appetite for minutiae? What next--Isidor Lipschitz: King of the Borscht Belt Summer League?
But given that our nation has watched a parade of ballplayers from Darryl Strawberry to Ken Caminiti march to the beat of their own self-destruction, it's useful to remember that there's nothing terribly modern about the spectacle of an athlete throwing it all away. Schwamb was a gifted righthander who pitched only a dozen games for the St. Louis Browns before being jailed for the brutal murder of a Long Beach, Calif., doctor in 1949. He was also a legman for the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. Stone, whose uncle played in a semipro league against Schwamb, hoped to discover "how someone [like Schwamb] with so much right in his life could go so utterly wrong."
Stone found the answer not in the rough-and-tumble world of the 1940s minor league circuit, which he vividly evokes, nor in the even rougher, more sordid world of organized crime in L.A. Rather, he discovered it in a broken-down old man he encountered living in a metal-slab-sided house in Lancaster, Calif. For four days Schwamb told Stone colorful yarns about his tragic, booze-soaked life. But on the fifth day, when Stone confronted Schwamb about the night he beat Dr. Donald Buge to death with his fists, Schwamb replied with a flood of tears. Then, collecting himself, he told Stone to "get the hell out of here before I [mess] you up." Clearly Blackie Schwamb was doomed to destruction for a simple reason: He couldn't find the courage to look at his reflection in the mirror.