WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL
Blackie Schwamb wouldn't talk to me unless I showed up with a carton of unfiltered Pall Malls and at least a quart of Kessler. I threw in a case of Lucky Lager for good measure. "I was a celebrity because in those days both San Quentin and Folsom had baseball. It was headlines. I was the first major league ballplayer to ever be convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. So when I got there, nothin' was too good [for me]."
I stopped for the supplies at a liquor store just off the Avenue L exit in Lancaster, in the high scrub desert at the northeast corner of Los Angeles County. It was a hellishly hot clear August day. Santa Ana winds, unseasonably early, were kicking up dust and pushing the smog out to sea.
I was a freelance journalist on the prowl for a good story and I was nervous about the meeting. I'd first heard about Blackie Schwamb because my uncle Fred had recurring nightmares that featured him.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s, my father's younger brother had been a hotshot pitcher at a very young age. Baseball was everything to both him and my father. Then his world caved in. He injured his arm. The last game he ever pitched was against the scary, tempermental, flamethrowing Schwamb. He heard later that Blackie had been a gangster, as well as a major league ballplayer, spent a lot of time in nightclubs and seedy bars, had killed a doctor and gone on to become the greatest prison baseball player of all time.
Like my parents and uncle, I also grew up in Los Angeles. My father talked baseball, constantly. The Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A. when I was five. It was as if the skies had opened up, the clouds had parted and sunny Southern California shone like never before. I had started tossing a ball around and fantasizing about being a baseball player from around the age of four.
At the same time my mother would load my sister and I into the car and we'd go for drives. The history of the city fascinated her and she'd take us around town, pointing out the sites, telling tales.
I was raised by both my parents on stories of the sprawling city that came into its own after the Second World War. The stories I liked best were of baseball and crime and the ebb and flow of life in the city's neighborhoods. I became a voracious reader and my books of choice often as not fell into one of three categories: baseball, crime and history. I didn't know much about his life before I met him, but I had a hunch that Blackie Schwamb's story embodied all of that.
It was 1985 by the time I drove out to Lancaster to talk with the jailbird pitcher; 39 years since my uncle had pitched his last game, 25 years since Blackie had got out of prison and tried to make a comeback. It had been surprisingly easy to find him.
A baseball encyclopedia gave me his full name. A friend who worked in the California Department of Motor Vehicles forwarded a letter from me to the address of the only Ralph Richard Schwamb with a California drivers license. He'd written back with a phone number on a piece of paper that looked like it had been torn off the bottom of a government form: "Yes, you have the right Ralph Schwamb. Give me a call. I'm home all day, disabled."
His voice on the phone was so deep and gravelly that I could barely understand it. He got mad when I asked him to repeat the directions to where he lived but calmed down quick enough when I assured him I'd bring what he wanted.
He lived with a woman and her daughter in a dull green, metal slab-sided house that looked like a doublewide trailer that had been permanently affixed to a dry brush and dirt lot. One small tree fought a losing battle to survive by the mailbox. A big-engined mid-1960s Dodge in so-so shape crouched out front. Drying laundry scooped up blowing dirt at the side.
A whip thin tall man, whittled and darkened by the sun came onto the front step to watch me get out of my car. "You bring the Kessler and smokes?"
I held up the liquor store bag.
"Good, then come on in. You can call me Mr. Schwamb." His lips turned up in something halfway between a sneer and a smile when he said that. He emitted a slow rolling basso profundo chortle, turned and went inside.
A lanky six foot five, ropy strong, a face etched by years of hard work and anger, a shock of still black hair falling over his forehead into his left eye; he looked intimidating. His arms were covered in long blurred jailhouse tattoos. Age, and whatever his disability was, hadn't hunched him over so much as pushed his upper torso aggressively forward.
He'd killed a man and pitched baseball in both the major leagues and two of the toughest prisons in the country. He was 26 years older than me and obviously in bad shape, shuffling in pain when he walked. But he looked like someone whose hard life had made him strong and who could still be dangerous. I was wary, but intrigued.
I followed him inside and got shoved at by a hurricane blast of warm air from a gunmetal gray industrial sized fan in a corner. A television was blaring, competing with the roar of the blades. There was a small window with the curtain drawn. The only light was from the TV and the bright sun filtered through the dirty screen on the door. A young woman, a girl really but prematurely developed in the way that teenage girls are constructed in Jim Thompson novels, lounged on a sofa in short, tight cutoff jeans and a very small t-shirt.
I was relieved that she was there, that I wasn't going to be alone with him.
Schwamb took the bag from me and set the case of beer on the coffee table next to the reclining girl. "Make yourself useful. Put this in the icebox and bring me a cold one." She snorted, but stretched herself off the couch and squeezed with the box of beer past the fan into another room.
Then I saw another side of him and I relaxed a little more.
His whole posture softened and he smiled as he watched her walk out of the room. The scary guy I'd just met disappeared for a moment while a proud and loving father took his place. "That's my daughter, Denise. She looks like trouble but she's a good kid. A helluva lot better than I was at that age." Schwamb motioned for me to sit on the sofa.
Denise came back with a cold beer for him, nothing for me. She coiled back up at the opposite end of the couch to continue watching her soap opera.
"Ah fuck it, let's go outside." Schwamb turned and headed back out the door with his beer. I followed with my tape recorder.
He didn't remember my uncle, or the game they'd played against each other. He must've pitched a thousand or more games in his life he figured. He'd been drunk for most of them, even a lot of them in prison, hungover for the rest.
No one had asked for the story of his life for a while, although he'd never been shy about spilling it over a few drinks at a bar. He wondered if there'd be something in it for him, in his talking to me. Maybe a magazine article could lead to a movie or something like that and he'd come into some cash. I didn't encourage that thought. I didn't discourage it either.
I spent a week with him, showing up every morning around ten, leaving not long after the beer and whisky struck him incoherent by the middle of the afternoon. The first day was easy. He was glib and articulate, by turns funny and poignant, sometimes maudlin, always, in an offbeat way, charming. I didn't have to ask any questions, just let him talk. He had me turn off my tape recorder a few times, but it was more when he didn't want to get caught with his emotions running away from him than for any details he wanted off the record.
As I drove away that first day I realized that I liked him, even if I couldn't figure out quite why. The story he told was horrible. He was the jocular, smart-ass hero of a lot of the specific incidents he recounted, but the overall effect was pathetic. He'd squandered a lot more talent and opportunities than most people ever have. He knew it, was honest about it, regretted it, but didn't seem at all remorseful about it. He was a man who seemed strangely comfortable laying in the really crappy bed that he'd made for himself.
Over the next few days I grew to like him even more. It was disconcerting. He told me terrible tales in a straightforward manner, pulling no punches. He'd left a long line of victims behind him, but other than the one man he killed there were few who he had done worse to than he had done to himself.
I also caught glimpses of a man who had finally found some peace. When he talked about the woman he lived with and Denise her daughter, his voice would choke and his eyes would tear. His time with them, he'd say, was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
He was a very strange man. Life had beaten him and tormented him and tortured him and almost always disappointed him and he had been its perversely willing accomplice in doing so. Yet most of the time he seemed almost cheerful recalling even the worst of the things that had happened. He was a masochist, that was certain, but the most oddly optimistic one I'd ever met.
Blackie Schwamb wasn't anybody's idea of an underdog and I knew it. But there was something about him that made me want to root for him as if he were. As I listened to his story and fell under its spell, it was all sort of confusing and fascinating. He had come out of the same world, amid similar circumstances and at the same time as my father and uncle. If anything, he had even greater advantages, greater natural talents than either of them. When he signed a major league baseball contract he became what each of them had most wanted to become and never could. But Blackie's only real success came when he was locked away where it hardly mattered. My father went on to tremendous accomplishments as an entrepreneur. My uncle is one of the world's most successful painters.
I wanted to understand the differences between Blackie Schwamb and my father and uncle. How the same cultural and social experiences could create such thoroughly different people. How someone with so much right in his life, could go so utterly wrong. Besides, just as I had suspected, Blackie's story was all mixed up with baseball, crime and the history of the city I grew up in and love.
On September 12, 1948 he had been the starting pitcher for the major league St. Louis Browns, in front of a crowd of nearly 56,000 screaming fans in a game against the Cleveland Indians and Bob Feller, the greatest pitcher of the decade. A year and a month later he killed a man, and it wasn't by mistake. A year after that major league scouts were bringing ballplayers to San Quentin prison to play against him, to see how they would do. In ten years in prison, against surprisingly tough competition, he compiled an astounding record, by any standards, as a ballplayer.
His story was a real-life noir. It grabbed hold of me and like a fast-paced novel breathlessly raced me through Depression-era and World War Two Los Angeles, into the post-war boom time. It involved gangsters and nightclubs and baseball from Mexico to Canada and mostly behind prison walls. There were girls and guns and gambling and booze and ballgames. There were frozen hula dancers and a burning ballpark. Even though the thread that ran through all of it was Blackie constantly screwing up his own life, it was heady stuff.
In the 1940s Blackie Schwamb could have had it all. He should have had it easy. Smart and charming, alarmingly tall, thin and strong, he also had a vicious fastball and a brutal curve. He was one of the brightest baseball prospects ever, at a time when the game was in its heyday. He came of age in Southern California, ground zero at the beginning of the greatest economic boom in history. He had the opportunity to live large the fantasies of most American men and boys of his time.
But there was something wrong with him, something dark and terrible that festered and grew, nurtured by the very same events and culture that also produced good, hard-working solid citizens. The economic hardships of the Depression stimulated the kindness, generosity and entrepreneurship in some people and at the same time encouraged the greed, cruelty and scheming of others. The horrors of the Second World War brought out the bravery, compassion and camaraderie in some, but gave vent to the cowardice, heartlessness and selfishness of others. The American Dream has always had its nightmare side.
Blackie had spent the early part of the night of October 12, 1949 downing beer and shots at Jimmy's, a dark neighborhood workingman's bar at 81st and Vermont. It had been a hot day, over 90. The temperature had plummeted almost 30 degrees by nine or so that night. Schwamb was out on bail for a robbery and was sticking close to home. He lived nearby, because he never drove drunk, "Never have and never will."
He was pretty well in the bag by the time Ted and Joyce Gardner, some old pals, showed up. Ted was a nattily dressed guy with romantic lead good looks. He was a carpenter when he worked, which wasn't often, but he always seemed to have cash. He flaunted an oversized onyx ring and drove new cars. Joyce was a doll. To look at her you'd just know that the guys must've fallen all over her. She had dark, thick reddish hair, deep slow eyes and full lips. Standing still she'd cock a hip in a way that made you think she was rotating, slowly. Schwamb said she was "built right in all the right places." She worked in a dime store.
The Gardner's had a drunk doctor in tow. They'd picked the guy up at the Colony Club, a burlesque house down on Western in Gardena. He'd been with his wife at the Normandie, a poker palace across the street, told her he was taking a break to cash a check and see a couple of friends and crossed over to catch a show.
"So they came and got me. Told me this doctor had been at Hollywood Park all day and made some money."
Blackie Schwamb and trouble were already well acquainted by then.
For four days his story poured out of him without much prodding. On the last day I decided to push him a little. He'd already told me two different versions of what happened on the night he murdered the doctor. I pestered him into telling me the story again.
The third time was not the charm. It was a little different than the other two. It wasn't any closer to the truth. But whatever was going on in his head while he spoke got to him in a way that it hadn't before. He broke down crying. It was the only time that I saw him feel sorry for himself. I paused the tape recorder, set my attention on my notepad and waited.
After a couple of minutes he collected himself. We were sitting on folding, plastic lawn chairs in his front yard. He stood and loomed over me. I looked up at him and he looked angry, he was clenching his fists. "That's it," he growled. "Get the hell out of here before I fuck you up."
I got the hell out of there and never saw him again.
© Eric Stone
Note: page 222 of the book Wrong Side of the Wall; famous players for the San Francisco SealsI know, I know I know, the correction didn't make it into print in the first printing. Willie Mays and Lefty Grove didn't play for the Seals. Lefty Gomez and Paul Waner, among others, did. Mea culpa.