Alcatraz and the notorious prison’s sports history

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As I wrote in Saturday’s editions of The Times, there will be a one-on-one basketball tournament on Alcatraz Island Saturday night, featuring 64 players from the U.S. and abroad playing for $10,000.

The island is known for its retired prison, which, as my colleague John M. Glionna wrote in this excellent Column One from 2007, was once the ‘dreaded last stop for 1,576 luckless hard-timers ... many of whom officials feared couldn’t be confined anywhere else.’

That includes, as Glionna noted, notorious bank robber and gangster Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker; kidnapper Alvin ‘Creepy Karpis’ Karpavicz, a former Public Enemy No. 1; famed murderer Robert Stroud, ‘the Birdman of Alcatraz’; Chicago mobster Alphonse ‘Scarface’ Capone and gangster George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.


The idea that a basketball tournament takes place in the prison’s old recreation yard, where some of the above mentioned hoodlums and others with rotten rap sheets once roamed, makes the tournament all that more interesting.

Although last year’s Red Bull King of the Rock tournament was the first sporting event held on the 22-acre penal island since the prison closed in 1963, sport, and basketball specifically, isn’t new to Alcatraz.

The popular sport for most of the prison’s history was softball, which was played on a small, dirt diamond on the north end of the yard, facing the Golden Gate Bridge, with six-man teams: a pitcher, catcher, three basemen and an outfielder. Home runs over the wall were automatic outs.

‘Softball angered some of the older inmates because they would play cards along the sides of the wall and sometimes a ball would bang up against the guys,’ said Frank Heaney, 84, a guard at Alcatraz from 1948 to 1951.

Also played in that yard was handball, with two-man teams, on the south end of the yard. If the inmates weren’t playing that, they played chess or dominoes. At a later point, they played shuffleboard too.

Inmates were allowed in the yard –- built in 1915, paved in 1934 –- on weekends, and more than 100 filled it at a time. The environment was mostly civil. ‘You had to be. It would’ve been a bloodbath otherwise,” said Robert Luke, 84, formerly inmate No. 1118az, who served time there from 1954 to 1959 after he attempted to escape from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he was imprisoned after being convicted of bank robbery with an automatic weapon.

But the inmates kept things civil in the yard for other reasons too.

‘The inmates got very angry at the other inmates if they got into a fight because they’d clear the yard and that would be the end of it for everybody,’ Heaney said.

Heaney said when inmates were in the yard, four to five unarmed guards were in it too, while two other guards patrolled the catwalk on top of the walls with each carrying a .30-caliber semiautomatic rifle as well as a .38-caliber revolver.

‘We got those weapons from the army surplus,’ he said.

Early prison code banned inmates from interacting with the outside world, but once a year, they played the World Series over the loudspeakers in the yard.

“That was the only time I was there when they were allowed to listen to any kind of radio program,” Heaney said

Restrictions loosened in time, and at one point, the San Francisco Chronicle delivered about 30 daily copies of the sports section to the cell block, said George DeVincenzi, 85, a guard there from 1950 to 1957.

Then in the 1950s a radio system was installed for inmates to listen on headsets in their cells. That coincided with the rise of the University of San Francisco basketball team, with two future Hall of Famers in center Bill Russell and and guard K.C. Jones, that won NCAA championships in 1955 and ’56.

Fandom at Alcatraz grew quickly as inmates eagerly tuned in to the games after dinner around 6 p.m.

‘They were rooting for them and every now and then when they’d win, they’d scream and holler out at the end of the game,’ DeVincenzi said.

Those inmates got a real thrill when, in 1957, Russell and Jones toured the prison, each wearing a suit and tie. (A black-and-white photo of Russell and Jones at the main gate of Alcatraz can be found on page 64 of Luke’s book, ‘Entombed in Alcatraz.’)

Basketball finally came to the yard in 1960 after an inmate vote, according to George Durgerian, a park ranger for public affairs and special events for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

A court was created, concrete footings (one of which has the date Aug. 10, 1961, engraved) were poured and two free-standing goals were erected. But the game didn’t last long as the prison closed in 1963.

The goals were later torn down during the on-site filming of the 1979 film “Escape from Alcatraz,” which starred Clint Eastwood, because its directors wanted to portray the inmates playing baseball in the yard.

-- Baxter Holmes