Harry G. Leslie couldn't take his eyes off the shortstop.
As governor of Indiana, Leslie had gotten into the habit of taking in some sports on his visits to the state's penitentiaries -- a former star athlete at Purdue, he believed in the rehabilitative power of organized competition, and he took an interest in inmates who applied themselves and excelled. So it wasn't unusual that, during a trip to the Indiana Reformatory on a sunny afternoon in 1932, he decided to stop and watch the reformatory's baseball team take on a local semipro club. And one prisoner in particular kept grabbing his attention.
"His play was marvelous, both in the field and at bat," the Indianapolis Star later recalled. "He might have been a Major League shortstop the caliber of a Pee Wee Reese or a Phil Rizzuto."
After another jaw-dropping putout, the governor had to know -- who was this guy? A nearby guard had his answer: "That's Johnny Dillinger."
Yes, that John Dillinger -- the man whose spree of bank robberies turned him into the most wanted man in America, helped create the FBI and captured our cultural imagination, even (perhaps especially) in death. You might've known that Dillinger loved baseball -- the Indiana native loved the Cubs, even taking in games at Wrigley while actively on the run from the feds -- but he wasn't just a fan of the big leagues. In another life, he could've been a player.
“He was good enough to go pro,” Travis Thompson, the grandson of Dillinger's younger sister Frances, told USA Today. "That's what my grandmother always said."
Frances passed away back in 2015, but she always insisted that her brother was a star -- enough of a star to bring Major League scouts to little Martinsville, Ind., just to watch him play. Where exactly the line is between fact and family legend is blurry after all these years. What we do know is that, after moving to nearby Mooresville as a teenager, Dillinger caught on with the semipro AC Athletics. And he was good: at just 5-foot-7 and around 150 pounds, he earned the nickname "Jackrabbit," batting leadoff, playing a mean shortstop and just generally wreaking havoc all over the diamond. (He even led the Athletics in hitting one year, for which the team's sponsor, the Old Hickory Furniture Company, gave him a $25 reward.)
We also know that baseball helped nudge him toward his life of crime. It introduced him to Ed Singleton, an ex-con who umpired Athletics home games and who, on Sept. 26, 1924, convinced Jackrabbit to help him stick up a local grocery store. It was Dillinger's first robbery, it went extremely poorly, and it eventually earned him 10 to 20 years of jail time.
Which brings us back the Indiana Reformatory. By the time Gov. Leslie stopped by to watch him play, Dillinger had served nearly nine years of his sentence for the grocery store heist -- and just so happened to have a parole hearing later that night. Those nine years hadn't been the smoothest; Dillinger had a habit of pilfering goods from the commissary and bringing them back to his cell, and he knew that his odds of early release weren't great. So he made a different plea: If he couldn't be set free, at least let him transfer to the state prison up in Michigan City, where he said "they've got a real ball team."
Reformatory officials, perhaps remembering the whole pilfering goods thing, were inclined to say no. But Leslie had been moved by Dillinger's skill on the diamond, and so he stood up and lobbied on his behalf: "Gentlemen," he said, "I saw this lad play baseball this afternoon and, let me tell you, he's got Major League stuff in him. What reason can there be for denying him this request? It might play an important part in his reformation."
Being the governor and all, Leslie's argument carried the day -- and it was recorded that Dillinger was transferred "so he can play baseball."
Dillinger was held in Michigan City until being paroled on May 10, 1933, marking nine and a half years of time served. He was only 30 at the time, so who knows, maybe he could've made one last run at being a baseball player. Alas, it wasn't to be: Within a month of his release, he and the soon-to-be-famed Dillinger gang (mostly men he'd met in prison) held up the manager of a thread factory, and the Jackrabbit was off and running.