As a writer, certain topics tend to spark my imagination more than others. But when I sit down and attempt to spin a tale, I find myself drawn to two American classics: Baseball and crime, both of which we so often romanticized. Many great and ancient trees have been chopped down and pulped so that people of my ilk could write fantastic novels about such things. As an avid movie fan, I am just as comfortable watching The Sandlot, Major League, Eight Men Out or A League of Their Own as I am watching The Godfather (Undoubtedly, my all-time favorite), Scarface and Goodfellas. However, it’s not often these two genres get the opportunity to mix naturally, but for a period of time way back in 1934, one of baseball’s most famous ballparks frequently played host to one of America’s most infamous outlaws.
Imagine sitting in the stands at Wrigley Field in the summer of 1934. It’s Chicago, and the days are as beautiful as they are long. A perfect day for catching a game at the always gorgeous and beloved Wrigley. You look to your left and see the normal group of fans. They’re dressed in their best suits and ties, loving every second despite the usual heat. Happily they jump from their seats, applauding with a thunderous exuberance as the Cubs take the field. Then you look to your right and the sight before you turns your face pale as your heart pounds harder and harder. The man J. Edgar Hoover and every other law enforcement officer is relentlessly hunting, John Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One, is in attendance that very day.
Bank robber, escaped convict, murderer and national celebrity. Dillinger was supposed to be in hiding in 1934, but the crime king of Chicago and huge Cubs fan could not resist attending games when he was probably better off shielding his face from the police and the ever-growing F.B.I. He was famously spotted at a game on June 26th and witnessed the Cubbies beat the Brooklyn Dodgers by a score of 5 to 2. The Cubs had a good team in 1934, and were in the thick of the pennant race but unfortunately finished third in the National League with a record of 86-65. It’s likely Dillinger saw stars like Babe Herman, Charlie Grimm, Chuck Klein and Stan Hack that day at the ballpark.
It’s safe to say that there were few in the stadium who would turn him in. Dillinger robbed banks, after all, and in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the history of the United States, the Great Depression, banks were far from popular. The public not only hated the banking industry, but applauded Dillinger’s war on them. He only took the money and made every effort to avoid civilian casualties. He probably felt as safe in Wrigley as in his own living room. Perhaps even safer given the constant prying eyes at his own residences.
It’s a little known fact that America’s most notorious criminal once had aspirations of playing the popular pastime. The Illinois native played ball for an Indiana semi-pro team stationed in the town of Martinsville. It wasn’t long before Dillinger had cemented himself as the team’s star hitter. But after the 1924 campaign came to an end, the then 21-year-old Dillinger was strapped for cash and willing to do anything to get it.
Desperate, he robbed a local grocery store with the help of his cousin and former minor league umpire Edgar Singleton. In an effort to get away, Dillinger beat a store employee but it did little to help. He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was here that Dillinger again starred on the baseball diamond, only this time it was for the prison team. The veteran inmates taught him the finer points of life as a criminal. He never looked back. A career as a bank robber and national icon had begun.
But in June and July of 1934, Dillinger repeatedly brushed off the fear of capture so that he could watch his beloved Chicago Cubs. The friendly confines of Wrigley Field was just as friendly to the thieves like Dillinger. But his run would soon come to an end. A team of federal agents led by the famed Melvin Purvis shot and killed Dillinger at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. His days of running as well as his legendary bank heists had finally come to an abrupt end.
For whatever reason we, as Americans, have a habit of romanticizing outlaws. From Jesse James and Billy the Kid to Al Capone and John Dillinger. I can’t speak for what made such vicious criminals so beloved after (and in some cases like Dillinger’s before) their deaths. Maybe they saw Dillinger’s attacks on banks as someone doing what they only wished they could do but never had the courage. Maybe they saw past the violence and saw the man who, at one point, had the potential to be a talented and charismatic ballplayer. I don’t know.
Whatever the case, Dillinger’s love for the Great American Pastime is probably the one thing most of the country shared with him. An American outlaw? Yes. Public Enemy Number One? Yes, the very first to be dubbed as such. Diehard fan of the Cubs? Absolutely. For one summer in 1934, Wrigley Field was the home away from home for one of history’s most legendary outlaws.