Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Swordfish on Spring Street

We called our first Biograph Theatre softball team the Swordfish, after a joke in a Marx Brothers movie. The lucky Swordfish won 15 games of the 17 we played in 1976. (We never had another season with such success.) Both of the Swordfish losses that summer came in unusual situations. The first was the championship game of one of the two tournaments we entered. The second was played inside the walls of the old state penitentiary.

Located at Belvidere and Spring Streets, the fortress prison loomed over the rocky falls of the James River for nearly 200 years. As it happened, the guy in charge of recreation at the pen frequented J.W. Rayle (located at Pine and Cary). During a conversation there he asked if my team would consider taking on the prison’s softball team on a Saturday afternoon.

Sure, why not? As it turned out, the first date set up was canceled, due to something about a small riot.


Nonetheless, a couple of weeks later the Swordfish entered the Big House. To get into the prison yard we had to go through a process, which included a cursory search. We had been told to bring nothing in our pockets.

As we worked our way through the ancient passageways, sets of bars were unlocked and then locked behind us. Each of us got a stamp on our hands that could only be seen under a special light. Someone asked what would happen if the ink got wiped off, inadvertently, during the game. He was told that was not a good idea.


The umpire for the games — Rayle played the prison team first, then the Biograph -- was Dennis “Dr. Death” Johnson, a rather high-profile Fan District character, at the time, who played on yet another team. Among other things, Johnson did some professional wrestling, so he was good as hamming up the umpire's role.

The fence in left field was the same high brick wall that ran along Belvidere Street. It was only about 230 to 240 feet from home plate. Yet, because of its height, maybe 30 feet, a lot of hard-hit balls caromed off of it. What would have been a routine fly ball on most fields was a home run there. It was a red brick version of Boston’s Green Monster.

The prison team, known as the Raiders, was quite good at launching softballs over that towering brick wall. They seemed to have an unlimited budget for softballs, too. Under the supervision of watchful guards, about a hundred other prisoners seated in stands cheered for the home team. Actually, they cheered the loudest for good plays in the field and sliding collisions on the base paths.

During a conversation with a couple of my teammates behind the backstop, I referred to the home team as “the prisoners.” Our opponents’ coach, who was within earshot, immediately stepped toward me. Like his teammates, he was wearing a typical softball uniform of that era with “Raiders” printed across the chest in a script and a number on the back.We wore Biograph T-shirts.

“Call us the Raiders,” he advised, sternly, as he pointed to an awkward-looking mural on the prison wall that said, “Home of the Raiders.” It looked like a jailhouse tattoo, blown up large. It was obvious, I had made a faux pas.

“While we are on this ballfield, we’re not the Prisoners,” he said with conviction. “We’re the Raiders.”

“Raiders,” I said. “Right.”

“And, all our games," he deadpanned, "are home games.”

We all laughed, grateful the tension had been broken. The Raiders coach patted me on the back and thanked us for agreeing to play them.

In a tight, high-scoring affair the Raiders prevailed. Johnson knew how to play to the crowd with his calls, too. Afterward, I was glad the Swordfish had met the Raiders. And, I was glad to leave them, too.

Located smack dab in the middle of Richmond that ancient prison was a perpetual nightmare in our midst. I bet most of the guys from the Biograph's first team, in 1976, still remember more details about their meeting with the Raiders than any of the other games we played that season.

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