The Ultimate Die-Hard Cubs Fan

John Dillinger defined the phrase “die-hard fan” before it was even a thing. (via Federal Bureau of Investigation)

I’d like to have enough money to enjoy life; be clear of everything – not worry; take care of my old man, and see a ball game every day. – John Dillinger

Back in the early 1970s, I was watching a movie at a revival house on the North Side of Chicago. The feature was Young Dillinger, a 1965 movie with Nick Adams in the title role. Sitting behind me was an elderly man who periodically punctuated the narrative by mumbling “Mmm-hmm, John Dillinger!”

Dillinger was ambushed and killed on July 22, 1934 at the Biograph Theater, another North Side movie house. The man behind me had been alive when it happened. Clearly, the Dillinger mystique had made an impression on him as a young man.  To the consternation of J. Edgar Hoover, Dillinger was more glamorous than his G-men. Well, why not? Dillinger loved baseball and movies and he hated banks. In 1933-1934, when Dillinger was making headline news, those were mainstream sentiments.

Dillinger didn’t spend much of his brief life (he was 31 when he died) on the North Side of Chicago, but his presence there looms large, amplified by the fact that he was a big Cubs fan.

On June 22, 1903, the Chicago Cubs split a doubleheader (losing 5-4 and winning 10-6) against the Giants at the Polo Grounds. While the Cubs were on their way to a third-place finish, the Giants would finish in second-place. The Pirates won the pennant with a 91-49 record and went on to face the Red Sox in the first modern World Series. More importantly on June 22, John Dillinger was born, not in the Windy City but in Indiana. Fittingly enough, 1903 was the first season the Chicago NL franchise used the nickname Cubs.

Romanticize Indiana as America’s heartland (the state motto has been “The Crossroads of America” since 1937), or scorn it as flyover country; at any rate, John Dillinger was born in Indianapolis on June 22, 1903. His formative years, however, were spent in Mooresville, a small town southwest of Indianapolis.

Like most young men of his day, his sport of choice was baseball. In the case of many young men, yesterday and today, sports provided a way for them to channel their youthful energy and hopefully keep them out of trouble.

Dillinger’s biographers make no mention of his attendance at any Indianapolis Indians games, though the franchise (then part of the American Association) started one year before his birth. Another option during his boyhood was the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the short-lived Federal League, but there is no mention of his being a fan of that team either.

Given Mooresville’s location in central Indiana, Dillinger could have pledged his Major League Baseball allegiance to the Cincinnati Reds or the Chicago White Sox, yet no mention is made of these franchises in Dillinger’s bios. That might be because the Reds were mediocre during Dillinger’s boyhood. In fact, they did not win a pennant till 1919 when they met the infamous White/Black Sox in the World Series. If Dillinger had any interest at all in the White Sox, the 1919 scandal might have ended it.

Arnold Rothstein, another gangster, albeit from New York, is considered to be the fixer in the Black Sox Series.  Rothstein, however, was not a fan of the game. When he attended games at the Polo Grounds, he spent more time arranging bets than watching the games. To him, baseball was like horse racing or boxing, a way to make money, not a sport that was intrinsically interesting.

There is an oft-reproduced photo of Al Capone and his son (a big Gabby Hartnett fan) at a Cubs-White Sox exhibition game. Capone was not a big baseball fan, he was just doing the dutiful father thing. Given his headquarters on the South Side, he should have been a White Sox fan. His most famous “achievement,” the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, crippled Bugs Moran’s North Side gang. According to some sources, however, Capone once considered buying the Cubs via a front man.

Dillinger, however, was not only a big fan of baseball, he favored the Cubs, who must have impressed him as a young boy, as they had won four pennants between 1906 and 1910. While Dillinger was incarcerated, they won more pennants in 1929 and 1932, the year of Babe Ruth’s famed called shot. Indeed, a glance at the Cubs’ roster of 1934, the last year of Dillinger’s life, reveals a slew of names that are familiar to seamheads even today: e.g., Guy Bush, Charlie Root, Lon Warneke, Gabby Hartnett, Dolph Camilli, Phil Cavaretta, Charlie Grimm, Stan Hack, Billy Herman, Billy Jurges, Kiki Cuyler, Babe Herman, Chuck Klein and Riggs Stephenson.

Dillinger was not just a fan, he also played second base and pitcher for a sandlot team in Mooresville and later played shortstop and pitcher for a semipro team in Martinsville, about 25 miles south of Mooresville. He was listed at 5-foot-7¼ and 157 pounds. Given his size, one might have guessed he was fleet of foot. The nickname of “Jackrabbit” followed him when he turned to robbing banks. His signature move was vaulting over the teller’s cage during robberies.

In 1924 Dillinger was good enough to lead the Martinsville team to a league championship. He led the team in hitting and received a $25 award from the Old Hickory Furniture Company (founded in the 19th century and still in business today).

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Dillinger’s old baseball spikes used to be on display at the John Dillinger Historical Wax Museum in Nashville, Ind.  After the museum closed, the contents were moved to the Lake County Visitor Center in Hammond, Ind., but I haven’t been there, so I can’t say whether the spikes are still on display.

Unfortunately, the income he received from semipro ball was not enough for the newlywed Dillinger, and he had no aptitude for conventional employment, at least not in the long term. He had a few minor scrapes as a youth but did not really go off the rails till one William Edgar Singleton, the proverbial bad influence, came into his life.

Ten years older than Dillinger, Singleton was a drunk, a poolroom layabout, an ex-con – and an umpire at local games.  Hence his introduction to Dillinger.

Singleton inspired Dillinger to join him on a botched robbery of a local merchant on Sept. 6, 1924. Both men were arrested; Singleton got off lightly, not so Dillinger, who was sentenced to 10-20 years, though he was a first-time offender. So at age 21 he was sent to the (Pendleton) Indiana State Reformatory, where he played on the institution’s baseball team.

In 1929 he requested a transfer to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The new venue made it more difficult for his family to visit him, but the theory is that he wanted to play ball for the “big league” prison team. His biographers differ as to whether he played for the prison team, but he certainly listened and learned to some “big league” criminals. When time permitted, he scoured the sports section of the Chicago Herald (Cubs’ President Bill Veeck Sr. had once been a columnist) and organized baseball betting pools among the cons.

Now you don’t have to be a bleeding heart to feel a twinge of compassion for John Dillinger during his years behind bars. Undoubtedly, he encountered a number of other cons serving lesser sentences for greater crimes. Again and again he was passed over for parole.  His wife divorced him while he was behind bars. The Roaring ’20s coincided with his youth, yet as soon as he reached the age of majority, he was a ward of the state. When he was finally paroled after more than nine years (in May 1933), the party was over and the Depression was at its lowest ebb.

Dillinger’s prowess as a ballplayer can only be a matter of speculation, but the years he spent in prison would have been prime years for a ballplayer. It would be going way out on a limb to assert that he had what it takes to make it in the major leagues, but given the sprawl of minor league teams across America in the 1920s, a professional contract of some sort might not have been out of the question. Many a professional started out playing for a semi-pro team.

If Dillinger ever had any dreams of turning pro, nine and a half years in the slammer weeded that out of him.  When it came to robbing banks and eluding capture, however, he was a real phenom. In fact, he was named Public Enemy No. 1 about a year after his first bank robbery, so I guess you could say he was the Rookie of the Year and the MVP of the criminal ranks – sort of like Fred Lynn in 1975. That minor infraction that landed Dillinger in the reformatory was just a cup of coffee that did not jeopardize his rookie status.

Dillinger’s 1933-1934 multi-state rampage was in the upper Midwest, and since Chicago was the biggest city in that region, he was a frequent visitor. Usually he was hiding out there after robbing banks in smaller cities. Among the numerous addresses where he laid low was 901 W. Addison St., conveniently located just two blocks east of the Wrigley Field CTA station.

One of the perks of being a bank robber is banker’s hours, in other words, five or six hours a day, which made it possible to rob a bank in the morning and attend a ballgame in the afternoon, if the robber so chose. One suspects that during the baseball season, Dillinger did not plan a robbery without first consulting the Cubs schedule.

In August 1933 Dillinger was spotted during a series of games at Wrigley Field. Supposedly, local cops chose not to inform the feds. FBI power had grown apace during the 1920s and a number of people were concerned, fearing that a federal police force was tantamount to fascism.  Given J. Edgar Hoover’s lengthy tenure (1924-1972), relentless snooping, and voluminous files, such concerns were not unwarranted.

To be sure, federal agents hadn’t won many friends enforcing Prohibition, which was still in effect when the Dillinger sightings occurred. At any rate, the feds must have suspected something, as they repeatedly stopped Cubs pitcher Woody English, who drove the same model car as Dillinger.

Cooperation between local and federal law enforcement was not a given in those days.  St. Paul, Minn., for example, was notorious as a haven for outlaws. As long as a crook kept his nose clean in St. Paul, the local law left him alone.  Perhaps the same was true in Chicago, though no one on the police force would state that for the record. Eventually, the Chicago PD responded to pressure and developed a 40-man special unit “Dillinger Squad.”

In a letter to his niece Mary, with whom he used to play catch, Dillinger expressed a desire to head east to see the Giants play the Senators in the 1933 World Series. Unfortunately, he was arrested on Sept. 22, 11 days before the start of the Fall Classic. He did, however, make money betting on the Giants, who won the series in five games.

The 1933-1934 offseason proved eventful for Dillinger. He crashed out of not one but two jails. On June 22, 1934, the FBI officially named him Public Enemy No. 1. Dillinger responded by hiding in plain sight. He went to movies, night clubs, the Chicago World’s Fair, and several Cubs games.

On Friday, June 8, John Dillinger decided to attend a Cubs-Reds contest. He had recently undergone plastic surgery, dyed his hair, grown a mustache, and donned glasses, so perhaps he wanted to see if he could mingle with the crowd.  Dillinger was recognized by Louis Piquett, an attorney who had not only represented him but harbored him and helped him escape from the Crown Point, Ind. jail three months before. For all practical purposes, Piquett was an unarmed member of Dillinger’s gang (eventually he was disbarred and did time in Leavenworth).

Piquett had spotted Chicago Police Capt. John Stege, who headed up the Dillinger Squad, and warned Dillinger, who decided to leave after a few innings. Dillinger might have seen Babe Herman hit a two-run homer in the first inning.  Perhaps the next day he read about the rest of the game and how the Cubs lost to the Reds by a 4-3 score, Si Johnson over Bill Lee.

Another verified sighting of Dillinger occurred on Tuesday, June 26. On this occasion Dillinger was sitting in the upper deck when he was recognized by a mailman named Robert Volk. Volk had been in the garage in Crown Point, Ind. on March 3, 1934, when Dillinger crashed out. He immediately recognized Dillinger. “This is getting to be a habit,” he said as he sat down close to Dillinger. “It certainly is” replied the outlaw, who left during the seventh inning stretch when the Cubs had a 3-1 lead over the Dodgers. The Cubs eventually won 5-2. Lon Warneke won his 10th game in front of approximately 17,000 fans.

In a subsequent interview, Volk related that he had considered turning Dillinger in but his friend, Kenneth Haniford, convinced him not to. This was probably a wise decision. Given Dillinger’s exalted status as a folk hero, the man who fingered him might have been the most hated man in Wrigley Field history until Steve Bartman came along.

Dillinger was also present at Wrigley on July 8 when the Cubs pounded the Pirates, 12-3. With a reported attendance of 47,138 (capacity was 40,000 in those days), it was probably pretty easy to get lost in the crowd.

On Sunday, July 22, 1934, the Cubs lost to the Phils by a 6-5 score in 12 innings. The Cubs scored two in the top of the 12th on a two-run homer by Gabby Hartnett, but the Phils scored three in the bottom of the 12th off Charlie Root.

As you can tell by the above paragraph, the Cubs were playing at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia that day. Dillinger wasn’t there but perhaps he was listening on the radio to one of those re-creations of away games on WGN. In 1934 such re-creations were the province of Ronald Reagan. The Cubs were on a 19-game road swing, so Reagan would have been a busy man during that stretch.

So Dillinger might have known the final score before he went to the Biograph Theater to see Manhattan Melodrama on the last evening of his life. Considering that silents were the norm when he was incarcerated and talkies had taken over when he got out, one can imagine his fascination with the new normal.

The fact that Dillinger was an outlaw and a movie fan dovetails almost too neatly with his demise. It sounds as though it sprang from the imagination of a pulp fiction writer. The movie itself was a routine gangster tale about two boys who go in different directions as they grow up. William Powell becomes a district attorney; his old buddy, Clark Gable, goes to the electric chair. Today its main claim to fame is its Dillinger connection.

Curiously, the Clark Gable boyhood role was played by a young Mickey Rooney, who would later have the title role in Baby Face Nelson, a 1957 release. Nelson, during part of his criminal career was part of the Dillinger gang in 1934. Named Public Enemy No. 1 after Dillinger’s demise, he too was dead before the year was out – but not before taking out a couple of federal agents, Samuel Cowley and Herman Hollis, the two triggermen who had killed Dillinger.

Dillinger’s death outside a movie theater has passed into Chicago folklore. It likely played a big part in the Historical Landmark status of the Biograph Theater. One can’t help but wonder if the feds would have chosen to take out Dillinger at Wrigley Field had the home schedule made it convenient. The assassination of Public Enemy No. 1 would have been a key event in the Wrigley Field legend. I doubt there would be a statute of Dillinger to accompany the Harry Caray statute today, but there might be a bar or restaurant with a Dillinger theme. Visitors would seek out the spot where Dillinger died, as they do at the Biograph Theater today.

At any rate, July 22, 1934 was a bad day for the Cubs (after a promising start to the season, they ended up finishing third) and a worse day for Dillinger. According to the coroner, however, he was only three pounds above his old playing weight. Perhaps he was still dreaming of a comeback.

Mmm-hmm, John Dillinger.

References and Resources:

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Low Outside Curve
5 years ago

This is fantastic. That’s all I’ve got. Great work, Frank.

5 years ago

Indeed. Great story-telling and lots of research. You sir, are a writer.

Paul G.member
5 years ago

Excellent article.

4 years ago

Absolutely great, loved the whole thing. Well done!

4 years ago

The Dillinger Museum in Hammond, Indiana, is closed. So, no spikes.

4 years ago

Great read.

4 years ago

Great article, very nice background info on JD’s early baseball career. Woody English was an infielder, mainly SS and 2B, not a pitcher. Thanks for an informative article, enjoyed this very much.

4 years ago

Hadn’t seen the Capone baseball photo referred to but it might be the one in this article