He was a convicted armed robber at 21, he was a Philadelphia Eagle at 26 and he was dead at 31.
This is the story of Alabama Pitts.
His real name was Edwin Collins Pitts, but everybody called him Alabama. He was born in 1909 in Opelika, Alabama, and was only 15 when he joined the Navy. After serving three years, he wound up in New York.
He got married in 1928 and had a son, but the marriage quickly ended and Pitts fell on hard times. In 1929, he was arrested after an armed robbery at a grocery store and sentenced to 8 to 16 years at the notorious Sing Sing , the maximum security prison in Ossining, New York, along the banks of the Hudson River north of Manhattan.
It was at Sing Sing that Pitts first showed remarkable athletic ability. He starred on the prison’s football, baseball and basketball teams, and because many of the games were open to the public he gained quite a reputation as an athletic marvel.
“He’ll tackle a truck if he thought he could stop it,” said Sing Sing’s coach, John Law, who had captained Notre Dame’s football team in 1929.
Here’s what Jack Miley of the New York Daily News wrote after watching Pitts play in prison: “A bluejacket who served a hitch in China waters, this 24-year-old former stickup man is the triple-threat back who has made the Black Sheep football eleven famous in penal circles.”
John Lardner – son of legendary sports writer Ring Lardner – wrote about Pitts in a syndicated story that appeared in several papers on Nov. 8, 1934: “The professional football clubs would do well to start pricing him now. He’s as good a back as you’ll find in most colleges.”
Pitts was a model prisoner and became a favorite of warden Lewis Lawes, who contacted several professional baseball and football teams before Pitts was released, urging them to sign him.
On June 4, 1935, after 5 years, 2 months of incarceration, Pitts was discharged from Sing Sing.
“I’m going to prove that I can hold a place in the world again,” Pitts told reporters as he stood outside the prison, according to a UPI story. “I’m going out of here a good citizen. I was young and foolish when I came here. Of course I was guilty, but being in here has changed my point of view about things.”
The Albany Senators of the International League signed Pitts the day he was freed, and although league officials quickly banned him, commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis quickly overturned the ruling, and Pitts’ pro baseball career began in upstate New York.
In September of 1935, after the baseball season ended, the Eagles – only in their third year of existence - signed Pitts to a contract worth $1,500 for four games and three exhibitions, with the blessing of the New York State parole board.
Pitts immediately accompanied the team to a scrimmage, which the Eagles won 33-0 over West Chester Teachers’ College at St. Martin’s Field at Chestnut Hill Academy. That field, located at St. Martins Lane and Willow Grove Avenue, is where the Eagles held training camp in 1935 and is now the site of Chestnut Hill Academy's track.
“The former Sing Sing prison athlete played purely a defensive but entirely satisfactory part in the National Leaguers’ 33-0 victory over the Teachers’ College eleven,” according to a story in the Pottsville Republican and Herald newspaper on Sept. 11, 1935.
After watching Pitts in that scrimmage, Bell told the Camden Courier Post: “Pitts has shown us more ability than many of the big-reputation college stars we have had in camp.”
Pitts made his regular-season debut on Sept. 21 when the Eagles lost 33-0 to the Lions before 10,000 fans at University of Detroit Stadium.
According to a story in the Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe, Pitts got into the game with two minutes left: “He was on the receiving end of a forward pass which he fumbled after making the catch.”
Pitts also played in a 17-6 Eagles win on Oct. 9 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Forbes Field. Four days later, in a 39-0 loss to the Bears at the Baker Bowl, Pitts enjoyed the best day of his NFL career.
“The only consolation for Quaker City fans was the excellent playing of Alabama Pitts, the ex-Sing Sing prison star,” read an AP story. “Pitts entered the game in the final period in response to demands from the stands, and almost immediately brought cheers from the crowd of 20,000 by stopping Gene Ronzani, Chicago substitute halfback, to avert what seemed to be a certain score. After the Bears punted, Pitts caught a pass from (Ed) Storm for the Eagles’ biggest gain of the battle, a 20-yard advance.”
It was his third NFL game, but the NFL career many expected 85 years ago never happened.
He never played another game, and his career ended with two catches for 21 yards.
Eagles owner Bert Bell, who later became NFL commissioner, explained in an AP story on Oct. 14: “Pitts has been aggressive and has played as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen. He tries all the time and should make a top-flight football player. But he lacks experience and needs another year or so of football. If the salary question is decided, he’ll get the experience with us. If not, it won’t be because we didn’t want him to play.”
The Eagles offered Pitts $50 per game to remain with the team, but he declined, and on Oct. 17 the Eagles released him.
He organized a barnstorming basketball team, played briefly for a semi-pro football team and then returned to minor-league baseball, playing for a number of teams - including a team in Trenton in 1936 - before giving up professional sports after the 1940 season.
He re-married, had another child and settled down in Valdese, North Carolina, where he worked in a hosiery mill and played semi-pro baseball.
It was in Valdese, on June 7, 1941 – almost six years to the day that he was released from Sing Sing - that he attempted to dance with a man's girlfriend at a roadhouse bar, got into a fight and was stabbed to death.
“Newland LaFevers, young Morganton man, is being sought as wielder of the knife in a dance hall dispute which occurred at 3 o’clock this morning when Pitts sought to dance with Miss Mildred Deal of Valdese whom LaFevers brought to the tavern,” read a story in the June 8, 1941, Charlotte Observer.
LaFevers was arrested the next day.
On June 10, more than 5,000 friends, family and former teammates attended Pitts’ funeral at the Friendship United Methodist Church cemetery in Fallston, 50 miles west of Charlotte.
LaFevers was released soon after when a judge ruled he had acted in self-defense.
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