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John Dillinger, notorious American gangster, was once a promising semi-pro baseball player  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

INDIANAPOLIS — The grass above John Dillinger is gone, and the concrete is about to go. It’s a lot of concrete, said to be more than two tons, and over the years as nature took its course and gawkers added to the toll, the ground wore away. The concrete, this macadam of the macabre, began peeking out from underneath his tombstone.

This is something of a sports story, and we’ll get there, but first we have to dig through nearly a century of concrete and rumor, just as the History Channel is hoping to do.

In the coming days, with permission from the family – though the cemetery is fighting it, a battle that has gone to Marion County Superior Court – the History Channel will exhume the body for its documentary on the Depression Era gangster born and raised in Indianapolis.

The concrete has guarded his grave for 85 years. Back then, back in 1934 when Dillinger was the most wanted man alive in America, then took three bullets outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago to become its most morbidly fascinating dead man, he was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery. Concerned that someone would try to dig up the body, Dillinger’s family reportedly had 2½ tons of concrete poured over his coffin.

The History Channel hopes to sift through that, through the grass-worn dirt and concrete and conspiracy theories, and answer the question once and for all: Who is buried in John Dillinger’s grave?

For now we know only this, what they won’t find when they pry open that coffin: The bones of a baseball player.

Which is the whole point.

“He was good enough to go pro,” Travis Thompson is saying. "That's what my grandmother always said."

Thompson is talking about John Dillinger. His grandmother? Dillinger’s baby sister, Frances, whom John named because he once had a crush on a girl named Frances and liked the name.

At least, that’s the family legend, according to Travis Thompson, who is John Dillinger’s great-nephew. And that’s what we’re dealing with here, legends and stories going back nearly 100 years, Dillinger tales that have long simmered near the surface in a country fascinated by outlaws but are bubbling to the top now, thanks to the History Channel’s project.

According to Frances Dillinger Thompson, who died in 2015 in Mooresville at age 92, Johnnie – that’s what they called John Herbert Dillinger Jr. – drew Major League Baseball scouts to Martinsville.

That’s where he played for the semi-pro AC Athletics, earning $75 a month. They called Johnnie Dillinger “the Jackrabbit,” a 5-7, 150-pounder skilled enough to play shortstop, fast enough to bat leadoff, and good enough to earn the $25 prize given to the team’s leading hitter by the Old Hickory Furniture Company. In a few years, Johnnie Dillinger’s baseball ability would catch the eye of the governor of Indiana. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For this story we have to go back to the beginning, and for John Dillinger it began on June 22, 1903, when he was born at 2053 Cooper St. in the Brightwood neighborhood of Indianapolis. A normal kid, by most accounts. Liked to read. Played cops and robbers, and didn’t much care which side he was on. Played hooky from School 38.

Played baseball.

“He was scouted,” Travis Thompson says. “My grandmother always said he was good enough to go pro, but something drew him away.”

Something, yes.

John Dillinger Sr. was a good Christian man, worried for his truant son. Johnnie was 17, playing baseball at Tech when he bothered to go to school at all, when John Sr., a successful grocer, moved the family to Mooresville. Not far away was Martinsville. That’s where Johnnie hooked up with the AC Athletics.

That’s where he met the ex-con. An umpire, that guy.

The aging little shop where it happened, where John Dillinger set the course of his short-lived life, is still there in Mooresville: a grocery store in 1924, a plumbing company now. Inside the building, above Boog, the plumber’s pug who sleeps on the floor during business hours, a sign is mounted on the wall.

Dead or Alive, the sign says.

Above those words is a picture of John Dillinger, debonair and sneering, a mug shot taken shortly before he broke out of Lake County Jail in Crown Point on March 3, 1934.

The sign, a reprint of the original, is the first thing you see when you step inside Morz/Pedigo Plumbing Service at 135 W. High St. in Mooresville. No, they’re not hiding from the history here. Wouldn’t matter if they did. John Dillinger fascinated the country in 1934, and he fascinates people today. Every few months, Morz/Pedigo receptionist Gina Marlor will look out the window and see someone taking a picture.

In 1924, the cinder-block building at 135 W. High St. was a grocery store owned by Frank Morgan. A man named Ed Singleton, a no-account who’d served time at the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton and rented a room in a nearby house, got it in his head to rob the joint. He recruited Dillinger, and gave him an old .25-caliber revolver. Piece of junk, that heater. We’ll get to that.

How did Singleton know Dillinger? Baseball. Up to a point, that point taking place late the night of Sept. 26, 1924, this was a baseball story. Had it stayed a baseball story, close to a dozen men wouldn’t have died violently, and nearly two dozen banks wouldn’t have been robbed. None of that because of Dillinger, anyway.

Singleton was an umpire who worked home games of the Athletics when Dillinger was their best player. They’d hang out at the pool hall, drink beers. At closing time on the night of Sept. 26, 1924, they’re hiding near a church around the corner, waiting on Jefferson Street for Morgan to walk past, carrying the cash box as he tended to do.

Singleton and Dillinger ambush him, but old man Morgan’s one tough bird. He refuses to give up the cash. Singleton takes off while Dillinger gets into a scuffle with Morgan in the Broad Street alley. That old .25 goes off, and Morgan is bleeding as his assailant runs off.

Dillinger served 9½ years for that caper.

Baseball remained part of his life. For a time. 

In those days, a reporter could show up at the local prison and take in a ballgame with the governor of Indiana.

And so it was, in 1929, that Indianapolis News reporter Tubby Toms found himself in the bleachers at Pendleton, sitting next to Gov. Harry Leslie, watching the Indiana Reformatory team play a visiting semi-pro outfit. Gov. Leslie was on the grounds for a parole hearing later that day, but at the moment, he and Toms are transfixed by a middle infielder.

“Neither the Governor nor I could keep our eyes off the reformatory shortstop,” Toms wrote in 1959. “His play was marvelous both in the field and at bat.”

The Governor asks a prison guard for the shortstop’s name.

“Johnnie Dillinger.”

At Pendleton he was no model prisoner, trying several times to escape and once getting caught with a razor blade stashed in his cell. A few hours after he impressed Gov. Leslie on the ballfield, Dillinger met with the parole board and had his request for parole denied. He made another plea.

“I wonder if I could be transferred to the State Prison (at Michigan City),” he said. “They have a real ball team up there.”

The parole board laughed, according to Tubby Toms. But not Gov. Leslie.

“Gentlemen,” he told the parole board, “I saw this gentleman 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.”

Dillinger was transferred to Indiana State Prison – “so he can play baseball,” his file notes – where he served the final four years of his sentence. It was at Michigan City where he put together the final pieces of the so-called Dillinger Gang, and upon his release on May 10, 1933, they unleashed 14 months of larcenous, murderous hell on the Midwest. You know how that story turned out.

What you need to know, for the sake of this story, is what he didn’t do at Michigan City after the Governor of Indiana vouched for his transfer as a potential big-league baseball player.

He didn’t play baseball.

Torn between two passions, John Dillinger had made his decision.

Rain starts to fall on the graves at Crown Hill Cemetery when I see them. They came together, one car, but they’ve split up and are scouring Section 44, reading every tombstone, looking for the magic words. I offer them aloud:

“John Dillinger?”

She nods. Her name is Hedi Dooley, she’s 59, and she drove 1½ hours from Rockville, Ind., to see his tombstone. She and her son, Matt, are walking toward me, and soon the three of us are looking down at Dillinger’s tombstone, which has been decorated by a recent visitor with three empty bullet casings.

“I lived in Indianapolis for years,” Hedi’s telling me, and now she’s raising her chin toward Matt, 31. “He was born here, but we never visited his grave. We figured we better see it before they dig it up.”

We’re standing where all the gawkers stand, on John Dillinger’s grave, which is why grass doesn’t grow here anymore. It’s a patch of dirt in a sea of green, with the concrete peeking around the edges of a modest tombstone embedded in the ground, a small slab of marble that says only:

His is the final tombstone in a row of four Dillinger slabs that read, from right to left: Lizzie Fields Dillinger, 1880-1933 (his step-mom); John Dillinger, 1864-1943 (dad); Mollie Dillinger, 1870-1907 (mom); and John Jr.

You wonder what Sydney Wilson thinks of all this. Probably not much, given that he’s been dead for 112 years. Meningitis got him at age 45. Sydney was the patriarch of the Wilson family, which purchased three plots. Over time, those plots were filled in by Sydney Grant Wilson (1861-1907); his son, Arthur G. Wilson (1894-1979); and Arthur’s wife, Marion L. Wilson (1893-1983).

Next to them: The four Dillinger graves. Nobody thinks much about the Wilsons being buried next to the Dillingers, is my guess, same as nobody probably thinks much about the baseball career John Dillinger left behind to rob banks and shoot lawmen.

But these days, lots of people are thinking about the identity of the bones interred under John Dillinger Jr.’s tombstone, a conspiracy theory fueled in 1970 by Indianapolis native Jay Robert Nash’s book, “Dillinger: Dead or Alive,” and given a bump in 1983 by Nash’s follow-up, “The Dillinger Dossier,” which posits that the FBI didn’t shoot Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater but a Dillinger doppelganger, knowingly claiming victory over the wrong corpse.

What happened to the real Dillinger? Witness protection program, as the story goes. He lived out his years in California.

Or his bones have spent the last eight-plus decades under that dirt, under that concrete, in Section 44 of Crown Hill Cemetery.

The History Channel hopes to get to the bottom of this, once and for all, and figure out if the man entombed in John Dillinger’s grave really is the former shortstop of the Martinsville Athletics, a man nicknamed “The Jackrabbit,” a promising young baseball player with more to offer than murder and mayhem.

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