In June 1959, nearly 2,000 sweat-drenched prisoners squeezed together and packed the uncomfortable wooden Lorton Reformatory baseball field grandstands. In 90 degree weather, Ella Fitzgerald, the 14-time Grammy award winning singer, belted several of her most famous melodies for the captivated audience.
The prison, which closed a decade ago, has since been replaced by the Workhouse Arts Center. Over the years, the prison baseball fields hosted world-renowned entertainers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra. But with time, the three fields are fading - figuratively and literally.
The Lorton Workhouse baseball field was built by prisoners in 1925 and is the oldest of the three reformatory fields. It now sits virtually abandoned and lies in stark contrast to the 60,000 square foot Workhouse Arts Center, opened in 2008, which shares the property.
“We are working to get community support from local landscaping and painting companies, and people who know something about baseball fields,” said Neal McBride, member of the Lorton Heritage Society, which is trying to salvage the field.
Today, three corroded and abandoned watchtowers stand tall along the perimeter of the Workhouse baseball field’s outfield. The once inviting grandstands are a skeleton of their former selves and the wooden benches are splintered and weather-worn. Once well-manicured grass is overrun with weeds and dirt patches and coyotes, snakes and foxes now populate the property.
At its apex, the Workhouse field served as more than just a gathering place for inmates and law enforcement officials to enjoy a game of baseball. Civilian teams participated as well. Area high schools, colleges and amateur baseball teams assembled on the field to test their skills against the accommodating prisoners.
“What was unique is the fact that the teams consisted of a mixture of the prison residents playing alongside, and in opposition, of law enforcement and correctional officer staff, without incident,” said Willie Evans, 63, a Lorton resident and member of the Lorton Heritage Society.
It was not uncommon to see African-American and Caucasian inmates and guards playing on the field as early as the 1940s. They also participated together at picnics, community events and annual concerts held at the field.
“The ballparks happened to be the place for integrated ball play, events and performances, until the 1960s when everything was as segregated as anything,” said McBride.
As the Lorton prison system became increasingly crowded, less of an emphasis was placed on recreational activities like baseball. As a result, baseball games among inmates diminished and the field became neglected until it was completely abandoned when the last bus transported prisoners from the facility in 2001.
Mike Kappel, CEO of Complete Construction Management (contracted by the Lorton Arts Foundation for the Lorton Workhouse project) has done modest cleanup of the field, but much more must be done if the field is to be restored to its former shape. Even in its deficient state, the history of what it once was is visible to those who come in contact with it.
“I’ve worked on multi-million dollar custom homes and technical marine projects,” said Kappel, as he walked near an old dugout. “With this being a historic multi-use project, it’s technically challenging. But it’s without a doubt the coolest project I’ve ever worked on.”
The Workhouse baseball field will remain in a dilapidated state until a private community group or company intercedes and absorbs the costs associated with its restoration. McBride and Evans hope that public awareness about the issues among the community brings willing benefactors.
Until then, only memories remain of the events that provided not only prisoners, but members of the Lorton community with games and world-famous entertainers.
“We are hoping, by publicizing, to get enough support from the private and civic community, or companies who have expertise in landscaping or designing ball fields,” said Mcbride.