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Lorton Prison Baseball's Faded Past

Support needed to revive once active Lorton Workhouse baseball field

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The prison, which closed a decade ago, has since been replaced by the Workhouse Arts Center.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.

Renovation

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.

Garytheprinter August 03, 2011 at 06:39 PM
In the early 1970's many students from Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge would go there on Saturday and play baseball and football when allowed. We would bring cigars for the inmates that we would play. Race was never a question...we just wanted to have fun time.
Katie August 03, 2011 at 08:28 PM
Awesome - what a nice piece of history! Too bad things like this (playing for/with the prisoners) can't be done today. I'm sure the old prison grounds would still be a neat backdrop for community games and events.
EBlack August 04, 2011 at 01:22 PM
Did the author even visit the field? Hayes makes it sound as if no one is doing anything to keep the field up, but that is not true. A local baseball program works the field and uses it, but they desperately need help from the community to improve things and keep the field available for players. It's a wonderful field but it is in danger of being destroyed and replaced by developers for homes.
Elton Hayes August 04, 2011 at 03:31 PM
EBlack- thank you for your comment. However, the Workhouse field is not being used right now. It is in too bad of condition to be used. The reformatory field and the former Nike missile site field are used by local baseball teams, but not the Workhouse field that is talked about in this article. -Elton
Neal McBride August 11, 2011 at 04:55 PM
Elton & EBlack, Although the existing well-maintained ballfield (via the hard volunteer work of its Adopt-A-Field designees, SC Hawks) at the second oldest of the former Lorton Prison Ballparks (located at the old Reformatory, officially dedicated in 1956 as "Hilltop Field") is tentatively scheduled for destruction (via last-year's FCBOS-approved Master Plan for the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Area), you should be aware that both the FC History Commission and the Lorton Heritage Society have gone on record indicating that the presumed private developer, Alexander Company, should make a more concerted effort to reconfigure its future final development plan so that the 90' ball field can in fact be saved.

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