Original publish date: April 8, 2021
Despite John Dillinger’s meteoric rise to infamy and spectacular headline grabbing death, his Indianapolis boyhood was unexceptional. He attended public schools for eight years in the Circle City and was a typical student. His teachers recalled that he liked working with his hands, was good with all things mechanical and liked reading better than math. He liked hunting, fishing, playing marbles, the Chicago Cubs and playing baseball. He was energetic and got along well with others (although he often bullied younger children), was cocky and quick witted. Dillinger quit school at age 16, not due to any trouble, but because he was bored and wanted to make money on his own.
During World War I, Dillinger tried to get a job at Link Belt in the city but was rejected because he was too young. Instead, he took a job as an apprentice machinist at James P. Burcham’s Reliance Specialty Company on the southwest side of Indianapolis and worked nights and weekends as an errand boy for the Indianapolis Board of Trade. All the while, Dillinger played second base on the company baseball team. One slot on Dillinger’s resume included a four day stint with the Indianapolis Power & Light Company drawing the hefty sum of 30 cents an hour. Just long enough for the “ringer” to help the IPL team win a league title.
In his spare time, Dillinger hung out at the local pool hall where he drank and smoked with the older men and cavorted with the local prostitutes. One of the regulars later recalled, “John would come in, hang up his hat and play pool at a quarter a game. He wasn’t very good, and he frequently lost. When he would lose two dollars, he’d put back the cue, get his cap, and walk out without a word. Never gave anyone any trouble and never said much.”
John Dillinger, Sr.
In 1920, his father, John Dillinger Sr., believing that the city was corrupting his son, sold his eastside Indianapolis Maywood grocery store property and moved his family to Mooresville. For the next 3 years, young Dillinger split his time between Moorseville, Martinsville and Indianapolis, traveling by interurban or motorcycle nearly every day. The athletic Dillinger quickly caught on with the semipro Mooresville Athletic Club’s “Athletics” baseball team. His reputation on the local sandlots and his quick speed earned him the nickname “The Jackrabbit”.
The 5-foot-7, 150 pound middle infielder batted leadoff and led the Athletics in hitting, for which the team’s sponsor, the Old Hickory Furniture Company, gave him a $25 reward on their way to the 1924 league championship. His game was so tight that other local teams began to pay him to play ball for them and throughout that summer the cash poured in.
Dillinger’s younger sister Frances, who passed away in 2015, insisted that her brother was good enough to draw Major League scouts to tiny Martinsville just to watch him play. Flush with confidence and blinded by the glare of an obviously bright future, Dillinger married Beryl Ethel Hovious in Mooresville on April 12, 1924. The couple moved into his father’s farm house but within a few weeks of the wedding, the groom was arrested for stealing 41 Buff Orpington chickens from Omer A. Zook’s farm on the Millersville Road.
Though his father was able to work out a deal to keep the case out of court, it further strained his relationship between them. Dillinger and Beryl moved out of their cramped bedroom and into Beryl’s parents’ home in Martinsville. There Dillinger got a job in an upholstery shop. All the while, Dillinger continued to play baseball. In between calling balls and strikes during AC Athletics games, umpire Ed Singleton (a web-fingered local drunk and pool shark 11-years his senior) was in the young shortstop’s ear. Singleton said he knew an old man, Frank Morgan, who carried loads of cash in his pockets around the streets of Mooresville.
Beryl Hovius and John Dillinger
On September 24, 1924, the young and impressionable Dillinger accompanied Singleton on what turned out to be a botched stick-up. After ambushing Morgan with a heavy iron bolt wrapped in a cotton handkerchief and knocking him unconscious, Dillinger fled the scene, thinking he had killed his victim. Turns out the bolt was not heavy enough to render an unconscious blow so Dillinger pistol whipped the old man in the face. The gun went off, firing harmlessly into the ground, unbeknownst to the young hoodlum. The robbery netted just $50 ($750 in today’s money).
Upon hearing the gunshot, Singleton panicked and drove away with the getaway car, stranding Dillinger, who ducked into a pool hall a few blocks away. Dillinger was arrested the next day at his father’s farm and held in the county jail in Martinsville. His father visited him there and told “Junior”, “Johnnie if you did this thing, the only way is to own up to it. They’ll go easy on you and you’ll get a new start.” Dillinger, who did not have a lawyer, pled guilty and received a 10-year prison sentence. His accomplice Ed Singleton hired a lawyer and received just 5 years. John Dillinger had launched himself into the big leagues of professional crime. But again, baseball would play a pivotal role in the young outlaw’s life.
While incarcerated at the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Prison officials recognized his superior ball playing skills and quickly recruited him for the prison ball club. On July 22, 1959, the 25th anniversary of Dillinger’s death, the Indianapolis News ran an article on Dillinger the ballplayer by “Outdoor Columnist” Tubby Toms. “His play was marvelous, both in the field and at bat… He might have been a Major League shortstop the caliber of a Pee Wee Reese or a Phil Rizzuto.” Tubby further mentioned an interaction between Governor Harry G. Leslie and Dillinger. Leslie, who has been detailed in a couple of my past columns, was a legendary athlete at Purdue University. Leslie always made it a point to stop and linger on visits to watch the prison ballplayers in action.
Tubby, who was the News Statehouse reporter at the time, recalls a 1932 visit to the prison with Governor Leslie when both men watched the reformatory’s baseball team take on a local semipro club. The two men couldn’t take their eyes off the shortstop whom fellow inmates were calling “jackrabbit”. Governor Leslie strongly believed in the rehabilitative power of organized competition and took a keen interest in inmates who applied themselves and excelled. So it wasn’t unusual that Dillinger captured his attention.
Governor Harry Leslie
Later that day, as fate would have it, Governor Leslie presided over Dillinger’s parole hearing. After Dillinger was once again denied parole, the dejected outlaw asked a question of the board. “I wonder if it would be possible to transfer me to the State Prison up at Michigan City? They’ve got a REAL ball team up there.” The Governor then said, “Gentlemen, I saw this lad 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 may play an important part in his reformation.” His request was granted and to this day, his official records state that he was sent to the big house “so he can play baseball.” It was at Michigan City where John Dillinger, under the tutelage of more seasoned cons, learned how to be a bank robber.
On May 22, 1933, Governor Paul McNutt released Dillinger from State Prison. Within a month, he held up the manager of a thread factory in Monticello, Illinois. A month after that, he held up a drugstore in Irvington. From there, he graduated to robbing banks. Dillinger followed his beloved Cubbies for the rest of his short life. Legend states that he even attended a few games at Wrigley Field while perched atop J. Edgar Hoover’s most wanted list. In fact, while playing toss in the outfield before a game in August of 1933, the bank robber was pointed out to outfielder Babe Herman as he sat with a group in the left field box seats. Cubs Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett often recalled how Chicago police routinely knew that Dillinger was in the crowd of Cubby faithful at Wrigley Field but never turned him into the G-men. Cubs all-star Woody English was once stopped on his way to the ballpark because he drove the same model of car as the outlaw did.
In a letter to his niece Mary, with whom he used to play catch, Dillinger said he was going to try and 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 hot stove season was a busy one for Dillinger. He busted out of two jails and on June 22, 1934, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI officially dubbed him Public Enemy No. 1. Dillinger responded by hiding out in plain sight in the city of big shoulders. He went to movies, partied at night clubs, toured the Chicago World’s Fair (more than once), and took in several Cubs games.
After a near fatal, botched plastic surgery in May of 1934, Dillinger dyed his hair, grew a mustache, and sported dark sunglasses to attend games at Wrigley to test out his new look out. One of Dillinger’s known hideouts in Chicago was an apartment at 901 W. Addison St., just two blocks east of Wrigley Field. On June 8th, Dillinger watched as his Cubs witness from the season before, Babe Herman, hit a 2-run homer in a loss to Cincinnati 4-3. In a story that made newspapers nation-wide, Dillinger watched from the upper deck as again Babe Herman drove in a pair of runs during a June 26th game as the Cubs defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-2.
Mailman Robert Volk, who was in the garage in Crown Point on March 3, 1934 when Dillinger broke out of jail, instantly recognized the arch-criminal and the robber recognized him too. The outlaw got up and sat down next to the terrified man. After sitting in chilled silence for a while, Volk shakily said “this is getting to be a habit”, to which America’s most wanted bank robber replied “it certainly is.” Dillinger smiled and shook the mailman’s hand, introduced himself as “Jimmy Lawrence”, and left during the 7th inning stretch.
Despite this close call, Dillinger returned to Wrigley again on July 8th to watch the Pirates get pounded by his Cubbies 12-3 (for the sake of continuity, Babe Herman went 1 for 5 in this one). After the blowout, the Cubs left on an extended road trip. They were still on the road against the Phillies on July 22 when Dillinger decided to catch a movie at the Biograph Theatre. The White Sox were in town that afternoon playing a double-header against the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers ‘moidered” the north-siders in both contests. Had Dillinger been a White Sox fan he might have avoided his date with destiny and lived to die another day. He might have been in the bleachers to catch Babe Ruth’s 16th homer that day. Instead he caught a hail of bullets in a damp Chicago alleyway. According to the Cook County coroner, the jackrabbit was only three pounds above his old playing weight.