John Dillinger’s Other Career Path: Pro Baseball Player

Good with a Tommy gun, but also really good at shortstop

John Dillinger baseball player
The famous gangster was a decent ballplayer
By Bonnie Stiernberg / August 19, 2019 10:30 am

Long before he wound up buried underneath two tons of concrete — shot dead by the FBI outside a movie theater in Chicago after a legendary crime spree — John Dillinger was a promising young baseball player with the potential to make it to the big leagues, according to his great-nephew.

Travis Thompson, whose grandmother Frances Dillinger Thompson was Dillinger’s younger sister, is having the famous gangster’s body exhumed as part of an upcoming History Channel project on Sept. 16. He recently told USA Today his great-uncle was “good enough to go pro.”

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

That something was, as we all know, a life of crime. But before that, Dillinger — who played shortstop and hit leadoff for the semi-pro AC Athletics — even earned the attention of Indiana Governor Harry Leslie. “Neither the Governor nor I could keep our eyes off the reformatory shortstop,” Indianapolis News reporter Tubby Toms wrote in 1959. “His play was marvelous both in the field and at bat.”

The governor was reportedly so impressed by Dillinger’s skills that he even vouched for him after he requested to be transferred to State Prison to play baseball, telling the parole board, “Gentlemen, 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.”

It didn’t. At State Prison, he finished putting together the Dillinger Gang and upon his release, they committed a series of bank robberies. Dillinger was killed outside of a Chicago movie theatre in 1934 at age 31.

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