Roy Counts: Crime, Punishment & Outsider Baseball

 

ROY COUNTS walked off his early Sunday dinner with a leisurely stroll. The temperature was still hovering around 90, so he wasn’t in a rush to get back to his one-window room at his boarding house. Instead, the second baseman of the Phoenix Senators sauntered at an easy pace, replaying the highlights of his team’s drubbing of the rival Tucson Cowboys that afternoon. It was the final game of a three-game weekend series. Phoenix dropped the first game 6-4, but Counts had gone 2 for 5. On Saturday, Tucson won again, 3-1, and he’d gone hitless in four tries. But today was wildly different.

The game began with Phoenix’s starter Tony Frietas disposing of the first three Tucson batters one-two-three in the top of the first. When it was Phoenix’s turn to bat in the bottom of the first, the real action began.

Senators leadoff hitter Yam Ornelas was walked by Tucson starter Joe Maciel. He then walked the next batter, Henry Doll. Kirby Spranger laid down a bunt, but Maciel fielded it cleanly and nipped Ornelas at third. Cleanup batter Tiny Leonard hit a low liner at third baseman Dick Tallamante, which eluded his glove and ricocheted off his toe. The shortstop eventually corralled it, but by that time Doll had raced around from second to score easily. Visibly rattled, Maciel drilled Larmond Cox to load the bases. Now came the good part, Roy Counts thought to himself. With the bases full, it was his turn to bat.

Counts recalled walking to the plate, surveying the field and then digging in as Maciel began his windup. As the ball spun into his zone, Counts began his swing, adjusting (admittedly a little too much) at the last moment, and then hearing the sweet crack and hiss of the leather hitting wood. He recalled watching the ball careen down the third base line, automatically setting everyone in motion.

Spranger raced towards home; Cox sped towards third; Leonard narrowly avoided colliding with Tucson’s second baseman as he sprinted from first. By now, the third baseman had the ball under control and pivoted to catch Spranger at the plate. Everyone’s eyes were on Tallamante’s throw and were still watching it as it sailed above the catcher’s head and into the stands. The ump gave everyone an extra base which brought Cox home with another run to make it 3-0.

Counts stood on second base and watched as hell broke loose. Tucson’s manager and right fielder, George Foster, called time and came charging in, a dense cloud of invectives trailing behind as he made a beeline for the home plate umpire. For ten minutes Foster screamed, begged, and threatened, trying to get the call reversed. He brought up an agreed upon ground rule, which he claimed the ump violated. Then he made it be known that the game was being played under protest. Finally, the ump had enough and tossed Foster out of the game. Maciel got out of the inning, but the fight had gone out of the Cowboy’s. When the game ended a little over an hour later, the score was 11-zip.

As he crossed the street, Roy Counts tried doing the math to update his batting average, factoring in that day’s game. Besides his first inning hit, which wouldn’t matter since it was ruled an error on the third baseman, he had gone 1 for 4. Yesterday, he was batting .286 with 15 hits in 63 at bats. With the day’s hit and four more at bats, his average was now –

Laster Alfred Fisher” a voice commanded behind him.

Roy Counts swung around. Two men with ill-fitting off the rack suits and fedoras pulled low stood on the sidewalk. Both had revolvers waist high, pointed in his direction. Everything, including what his updated batting average stood at, quickly receded into the background.

Laster Alfred Fisher, alias Roy Counts, hands up. You are under arrest on a fugitive warrant.

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Roy Counts, aka Laster Alfred Fisher, was born on October 8, 1901, in Vine Prairie, a rural section of Mulberry, Arkansas. He was the only child of Alf and Effie Fisher. Their boy’s odd first name came from Ellie’s maiden name, Lasater. The Fisher’s were farmers who worked land they rented from a larger estate. Laster seems to have been a restless sort, and World War I gave him the perfect excuse to leave home. Despite being just 16, Laster served for 11 months, being discharged a few days after the war ended in November, 1918.

The seventeen year-old returned to Mulberry and married Sidney Shearer, also seventeen, in May 1919. That same year the teen couple moved onto a farm adjacent to Laster’s parents and had their first son, Jack. But it seems Laster was not ready to settle down to the life of a father and farmer.

In February of 1920, Laster and a pal named Sterling Blythe stole Alf’s Ford automobile and drove it 140 miles northwest to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There they tried to sell the car to J.F. Hayes for $400. Unfortunately for the two teen car thieves, J.F. Hayes happened to be Detective Hayes of the Tulsa Police Department. Hayes rightly smelled something fishy with a couple of teenagers trying to hawk a perfectly good Ford. Using his detective skills, Hayes found that the car was registered to A.C. Fisher of Arkansas. When contacted, Alf told Hayes to hold the car and boys until he got to Tulsa. Newspapers didn’t report the consequences except no charges were filed.

SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN farming, grand theft auto and fatherhood, Laster had made a name for himself as a ballplayer. It’s not reported exactly how, but in the spring of 1922, Laster went to spring training with the Salina Millers of the Class C South-Western League. At the time, Salina was a feeder club for the higher Class A Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. The Salina Daily Union mentioned him as, “Lester Fisher, a shortstop formerly with the Denver team of the Western League.” However, there had not been a Denver team in the Western League since 1917, so this was likely Laster getting a little creative on his resume.

From all accounts, Laster was a good shortstop, frequently singled out in game accounts for his fine fielding. Then, in early June, Laster left the team, citing an emergency visit to Arkansas, where his father was ill. After the threat of suspension, Laster triumphantly reappeared in Salina on July 8 and pounded out a double and triple to help the Millers beat the Sapulpa Yanks 12-4.

Laster finished the season with a .269 average, but it was his fielding that appeared to be his biggest asset. The parent Minneapolis Millers thought so, and he was selected to join the big club the next spring.

But once again, Laster’s demons reared their mischievous heads. Before returning home to his family in Mulberry, Laster passed a bad check for $10.50 to local restaurant owner Peter Fisho. This was likely written to settle a tab he’d run up during the summer. Fisho reported the rubber check to the cops and authorities in Mulberry were notified. In the meantime, Laster disappeared, leaving his father Alf to deal with the fallout. On October 27, Alf accompanied a Mulberry marshal to Salinas where he settled Laster’s bad check.

Either the Minneapolis front office didn’t hear of Laster’s post-season legal trouble, or they didn’t care, because he was with the team for spring training the following year. After a look-over with the Millers, Laster was sent to the Clarksdale Cubs of the Class D Cotton States League. The league fell apart at the end of June and no statistics seem to have survived. Laster must have done well because he was recalled by Minneapolis in late June and immediately inserted in the lineup. The Millers teamed Laster up with young second baseman Hughie Critz as part of a youth movement to shake up the team. Again, it was Laster’s fielding that drew accolades, with the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing, “Laster Fisher in 35 chances has booted only one for a .971 average.” On August 1 he made sports pages for having but one fielding change in a nine-inning game against Toledo – quite an unusual occurrence for a shortstop.

As the summer wore on, Laster’s fielding began to suffer, and his tally of errors grew to the point where the Minneapolis Star wrote that Fisher was, “not of the double A caliber yet.” Still, he finished the year hitting .273 average with 10 doubles, 2 triples and 3 homers. Not bad at all for a player in his second season of pro ball playing in the league just below the majors. While his infield partner Hughie Critz would move up to the Cincinnati Reds the following year and later win a World Series ring with the Giants in 1933, Laster was traded to the Tulsa Oilers of the Class C Western League.

To add to an already bad situation, Laster’s father Alf passed away on February 16, 1924.

LASTER WAS THE FIRST PLAYER to report to the Oilers’ spring training camp in Texas. Once there, he found that he had to compete with another newcomer named Floyd Flippin for the shortstop job. Throughout the spring, Tulsa’s management tried both men at second base but found neither satisfactory. In the end, Flippin got the starter’s job and Laster’s position on the team became precarious at best. He was still with Tulsa when the team broke camp and returned home. In a pre-season exhibition game against the St. Louis Browns, Laster went 1 for 4 against the big leaguers, but so did Flippin.

Regarding the campaign for shortstop, the Tulsa Tribune wrote, “Flippin has hit better to date but Fisher is also a good hitter and is improving with each weak. Flippin appears to be the steadier fielder but Fisher the more agile and the better ground coverer. It is going to be a bitter battle between the pair but the loser may have a possibility to try his hand at an outfield berth.” The pressure must have been intense for both men, but especially so for Laster. He had been just one rung below the majors before being sent down to Tulsa. Though he was still just 22, time was ticking on his career. On top of that, besides his son Jack, Sidney was pregnant with another child. If he didn’t make good with Tulsa, where would he go next?

In another exhibition game a few days later against Laster’s former team, the Minneapolis Millers, Fisher hit a double but made a crucial fielding gaff when he tried to over-strategize a play at short. The miscue wasn’t lost on the Tulsa management or the sportswriters. Still, Laster was the Oilers’ starting shortstop for Opening Day against Denver on April 17.

In the second inning against Denver, Laster hit a double. With one out and the Oilers down 6-5, Tulsa’s skipper called for a hit and run. The next batter lined a ball to center and Laster, running with the pitch, charged around the bases with his head down. Without looking to see where the ball was, Laster rounded third and found the catcher waiting for him with the ball safely in his mitt. Though the game ended with the football score of 18-15, Laster’s bad baserunning in the second inning made him the scapegoat for the Opening Day loss. The next day Laster went 0 for 4 with two errors. He kept himself above water by hitting a homer against Des Moines, but he tapped out of his next game after going hitless in two tries, citing an eye injury. He was back in the lineup on April 22, going 2 for 5 with a double against Lincoln.

Then he disappeared.

According to reports, Laster’s roommate George Blaeholder woke the shortstop up before he headed to the ballpark. Come game time, Laster was still AWOL and Flippin took his place at shortstop. When Blaeholder returned home after the game, he found his wardrobe had disappeared along with his roommate. When it became known amongst the team that Laster had taken off with Blaeholder’s clothes, almost every player reported that the shortstop had borrowed money from them. Then there was a series of outstanding poker debts as well. While the Oilers management played damage control and simply told the press that Fisher was suffering from injuries, Tulsa police discovered that Laster had rented a Maxwell touring car from the Oklahoma Rent-A-Car Company. Paying with a check, Laster told the owner he was headed to Spavinaw Lake for some fishing and would return in 24 hours. Of course, the check bounced and that’s when the cops were brought in, and the search made public.

Cops searched the seventy mile stretch of road north towards Spavinaw Lake but came up empty. The Burns Detective Agency was brought in, but they too struck out. In the meantime, a restraint owner came forward to say he too was owed money by the vanished shortstop. Finally, a month later, Laster Fisher was busted in Greenwood, Mississippi.

A reporter caught up with Laster in his Mississippi jail cell. The fugitive ballplayer explained, “I just got drunk on corn whiskey and I didn’t know what I was doing. I started drinking one evening, rented the car, and don’t remember much that happened after that.” He went on, “The next morning after that I sobered up on the road between Muskogee and Fort Smith. I was afraid to come back then, so I just kept going.”

Just to note, Muskogee is in the exact opposite direction of Spavinaw Lake. In any event, Laster stated that his goal was to head to Clarkdale, Mississippi where he planned on getting a job, amass some cash, and then return to Tulsa and repay his debts. In reality, Laster made it as far as Greenwood before ditching the Maxwell and getting a job with a concrete contractor. That’s when the law caught up with him. Laster finished his interview by declaring he’d never been in trouble or jail before. He was extradited to Tulsa and, a month later, he was slapped with a five year stretch in prison. He was awaiting transfer to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester when his second son, Bobby, was born on June 4.

ONCE HE GOT acclimated to the Oklahoma State Pen, Laster joined the prison baseball team. At this time, prison reform was sweeping the country and many forward-thinking wardens believed that sports, in particular baseball, helped redeem prisoners while keeping them healthy and wholesomely occupied. Colonel W.S. Key, warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, went so far as to allow his varsity baseball team to venture outside the prison walls for “away” games.

The team was not only allowed to barnstorm around the state but, according to a story in the May 12, 1924, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “The game was played outside the prison walls and the players were unguarded. Under the honor system they are even allowed to go unguarded to other cities to play.” It was only a matter of time until one or more prisoners took full advantage of this lax approach.

ON SUNDAY May 10, 1925, the Oklahoma State Convicts traveled to Holdenville for a Sunday ballgame. As usual, security was light, the only chaperones being the warden’s secretary, Howard Campbell, and two guards. The plan was for the team to travel to Holdenville the night before the game where they would be put up in a hotel. After the game, the team was to clean up and change back at the hotel, then meet up later at the railroad station for the early evening train back to prison. Unfortunately, when it was time to board the train, two convicts were missing.

Newspapers later reported that after the ballgame, Laster Fisher and the team’s pitcher, Johnnie Becker, met up with a Holdenville resident named Grove. Turns out Grove had been an employee at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and knew both ballplayers. Grove told the cops that he took Fisher and Becker for a ride in his car before dropping the pair off at their hotel. Grove said that Fisher and Becker told him that the rest of the team had already left for the train station and that, “the two men seized their grips and left hastily, saying they would walk to the station.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they did not go to the station, but instead took off in the opposite direction of the State Pen.

It’s not entirely clear where Laster went next. The next mention of him in print is October of 1926 when his wife Sidney sued him for divorce in absentia, citing, “gross neglect of duty and abandonment.”

SO, WHERE WAS LASTER FISHER? Turns out the fugitive shortstop ran as far as Arizona where he became “Roy Counts” and played baseball in the Copper League. The Copper League was called an “outlaw league” for more reasons than one. For one, the league was unaffiliated with Organized Baseball, the institution that controlled the major and minor leagues. Because they were independent, that meant the league was a haven for blacklisted and banned ballplayers that were not welcome in Organized Baseball. The Copper League welcomed Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, and Chick Gandill, who had been thrown out of baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series along with disgraced first baseman Hal Chase and former New York Giants outfielder Jimmy O’Connell, who had been caught up in a game-fixing scandal in 1924. The league operated from 1925 to 1927 with teams located in frontier mining towns located in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. The ballparks were as rough and tumble as the towns they represented and the fans that came out to watch them.

Under the name of “Roy Counts,” Laster thrived as the shortstop and later second basemen for the Fort Bayard Veterans. Playing behind former White Sox ace Lefty Williams, Counts helped Fort Bayard win the 1926 Copper League Championship. The next season the El Paso Evening News put forth Counts as one of the top contenders for that year’s Copper league MVP Award.

If you were Fisher/Counts, the smart move would have been to lay low under the radar to stay clear from the law. Sure, play ball in the outlaw Copper League, but besides that just remain anonymous. But the competitive ballplayer in Laster couldn’t do that. Heck, he was only in his mid-20s, in the prime of his baseball career. He couldn’t let that go to waste, could he?

Chances are Laster would have continued to play unnoticed in the Copper League except that the loop went bust after the ’27 season. Even then, Laster could maintain his façade by joining the ranks of the semi-pro circuit, catching on with one of the thousands of factory or mining company teams in existence throughout the country. However, it’s not a surprise that when the offer to re-enter the minor leagues came, no matter how big the risk of blowing his cover, Laster couldn’t turn it down. So Laster Fisher, alias Roy Counts, signed to play the 1928 season with the Phoenix Senators.

WHEN LASTER WAS BUSTED on that Phoenix sidewalk in May, it came as no surprise to many. The May 28, 1928, El Paso Evening Post reported that, “Fisher’s teammates knew he was an escaped convict while he played in the Copper League, friends here say.” Laster was extradited back to Oklahoma to serve out the rest of his term.

Once back behind prison walls, Laster claimed he was singled out for punishment by his jailers, including being “forced to wear prison stripes and for about two months before having his status of first class prisoner restored.” That he was the object of retaliation by the staff should have been expected by Laster, especially after he somehow managed to gain an acquittal on the charge or escape. In July of 1930 he filed a writ of habeas corpus asking for his release, claiming he had served his full five-year sentence. That he was “away” for three of them didn’t stop him from filing, but he was turned down, nonetheless.

The State of Oklahoma released Laster Fisher sometime before April 1931. We know that because he made a comeback attempt with the Muskogee Chiefs of the Western Association. Playing under his real name again, he fared well in spring training but failed to make the final cut.

Records show that despite the 1926 divorce announcement, Sidney and Laster either reconnected or had remained together throughout his prison sentence and years on the lam. The couple settled back down in Mulberry where they added five more children to their brood. Laster worked as a carpenter, and at some point after 1940, the family relocated to Houston. He was working in that vocation for the Victory Baptist Church when he passed away from a heart attack in July of 1959.

WHEN HE DIED, Laster took with him the answers to two questions that people had been asking since 1925: did anyone help him escape and what happened to the other convict, pitcher Johnnie Becker?

Click HERE to read THE REST OF THE STORY 

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This week’s story is Number 39 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.

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