Sentenced to Death, Reprieved to Play Baseball
Sentenced to Death, Reprieved to Play Baseball
Joe Schuster relays the story of Walla Tonehka, a late-nineteenth-century baseball player and a member of the Choctaw tribe who was sentenced to death. His story was the inspiration of the first feature film about baseball—1909’s His Last Game.
Chicago Tribune, November 6, 1897
In 1897, one of the most widely followed baseball stories in the country centered on an athlete who never played an inning of professional ball, and yet the event that thrust him into the national spotlight was so compelling, years later, it became the basis of the first feature film about a baseball player.
While the precise details of his story are a bit muddy, largely because of what I’ll call the “informal” nature of journalism in that era, the essential facts appear to be these:
At some point at the end of the 1890s—the exact date is unclear—a man many referred to as Walla Tonehka, a member of the Choctaw tribe in the Indian Territory, got into a barroom fight that ended in a death. (Some articles refer to him as Walla Tonka or Walla Tonaka; others as Wah Teh Nish; and others as William Going, the name the U.S. government gave him when it entered him on its rolls.) Some stories say the fight was over a woman, some say it happened because Walla Tonehka was drunk and became rowdy. Whatever the reason, when his uncle, a deputy sheriff, stepped in to break it up, Walla Tonehka killed him.
It was not the killing that brought him to the attention of the country, but what happened afterward.
A jury convicted him and sentenced him to death. However, according to nearly every story about him that appeared in newspapers across the country, Walla Tonehka was a talented ballplayer, a crucial member of an exhibition team whose games drew sizable crowds. One story said he was “the equal of some crack players.” Another far more elaborate story claimed that, before the killing, he had spent two years touring the East Coast in baseball exhibitions “at a handsome salary.”
Whatever his ability on the field, it apparently helped extend his life because, as more than one article put it, the territorial governor was a “rooter of the 33rd degree.” As the stories go, when the governor discovered that the execution was set for a game day, he postponed the execution, allowing Walla Tonehka to participate in the game if he promised to return for his execution. Stories explained that, as a Choctaw, Walla Tonehka would keep his word or risk perpetual humiliation to himself and his family if he ran away.
He became a national figure. Articles about him appeared in newspapers from coast to coast, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Oakland Tribune. The Chicago Tribune devoted nearly a full page to him, including a lengthy sidebar by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who (perhaps without ever meeting him) described him as “a stoic Spartan” who would meet his death “without any reservation” because his word was “absolutely good and beyond impeachment.”
The game played on the day Walla Tonehka was scheduled to die reportedly took place in Kansas City’s Fairmont Park and drew 3,000 spectators. Not surprisingly, accounts give scant details of the actual contest, focusing nearly exclusively on Walla Tonehka and his seeming indifference to the specter of death that hung over him: “Yet the man who [faces] all this caught fly balls, scooped up grounders, kicked a few hot ones, went to bat, ran the bases and kicked at the umpire as if he were entering on a long life instead of just closing a short one.”
After that, appeals began wending through the courts, and Walla Tonehka’s execution kept being pushed back. While he waited, he reportedly accepted an offer from a baseball team to tour the county: “Seeing the opportunity to make some money, he went with them. No guard went along, and the story preceded him everywhere. Naturally Tonka (sic) was a feature and thousands went to see him. His stoicism regarding his impending fate and his enthusiasm playing ball were in the most striking contrast.”
However, every time an execution date occurred, he showed up dutifully, even as he continued to earn delays. Those events, themselves, drew perhaps as many spectators as a game. About one, the New York Times reported that “hundreds of whites and Indians gathered” to witness it and that, when a temporary stay from the governor arrived, Walla Tonehka “received the news with true Indian stoicism . . . merely saying, ‘Maybe me play more ball now.’”
He was eventually executed on July 13, 1899. Some newspaper accounts described his final hours in lengthy, gruesome detail.
Chicago Tribune, July 14,1899
After his death, his story remained, for a short time, something of a popular culture reference. Several sportswriters used it to mock inept play by teams they covered. Later that summer, for example, after the Chicago Orphans (a precursor to the Cubs) dropped a game to the Baltimore Orioles, the Chicago Tribune suggested the Orphans should be subject to the same fate as Walla Tonehka, although it makes errors in rendering his story: “Many times he was reprieved in order that he might go into the game in the eighth inning and bat out a victory, but one day he struck out and the Territorial officers shot him. Had one of the Chicago players been in Walla Tonehka’s dilemma yesterday, the crowd of 3,000 . . . would have turned thumbs down.”
A decade after his death, his story became the basis for the first feature film about a baseball player: 1909’s His Last Game, which takes some liberties with Walla Tonehka’s end. In the film, the protagonist, named William Going, is the star pitcher for a team called the “Choctaws” who are to face a team called “Jim Town” for the championship of an unnamed league. As it opens, two gamblers attempt to bribe Going into throwing the game and, when that doesn’t work, they attack him. Going ends up shooting one of them.
Clearly, the film tries to smooth the rough edges off of the original Walla Tonehka, whom many articles characterized as combative (the Chicago Tribune, perhaps surrendering to stereotypes, said he had a “savage savagery”). In contrast, the film’s protagonist is a man caught up in injustice who killed a man defending his life and honor.
A court sentences Going to death, but after his teammates explain the circumstances, the sheriff reprieves him long enough to pitch in the crucial game and sends a note to a judge, reading, “Deer Judge, If Bill Going wins this game there’s new evidence in his Favor an I demand a reprieve—Signed by 604 of Arizona’s best citizens an Yuba Bill, Sherif.” (I have rendered the note as it appears in the title card in the film.)
The game is unintentionally comic: The players wear uniforms with badly hand-lettered strips of cloth pinned to their jerseys identifying the teams; at points, the labels come unpinned, the cloth flapping in a breeze. As for the action on the field, the limitations of production keep the distance of the mound to the plate or between bases to little more than a few feet.
Going arrives at a crucial moment and faces two batters, both of whom swing at three pitches well wide of the plate, striking out, saving the victory for the Choctaws. Afterward, he returns for his execution, as the film intercuts shots of a rider racing madly with a written reprieve. Just before he gets there, however, the sheriff reluctantly shoots Going, who has been standing on the edge of his grave. He falls backward into it, and the movie fades out on the tragic ending.
It’s not a great film by any stretch, though as the author of Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture argues, it is unusual for its time in that, counter to the general way films then depicted Native Americans, His Last Game gives us a protagonist who is “courageous and noble.” He also points out that the film anticipates the Black Sox scandal of a decade later.
Scenes from His Last Game produced by Carl Leammle and Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America, 1909.
Source: Silentera.com and Fandor.com (public domain)
 “Walla Tonka Came Back to be Shot,” Holbrook (AZ) Argus, November 20, 1897, 6.
 “Tragic Death of Walla Tonka,” Hartford (KY) Herald, August 9, 1899, 1.
 “Plays Ball Until Death,” Washington Times, August 11, 1897, 6.
 Cody, William F., “Walla Tonehka Will Keep His Pledge,” Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1897, 37.
 “An Indian Stoic,” Reading (PA) Times, August 16, 1897, 1.
 Draper, William, “How the Choctaws Keep Their Word,” Wide World Magazine, January 1900, 501.
 Walla Tonka Not Executed,” New York Times, November 7, 1897, 9.
 “Drops to Sixth Position,” Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1899, 4.
 “Walla Tonehka’s Life Will Redeem His Promise,” Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1897, 37.
 Reilly, Edward J., Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).
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