Looking back on the history of SQ baseball

Kent Philpott and Earl Smith played leading roles

By Marcus Henderson

When you talk about San Quentin baseball history, you cannot leave out 75-year-old coach and sponsor of the old San Quentin Pirates, Kent Philpott, who took over the team in 1997.

Philpott played semi-pro ball in Los Angeles and four years in the military in leagues in Solano County with a team of medics he recruited.

Philpott came into San Quentin in 1969, volunteering in the Protestant Chapel teaching Bible scripture to the men in blue until the George Jackson shoot-out in 1972. After 13 years he found his way back in to work with Chaplain Earl Smith in 1985. Due to prison violence and administration changes, the baseball program suffered and eventually died out.

Ten years later Chaplain Smith resurrected the baseball program in 1995, when he saw inmate James “Jimbo” Gardino in the Catholic Chapel sitting with a catcher’s mitt on his work desk.

“Earl asked him if he knew how to use it,” said Philpott. “The rest is history.”

This would be the third awakening for the SQ Pirates, he added. Chaplain Smith recruited Philpott and Dan Jones to help with the program because of their baseball backgrounds.

Chaplain Smith was able to breathe life back into the program, but two years later he stepped down due to medical reasons.

Philpott and Jones took over the Pirates and continue to build the program.

“Dan and I were together with the team for four years, and then Dan had a medical situation,” said Philpott. “I was doing it alone, but we had great help.”

That great help was inmate players Leonard Neal, Mike Nyg, Jason Gottlieb, and Jimbo.

“It was so many great guys, we had terrific seasons. It was so much fun,” Philpott added.

In 1999, the Pirates became the SQ Giants. He managed the team for three more seasons. Then Chaplain Smith decided he wanted to control the team again.

“I left and reformed the Pirates—with Earl’s support,” Philpott said.

One year later, the Pirates were forced out of existence. Tom Alioto took over the Giants and Philpott started the softball program using the old Pirates uniforms. He coached softball for two years and turned it over to Richard Neuberger, the softball team became the Hardtimers. Philpott went back to coaching the Pirates.

The baseball program increased in popularity and a second team was started—the A’s.

“I still remember the day my wife Katie and I drove over to the Oakland Coliseum and loaded up my pickup with all kinds of A’s stuff.”

Philpott being on a roll of getting things done started the eight-man flag football team, which his son Vernon took over.

Smith moved on to become the chaplain for San Francisco Giants, the Golden State Warriors, and the San Francisco 49ers. “That was incredible but he did it,” said Philpott.

But in 2007, the baseball season was a disaster, he added.

“It was constant conflict between the personnel of the two teams, miserable really, and it became apparent that a major change was needed. The first important step had been too severe the baseball program from the chapel.”

Philpott said, a meeting was held and it was agreed he would run the program.

He spoke with Alioto to pool the teams’ talent and form one team in order to be a skilled and competitive team and avoid the hostility that existed between the two teams.

“I presented a Giants team of six outfielders, eight infielders, three catchers, and eight pitchers,” he said. “Any other inmates who wanted to play could be directed to the softball program or an intramural baseball program would be created.”

Alioto agreed to the proposal said Philpott, but was telling people the teams were still separated. After the stress, threats from prisoners, and other interesting stuff, Philpott found himself kicked out of the prison.

“I am innocent,” said Philpott. “But my motto is it’s for the love of the game, I got that line from the film staring Kevin Costner but it suits me as well.”

He is beginning his tenth year as baseball coach at a Marin County High School, this year, Novato High.

But SQ baseball still holds a special place for him. Philpott found himself back in SQ in 2016 to witness the final game of the now SQ All-Stars baseball team.

“I have been told not enough guys are coming out for baseball, but if that changes, and a new team is needed, well, I still have the old Pirates uniforms plus the Skull and Cross-Bones flag we used to fly.”

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