The front page of the Feb. 8, 1957 Deseret News, includes coverage of the prison riot at the Utah State Prison where players from Church ball basketball team from Granger, Utah, were counted among the hostages.
Time-traveling back to the weird & wacky 1957 Church ball game halted by a prison riot
Visiting Granger 2nd Ward basketball players were held hostage by Utah State Prison inmates demanding better food and treatment.
By Jason Swensen
17 Jan 2023
If you’re an over-30 Church ball veteran, you can likely tell a few tales about that Latter-day Saint cultural phenomena that spawned the phrase, “The brawl that begins with a prayer.”
But can your own weird or wacky Church ball story match the hardcourt adventures of the 1957 Granger 2nd Ward M-Mens squad?
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, 1957, the Granger 2nd Ward hoopsters played in a contest that actually forced Utah Governor George Clyde and dozens of police officers into action. It snagged national headlines and was even covered by the iconic Life Magazine.
The Church ball basketball game began, typically, with a jump ball. Nothing else that night could be called typical.
For starters, the Granger 2nd Ward wasn’t playing at the local stake center or even against another ward. Their venue that night was an indoor basketball court at the Utah State Prison. Their opponents: a squad of inmates.
Several members of the Granger (Utah) 2nd Ward Ward M-Men’s basketball team describe the Feb. 6, 1957, riot at the Utah State Prison following their release. The hoops hostages were treated well and fed ice cream and candy. (Life Magazine photo)
The Church ballers were leading their incarcerated rivals 49-37 when a prisoner halted the game, shouting: “This joint’s been taken over by the convicts!”, the Feb. 18, 1957 Life Magazine article reported.
The inmates took the Granger 2nd Ward players hostage “and for 12 riotous hours, with weapons wrested from guards, roamed through the cell blocks, smashing windows and drinking the dispensary’s rubbing alcohol.”
Violence, drinking, goofballs and happy pills
It is tempting to guess the Church-ball-game-turned-prison-riot was triggered by shoddy refereeing. In fact, the prisoners’ demands were fairly routine: Better food (“No more cold potatoes!”). A new parole board. And a hobby shop.
The 500 inmates launched their 12-hour prison riot at approximately 6 p.m., grabbed 29 hostages and “wrought damage from one end of the institution to another,” the Deseret News reported.
Mayhem defined the night, as colorfully described by one inmate: “Once the riot got going it got out of hand. The guys started drinking alcohol and taking ‘goof balls’ and ‘happy pills.’ Some of them got high and tore the place up.”
Anarchy ensued. A corrections officer was reportedly stabbed when he attempted to prevent the inmates from taking over the prison. He would recover from his injuries.
And what of the Granger 2nd Ward basketball bunch?
“The inmates later bragged that they treated the hostages extremely well — giving them food, television, and chess for entertainment,” according to the Deseret News. “When released, the 29 hostages verified the prisoners' claims.”
Riot captured on live television
The Great Church ball/Utah Prison Melee of 1957 happened at a time when live television news coverage was taking its maiden steps.
In 2019, veteran ABC4 Utah reporter Craig Wirth would dig up decades-old live TV coverage of the riot — filing a “This-actually-happened” story about the oddest 12 hours in Latter-day Saint Church ball lore.
Once order was restored, Gov. Clyde immediately formed a bi-partisan committee to investigate conditions at the Utah State Prison, discuss inmate grievances and review over criminal evidence following what was called “the worst riot in the institution’s history.”
Utah Gov. George D. Clyde, in hat, is flanked by convict leaders Ted Keener, left, and Billy Randall, in dark glasses, as he announces that at Feb 6-7, 1957, riot at the Utah State Prison is over. Several Church ball basketball players from Granger, Utah, were taken hostage during the uprising. (Life Magazine photo)
The Granger 2nd Ward hoopsters returned to their homes with stories to tell — and bragging rights. The Church ball team was winning when the game was interrupted by a prison riot.
There was no rematch.