Bennie Daniels, who did five years on the mound for the Washington Senators, is serving a far tougher stretch -- three years in prison for misappropriating $100,000 in public funds.

Daniels' story is far more complicated than that, and more sympathetic to him. Some might call him an articulate combination of ghetto Robin Hood and charming, if sticky-fingered, Fagin.

Few things are harder to find in prison, it is said, than a guilty man. Daniels is rarer: an inmate who says, "I did it. I was wrong. But I'm not ashamed."

At worst, he was a man trusted with authority -- as a training-program coordinator for a Los Angeles hospital -- who was tempted by an open till.

At best, he was an inexperienced welfare bureaucrat who could not resist giving job opportunities to the neediest youngsters, even if it meant breaking rules.

"Bennie Daniels is proof that a real nice guy can steal a whole lot of money," said Elvira Mitchell, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted him.

"People in L.A..... politicians, athletes, poor people he helped.... they praise him like the next messiah.

"Even I respect him. Bennie worked out one of the best swindles I've ever seen. If I could just show you the beauty of the scam... we still don't know where a cent of the money is."

Daniels always had style beyond his modest ability. In a career swamped with defeat (45-76), he saved his best performances for life's few spotlight hours.

Symbolically, his first game (for Pittsburgh) was the last game in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. He started the last game in Griffith Stadium and the first in D.C. (now RFK) Stadium.

On John Kennedy's only Opening Day, Daniels was the complete-game winner. He caught Lyndon Johnson's first pitch one year, then tossed his only near-no-hitter in another LBJ inaugural.

Anyone fascinated by the blend of qualities in this curious man has an easy research project. As the warden says, "Come any day. Bennie isn't going anywhere."

The California Institute for Men lies on ground as flat, gray and drab as any Kansas prairie. Somebody found the one spot in Southern California suitable for a jail.

The long straight road to the prison gate might be the entrance to some dilapidated, gone-to-seed estate, except that the mood of hueless depression comes from antiseptic cleanliness, not decay.

"No inmates beyond this point," says the sign.

Almost anyone passing through the gates of Chino is assumed to be a prisoner, a prisoner's wife or child, or a prisoner's lawyer. In any of those cases, you get no smiles.

"Bennie Daniels?" says the prison guard. "Yeah, he's the guy that don't say nothin'. Big league ball player, huh? Never said so.

"He's been here six months in the same dorm with 'bout a hundred stone nuts. But he's different... keeps away from the low riders. The day after he's gone, it'll be like he was never here."

That's how No. B95778 wants it.

Daniels stays camouflaged, his character and identity under wraps.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound prisoner with the shaved head, ever-present sunglasses, the pulled down wool stocking cap and the Army fatigue jacket could be a mass murderer or a college professor. Mystique plus silence equal safety.

"In one sense, you're probably safer in here than out on the streets," says the 46-year-old Daniels. "That's because the unwritten rules among the prisoners are absolute.

"On the other hand, I've never felt pressure like there is in here It's in the air. You could get killed... I mean killed dead... for picking up the wrong man's pack of cigarettes."

When Daniels smiles and talks the King's English, he is the man that former Senator roommate Chuck Hinton remembers as "the kindest, most helpful, best-liked, most down-to-earth guy on those teams."

But when Daniels glares, that bald dome makes him look exactly like movie villain Baion Samedi who tried to bury James Bond in a coffin full of rattlesnakes.

In a joint where the dorm radio blares, "I got a tombstone head and a graveyard mind... just 22 and I don't mind dyin'," it is a useful range of personas.

Daniels had been inside Chino's fences many times before they were closed behind him. Prisons were part of Daniels job as a counselor with CETA, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act.

"I'd come here to see young guys and tell them about job programs after they were released," says Daniels. "Now I see some of them in here. And some visit me.

"You have to experience prison life to really appreciate everything you had. Even in minumum security, where you're not locked down, except at night, you just feel so wasted. There's nothing to accomplish. Time slows down.

"About all prison's good for is thinking. You lay there in the night and hear everything. All the feelings come out... who hates who.

"Being in jail puts everybody on the same level, and everybody's under that invisible, internal pressure. You hear the braggers, the liars, the ones who are proud of what they did... and you hear a lot about what they're gonna do when they get out, too."

Inevitably, Daniels mind drifts back to the past as he recalls, almost without prodding, the up-and-down progression that led him from the majors to the embarrassment of explaining how he ended up in prison.

"My days with the Senators were my highlight," says Daniels, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates for four seasons. "I've still got all my baseball cards, the photos, the old record books.

"I think I was the first black to pitch an opening day game -- in 1962 for John Kennedy. I beat Detroit, 5-2. You bet I have the game ball. I could probably remember every out.

"But, you know, I lost my next nine games. Every time I turned around, I was pitching against Whitey Ford. And those Washington teams. We didn't lack much -- only an offense and a defense."

Daniels' 15 pro seasons seem one long, hard rise to that opening day triumph, followed by an equally arduous decline through four years of bone-chip elbow misery.

In 1961, his first year in Washington, Daniels proved for one, clean, 212-inning season that he was a bona fide pro -- going 12-11 with the 15th-best ERA in the league (3.44). "That got me in all the year-end lists of the leaders."

Otherwise, the majors were a 33-65 struggle for Daniels. "He was a big, gutty guy, always pitching in pain, getting no support and losing," says Hinton. "He was an inspiration to me, a big brother. He made no bones, no excuses when he lost. Just took his lumps. He refused to knock a hitter down -- too gentle.

"There wasn't a guy in the league that didn't like him. A real athlete. He hit a homer in Yankee Stadium to deep right-center field. He even pinch hit for us, and played the outfield once.

"He looked real good in clothes... never extravagant, just stylish. But once he got those bone chips in a freak auto accident, they just took him down. Nobody ever thought of operating on a pitcher's elbow back then."

Soon, Daniels' hair was falling out from worry. "I was worried about getting my five years in for the pension," says Daniels. Finally, in a clubhouse ceremony in '65, the Senators gave him his first shaved head.

Opening days became Daniels' perverse high point of the season. In 1963 he caught one of the two "first balls" thrown out by Lyndon Johnson.

"Man, he was knockin' people over to get it," laughed Hinton. "He was a nut when it came to souvenirs. I told him, 'Why go to spring training for six weeks, then get spiked fighting for a ball? The Man'll sign a ball for you if you want it that bad.'

"Bennie may be the only guy who has the game ball from every one of his victories, and some in the minors, too."

Victories became harder to get, and the Nats cut his $26,000 salary by the maximum 20 percent every season. Daniels won again on opening day in '65, keeping a no-hitter into the eighth inning. But by the end of the year, the Senators told Daniels that his '66 contract would be assigned to Hawaii in the minors at $9,000 a year.

Daniels was one of that wave of multisport black athletes who signed baseball contracts in the early '50s, following Jackie Robinson's example.

And he was one of that second-black-baseball-generation that found The Game had no job openings when their careers ended in the '60s. The visible pioneers -- Robinson, Monte Irvin -- were looked after. But the rank and file that followed, fighting its way through the quota system, retired into a world of sink-or swim.

Daniels did a bit of anything to "keep the wife and two kids going... gotta eat, man." Department of Motor Vehicles, aircraft tool estimator, insurance salesman. Daniels was at sea, "trying to catch onto something while my game was still warm."

"What could a black man do then without a college degree?" asks Daniels. "I don't mean sweep that broom. I mean start over at a decent job. Man, they take that candy away from you all at once."

Daniels came home to L.A. and got lucky -- the kind of luck that comes from hard work. Two state jobs kept him happy -- one as a baseball instructor traveling the state giving clinics to youth group coaches.

"That was fantastic," says Daniels, "I was a good teacher." He was... until the state funding ran out.

Daniels also worked his way up at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, starting as traffic hazard inspector, then community liaison man, and finally CETA coordinator for the hospital.

That brings us to the edge of felonly and the end of certainty.

"I went to baseball meetings in L.A. three years ago and spent two days with Bennie," says Hinton, now Howard University baseball coach. "I told him, 'Man, don't you know you can go to jail behind some of the things you're doing? Are you aware of the severity of what you're into?'

"But Bennie'd just say, 'Aw, Chas, you don't know anything about it.'"

The Internal Revenue Service, the California district attorney's office and a grand jury were, however, going to learn a great deal about it.

The beauty of Daniels' gimmick was in its outward simplicity, which covered a Gordian knot of motivation, the core of which probably will never be untied.

When Daniels had a CETA trainee move on to another job, Daniels never took his name off his employment rolls.

Daniels then continued to fill out the trainee's time card and forged his signature.

"That is what we charged him with and he pleaded nolo contendere," said Deputy District Attorney Mitchell. "We have handwriting experts to prove it."

Daniels claims that when he had a needy, but unqualified, youngster whom he wanted to give a job, he would pay the youth with the previous trainee's ongoing paychecks.

The prosecutors begged Daniels to give them the names of all those to whom he was benefactor.

"We never got a single name that we could check out," said Mitchell.

"I didn't want to drag other people down with me," Daniels maintains. "I figured I was going to jail anyway. Why mess up the kids too?"

Daniels paints his troubles with a firm but rather vague brush. When larceny and charity are mixed -- as Daniels claims -- it makes for difficult distinctions.

"If you do something that's wrong, like I did, you pay for it. You don't fight the system," says Daniels.

"I've been under pressure for several years. I'd think, 'When are these (police) people going to knock on my door?' It was like an ax over my head... the agony of sitting and waiting... most guys would have jumped the country.

"Anything over $200 is a felony, so once you get started, you couldn't stop.

"I did too much, I know. Records weren't up to date. I saw Alvin Jackson (one time Pirate teammate, now Boston pitching coach) a year ago and told him, 'I won't see you next year. I'll probably be in jail.'

"I brought kids into the program illegally, under false pretenses, but you'd see some of them benefit themselves, and so you'd want to help another."

Is Daniels the inner-city nobleman his lawyer paints him to be?

"That isn't quite right," says Daniels. "I did things that were wrong."

California, after months of investigation, claimed Daniels did a great deal wrong and richly deserved his present three-year, absolutely-no-cut contract at Chino.

"Bennie may be the all-time shucker-and-jiver," said prosecutor Mitchell. "If he hadn't run a good thing into the ground and caught the attention of IRS, we'd never have stopped him."

The IRS tipoff came when the trainees in Daniels' program, the ones who had moved on out of CETA, suddenly noticed they were being taxed for income they hadn't received.

"Daniels' lawyer says he was taking from the rich and giving to the poor," Mitchell noted.

"Well, he was taking a lot from the government, and some from the poor, too -- in the form of taxes on paychecks they never saw.

"We have no proof, no indication whatever, of what Daniels did with the money. If he kept it, he sure did it with style. His outward standard of living (modest) has changed little in 10 years.

"We don't even know how long this has been going on because the statute of limitations prevents us from going back more than three years. Daniels was over $100,000 in just that time.

"Bennie has either helped a lot of kids -- all of whom are keeping quiet now -- or there is an extremely big mason jar buried somewhere in California."

Ironically, those same overtaxed individuals were among those who "had us knee-deep in testimonials saying that Daniels had helped them enormously," Mitchell allowed.

"We did an in-depth study of Mr. Daniels and, frankly, we couldn't figure out what to do with him."

"Most people in this sort of situation are desperate to make restitution, once they're caught. One woman embezzler sold her house to make good. Not Bennie.

"I told him, 'Pay it back or go to jail.'

"What money?" answered Daniels. "I'm just thankful my baseball pension kicked in when I was 45. I decided to start taking it now, because I need it."

California authorities felt intense outside pressure not to jail Daniels. "You wouldn't believe the letters," said Mitchell.

"Don't send him to jail," pleaded Daniels' lawyer, Alex Goldberg. "Let him work with kids."

"Kids?" answered Mitchell, indignantly. "I think they've already got a rough idea of what he can do.

"One of our biggest problems in criminal justice is that kids grow up thinking crooks are clever and cops are dumb for being honest. The "Sting" operations in Washington were among the few exceptions.

"Well, I just said, 'Not this year, folks. Bennie either comes up with the cash or he goes to jail.'

"If he'd gone free, we'd have been the laughingstock of the state. The tragedy of this, even now, is that Daniels is probably a hero in his own community. He's doing his time, beating the system and coming out ahead.'"

There are definitely limits to Daniels' remorse. "There are plenty of people doing this," he said. "I could have been an example. I just happened to get caught. The low man always gets the beef.

"Maybe everything that you've gotten away with in life catches up with you. Anyway, I thought I was right at the time, even though I also knew I was wrong."

Daniels grows tired of all the complexity, the modification of every motive.

"Look I haven't done anything that I'm ashamed of," he says. "Nobody I know is going to hold it against me. Who hasn't been in jail? Half the community where I live has been up here (at Chino) at one time or another. And most of the rest have some skeleton in their closet that could put them here.

"I've done plenty of good, and I haven't done anything that keeps me from looking in the mirror."

As far as Daniels is concerned, the outside world can just forget that pious, elegiac "wasted-life" tone of voice. He's lived on the street too long to see himself as tragic; he just sees himself as caught.

Daniels thinks he can do three years -- only 20 months if he is paroled in April '80 -- standing on his bald head. When he gets out, he is convinced he'll rebound without great difficulty.

His wife of 23 years, Sue, and his two grown children have stood by him, visiting him each weekend. "That's what really keeps your head together." He has a mailing list of friends to correspond with that is longer than his pitching arm. And he recently won the prison tennis tournament.

When sports events come on the west dorm TV, Daniels never says, "I pitched a shutout in that park.

"I don't even let 'em know," Daniels says. "We got a lot of Howard Co.-sells in here. Guys who never played anything, and think they know everything about sports."

The thought of the future does not scare him. "After what my wife and I have been through in the minors, then after I quit baseball, we're used to starting over fresh," he says. "This time won't be the worst.

"I know a lot of guys my age -- John Roseboro, Tommy Davis, Leon Wagner... I won't name names -- who are biting dust these days. The crybaby ball players now are getting all the phenomenal salaries... well, let 'em. I guess my generation proved that just being a ballplayer didn't necessarily set you up for much."

A guard wanders past and teases Daniels, calling him "our white-collar offender... you must be from Orange County."

"No, no, I'm blue collar... strictly a blue-collar crook," laughs Daniels, pointing to his blue work shirt with his prison number on the front.

"They seem to like me here," says Daniels.

"You know, they had me working here as an accountant. I hadn't been in a month when they had me back pushing around pieces of paper with sums of money written on 'em."

Daniels smiles wearily, whimsically: "Do you think they knew who I was?"