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Sunday Baseball and Other Sins: America’s Pastime and the Decline of Blue Laws


I will say to the people that try to erase the Sabbath from our statute books, we will swim our horses in blood to their bridles before you will ever get us away from it”[1]

– Billy Sunday, professional baseball player turned revivalist.

File:A worn-out baseball.JPG

When the San Diego Padres open their season against the Dodgers on a Sunday evening next week, it’s unlikely that any players or fans will be arrested for rioting over a point of political theology (a theodical account of the Dodgers notwithstanding). But just over a century ago, such a scene did take place. On July 25th, 1902, the headline in Nebraska’s newspaper the Red Cloud Chief read: “Sunday Baseball Results in a Riot at Nebraska City Sunday. Sheriff Attempts Arrest of Players, Succeeds After a Scrimmage in Which His Revolver is Taken From Him — Friends of Players Assault Ministers of the Gospel.”[2]  Sadly, this was hardly an isolated incident. Across the country, professional baseball was a primary battleground over sabbatarian tradition and state legislation.

In what follows, I consider this unique intersection of sport, sabbath, and American culture at the turn of the 19th century. The fight over blue laws and professional baseball in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provides a lens not only into legislation and church-state relations in the U.S., but also into the shifting cultural mores during a watershed period of American history. A cursory glimpse through this lens reveals with startling clarity how much the legislative, political, and theological approaches to American life changed during the 20th century.

Blue Laws
The etymology and history of the term “blue laws” is unclear. The first laws in America to regulate public activities on Sundays were passed in colonial Virginia in the 1620s. Such laws, enacted across the New England colonies during the mid to late 17th century, prohibited a number of recreational and commercial activities. In his 1781 book, General History of Connecticut, the Reverend Samuel Peters (1735–1826) employs “blue laws” (writing “i.e. bloody laws”) to describe such legislation.[3] Among the existing theories, it is most likely that “blue laws” is a pejorative reference to the strict and oppressive moral codes observed by the “blue-stocking parliament” supporters of Oliver Cromwell in 1653.[4]

Most of the modern Sabbatarian theological traditions can be traced back to the Reformation of the 16th century. While the Reformation did not lead to strict sabbath regulations in all locales, it provided additional theological support in places where stricter sabbath regulation was already being pushed. In England and Scotland, for example, strong antipapal attitudes and resentment of Saints Days and other festivals outside of Sunday fostered strict Sabbath observance among Protestants. In the years following, many took their cue in part from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), Chapter 21, section 8:

“This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe a holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.”[5]

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, first in New England, and then across the south and mid-west, blue laws were written and passed. Often targeting Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, saloon owners, and non-religious persons, the laws carried stiff penalties for engaging in non-Christian activities on Sunday. In many cities, one could be arrested for playing cards, dancing, buying and selling, fixing wagon wheels, and of course, playing baseball.[6]

Blue Laws and Baseball
Baseball’s National League, in its efforts to be a more civil and gentlemanly league than the American Association, banned Sunday baseball in 1878, going so far as to expel the Cincinnati Red Stockings after the 1880 season for violating the policy. In 1891 the American Association collapsed after only a decade of existence, and when the National League absorbed four of their teams, the option of playing Sunday games was granted (The American League allowed Sunday baseball at its inception in 1901).[7] But opposition from some quarters remained vehement. The strongest resistance came from Sabbatarian groups such as the International Sunday Observance League, who, in Chicago during the 1890s, won temporary victories after issuing injunctions and taking teams to court.[8]

After the civil war and into the reconstruction era, the country experienced seismic demographic, economic, and cultural shifts. Industrialism and immigration were the catalyst for rapid change, affecting religious culture and its legislative presence. A massive wave of European immigration brought a “Continental Sunday” tradition to American shores. The “Continental Sunday,” so labeled by its English critics, referred to Christian traditions which allowed leisure and recreation on the sabbath. Catholic and Lutheran immigrants were particularly influential in the spread of the “Continental Sunday.”[9] As one historian notes, “… the continental Sabbath augmented the cosmopolitan Sunday of disorder and crime, rallies and lessons, libraries and lectures. As cities swelled with German, Irish, Jewish, and French immigrants, certain neighborhoods came alive each Sunday …  for it was then that entire families went to drink beer, visit with friends, listen to music, and dance, just as Germans and others did in Europe.”[10] As the country’s demographic and political landscape shifted, a number of cities began to strike down aspects of their sabbatarian legislation. First, Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati in 1902. By 1918, professional games on the Sabbath were allowed in Cleveland, Detroit and Washington. New York City followed suit in 1919, and then Boston and Baltimore in 1929 and 1932, respectively.[11]

Nevertheless, during this period a number of towns, teams, and prominent baseball figures took exception. Perhaps most notably, Methodists Branch Rickey and Christy Mathewson refused to play on Sundays for much of their careers. Rickey, who would become a great hero of 20th century baseball by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947, made a promise to his mother that he would not play on Sundays, a promise which would result in his termination by the Cincinnati Reds in 1904. He was fired after refusing to play in a Sunday game against Boston, who likewise had three players who refused to play on account of religious observance. Sporting News called the contest a “baseball farce” with “too many Sabbatarians” on the Boston team.[12] Christy Mathewson, nicknamed the “Christian Gentleman,” was one of the elite pitchers of the 20th century and, like Rickey, had sabbatarian roots. He, too, had made a promise to his mother, and he refused to play on Sunday. Later in his career, after being persuaded by New York Giants manager John McGraw, Mathewson would change his mind and consider Sunday baseballa victory for democracy.[13]

Clergy around the country spoke to the issue as well. In 1905 Bishop Hoban of Scranton’s Catholic Diocese expressed his support of men and boys playing ball on Sundays, and some priests even changed the hour of mass to accommodate those who wished to attend games. The Jewish community, which never had reason to support blue laws, likewise spoke against the legislation. In 1908, Rabbi Charles Fleischer of Boston wrote, “Let them have the open, let them enjoy the game of their hearts.” The Reverend Paul Drake pastor of President Taft’s church in Beverly, Massachusetts, said in 1909, “As for the minister, he does not need to play ball on Sunday; he has enough of it during the week if he chooses, but the laboring man has but Sunday to himself. As conditions are he does no wrong . . . to seek any legitimate mode of amusement and recreation on that day.”[14]

Perhaps the most famous and drawn out controversy over blue laws and baseball took place in Philadelphia.

As early as 1911, the famed Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack had expressed support for Sunday baseball. His reason for supporting it was obvious: profits. The A’s struggled financially for decades, and the prospect of Sunday games was a prospect for financial stability. John B. Shibe, the vice-president of the Athletics, estimated an average flow of $20,000 to the team for each Sunday baseball game it could play in Philadelphia. But support for Blue Laws across the state was unwavering among politicians and the vast array of churches and voluntary religious organizations. Playing professional baseball was a “breach of peace,” it was argued, constituting “a disturbance to persons in that neighborhood desirous of preserving the peace and quiet of Sunday so that they may in such peace and quiet pursue their religious worship and meditation.” Unlike dozens of other cities, Philadelphia held fast to its sabbath legislation through the first two decades of the 20th century. The efforts of Mack, Shibe, and their A’s was undermined in part by the Philadelphia Phillies lack of support, which was staggering in its own right given their similar, dire financial situation.

“A Bolt From a Clear Sky” was how Sporting News columnist James C. Isaminger described a major development in 1926. Making plans for Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exposition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of America’s independence, the Board of Directors voted to open it on Sundays and charge an admission fee. The A’s immediately announced that they would play a game at Shibe Park on Sunday, August 22, 1926. In agitated response, Philadelphia Mayor Kendrick threatened to use the police to keep the park closed. The A’s went to court to seek an injunction to restrain the mayor and the police, and Common Pleas Court Judge Frank Smith granted the A’s request. On Sunday, August 22, 1926, some 12,000 spectators watched the Athletics defeat the White Sox 3-2 behind Lefty Grove. Connie Mack observed, “I am glad that we won, of course, but I am more than glad that nothing happened that could be construed as a breach of the peace… I wish all those who oppose Sunday baseball could have been here today. They would see that we are not causing a lessening in church attendance.”

But the battle was far from over. Sabbatarians sharply criticized the event, petitions were signed, and “The Methodist Men Committee of 100” passed a resolution which declared, in part, that “the Sunday Laws of Pennsylvania will be upheld at any cost, and that men who have heretofore been law-abiding, respected members of the community, like Connie Mack, will be branded as common law-breakers if they deliberately violate the law by Sunday professional ball-playing.” The case went back to the courts, and in October 1926, the court held Sunday baseball to be an unlawful “worldly employment.” The Athletics then appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court, which ruled in September 1927 by a vote of 7 to 2 that Sunday commercialized baseball was “unholy” and a blatant form of “worldly employment.”

It would be nearly 7 years before the economic pressure of the Great epression would change public sentiment and political opinion. The prospect of Sunday baseball tax revenues was simply too great for the city to pass up. Major League baseball was played legally in the city on Sunday beginning in April 1934.

In Conclusion
Professional baseball’s collision with sabbatarianism in early 20th century is as remarkable as it is underappreciated as a part of American history. As one of the more intriguing instances of church-state conflict, it demonstrates how drastically and how quickly the nation’s approach to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment changed over the past century.  The rhetoric and arguments on both sides of the debate, lasting well into the 1930’s, seem almost nonsensical to our ears today. But more fundamentally it reveals something about the constantly evolving contours of American culture, and the profound impact these shifts have upon the place of religious life in a burgeoning democracy.

[1] Billy Sunday, Evening Sermon, New York City, May 1, 1917.

[2] Not until 1913 did the Nebraska State Legislature vote to allow Sunday baseball, taking their cue from a number of other cities around the nation at the turn of the century. See Bill Kelly, “Arrested For Playing Baseball! How The National Pastime Became A Church And State Battleground In Nebraska,” NET News, http://www.netnebraska.org/article/news/arrested-playing-baseball-how-national-pastime-became-church-and-state-battleground, accessed 25 March 2014.

[3] Samuel Peters, A General History of Connecticut, London, Pater-Noster-Row, 1781. The earliest known appearance of the phrase “blue law” occurs in the New-York Mercury of March 3, 1755. The author envisions a future newspaper praising the revival of “our Connecticut’s Old Blue Laws.”

[4] It has long been suggested that the term refers to blue paper on which the New Haven colony supposedly printed their sabbatarian legislation, but this thesis lacks evidence.

[5] The Westminster Confession’s sabbatarian language, which had increasingly gained acceptance and support after King James’ Book of Sports (1618) was officially burned in 1643, held great prominence and influence in England and in early American settlements. Such is reflected in the consolidated Commonwealth legislation of 1677.  See John Primus, “Sabbatarianism,” in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, edited by Donald K. M, John Knox,  Press, 1992.

[6] In 1794, for example, legislators in the Pennsylvania Assembly passed “an Act for the prevention of vice and immorality, and of unlawful gaming, and to restrain disorderly sports and dissipation” on the Lord’s Day.

[7] John Thron McFarland, Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Vol 7; Robert P. Gelzheiser, Labor and Capital in 19th Century Baseball, McFarland, 2006 p25ff

[8] Robert Martin, “Sports versus the Sabbath,” in Charles E. Quirk, ed., Sports and the Law: Major Legal Cases, Routledge, 1999, p. 36ff.

[9] William J Baker, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, Harvard, 2009.

[10] Alexis McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday, Cornell, 2001, pp. 42-43.

[11] Bob Warrington, “The Fight for Sunday Baseball in Philadelphia,” Philiadelphia Athletics Historical Society, www.philadelphiaathletics.org, accessed 25 March 2014

[12] Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, University of Nebraska, 2009, p. 26.

[13] Notably, In 1917, both McGraw and Mathewson were arrested for violating blue laws when they played a Sunday game at the Polo Grounds in 1917. It was the first time a game had ever been played on Sunday at the famed park. Erica Pearson, “New York City’s Blue Laws.” Gotham Gazette. May 26, 2003

[14] Harold Seymour, Dorothy Seymour Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, Oxford, 1971, p 360.

[15] Much of this section is drawn from Bob Warrington, “The Fight for Sunday Baseball in Philadelphia,” Philiadelphia Athletics Historical society, www.philadelphiaathletics.org, accessed 25 March 2014.

Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide.


2 thoughts on “Sunday Baseball and Other Sins: America’s Pastime and the Decline of Blue Laws

  1. It is fascinating to me how people can be so vocal and animated regarding sabbath laws, until of course it looks financially attractive to not enforce them. Money the great persuader.

  2. From Isaiah 58
    13“If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
    From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
    From Isaiah 58:13-14

    And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable,
    And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
    From seeking your own pleasure
    And speaking your own word,

    14Then you will take delight in the LORD,
    And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
    And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,

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