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On the Diamond and in the Pews: The Push to Legalize Sunday Baseball

On The Diamond And In The Pews: The Push To Legalize Sunday Baseball

Throughout its history, baseball has at times been viewed as a means of disseminating morality among the American populous; at other times, baseball is nothing but a carrier of vice. Often, this perception depends on the strength of religious devotion in a particular area, as well as economic necessity. These two issues combined in the early-to-mid 1900s as cities with professional baseball teams began to push for legalizing baseball on Sundays and in the process strike down centuries-old “blue laws” prohibiting Sunday activities not tied to worship.

The Arguments Surrounding Sunday Baseball

By the mid-1870s, baseball had become “America’s National Pastime,” essential to the understanding of what it means to be American. Leaders of immigrant societies urged their members to learn baseball, providing pamphlets explaining the rules, asserting it was essential knowledge if one wanted to blend in with Americans. Many European immigrants joined their fellow blue-collar workers in creating baseball teams which played against one another on Sundays, typically the only day off such workers had. Seeing this new market, professional baseball owners, primarily those of National League teams began catering to blue-collar workers, playing more games on Sunday and selling beer during such games.

Evangelical “Sabbatarians,” fearing the increasing number of Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox populations in the country, pushed through a number of bills expanding existing Sunday observance laws, specifically targeting baseball. They argued that playing baseball on Sunday was itself an immoral act, and the selling of beer increased the urgency of shutting down recreational activities on Sundays. In 1878, the National League bowed to pressure from the Sabbatarians and banned Sunday baseball. From there, the battle over Sunday baseball entered state legislatures and later state courts, becoming a prominent topic in the debate over the role of religion in society.[1]

One of the most vocal Sabbatarians was Chicago’s Reverend Leach, whose 1889 lecture, published widely across the country, summarized the Sabbatarian arguments:

“To play baseball on Sunday leads to every sin under heaven . . . the laxity of Sabbath observance in the city is terrible . . . look at these little boys growing up about us. Their little hearts can’t help but fire up when they see a ball game. Pretty soon they begin lying to their dear parents; they say they were at Sunday school when they were really at a ball game. From this a drunkard’s grave is but a few steps. Why, every Sunday I can look from my pulpit and see wicked men and boys running the bases almost within the shadow of the church . . . not only do these people offend the church, but they violate the Constitution of the United States.”[2]

This rhetoric was picked up by anti-Sunday baseball individuals and groups across the country, who pushed the narrative that baseball was inherently wicked.

Playing sports on Sundays was a common element of the more liberal strains of Christianity in large swaths of Europe, like Ireland and Germany, and so immigrants supporting Sunday baseball did not entertain religious arguments against it. Thus, in response to the Sabbatarian arguments, the pro-Sunday baseball crowd asserted that Sunday baseball was not immoral or sacrilegious. Rather, baseball provided the country’s youth with an “honest activity” that strengthened both their physical and mental capacities.[3] Moreover, Sunday was the only day on which farmers and factory workers could engage in activities like baseball, and stripping them of this opportunity would add undue hardship to their lives.

These more mild arguments about practical considerations were shared by a large percentage of the population, but the Sabbatarians held political power in many prominent cities and states. Determined to end Sunday baseball, these people formed strong lobby groups like the Chicago-based International Sunday Observance League (ISOL)  and the New York-based Lord’s Day League to influence state legislation. Additionally, these such groups went after individual baseball teams in areas in which Sunday baseball was banned, forcing several teams to fold or be faced with large fines and jail time.

Striking Down Observance Laws

In many cities like Columbus and St. Louis, observance laws were regularly neglected with no penalty, but other cities were not so fortunate. In 1895, during the first Sunday baseball game since Chicago passed strict observance laws in 1892, the entirety of the Chicago team was arrested at the behest of ISOL president, Reverend W.W. Clark. The team protested the charges in court, becoming the first professional team to legally do so, setting the stage for the 40-year battle to legalize Sunday baseball.

As president and spokesperson of the ISOL, Reverend W.W. Clark stated in 1894 that the goal of the organization was to “see whether the state controls the city or the city controls the state in the enforcement of laws.” Though the organization first attacked the easy target of saloons, which already carried a strong perception of debauchery and immorality, Clark ensured his supporters that it had far greater goals. He asserted that the future “prosecution of Sunday ball players was only the beginning.”[4]

The members of the Chicago Colts as well as their owner, James Hart, appeared in court on July 9th, 1895, two weeks after their arrest. Clark testified before the judge that while visiting his friend who lived beside the park, he had been greatly disturbed by the noise, which, upon further inspection, had come not from the beloved players, but the fans, who “clapped with their hands and cheered the various plays.”[5] Constable Muerchke, the man who arrested the players, corroborated Clark’s claims, asserting the players were “orderly” and all noise came from the fans. Other witnesses, from sports reporters to members of the neighborhood said the same things, with one asserting he had “heard more noise from a band at a funeral or from a church” than from the crowd. In essence, if the baseball game constituted disturbing the peace, all other Sunday activities would also have to be banned.

Eleven days after hearing these testimonies, on July 20th, Justice David Ball ruled the team was guilty and ordered each player to pay a $3 fine. His verdict was based on the fact that “the evidence shows that an exhibition game was in progress and that, quoting the words used by witnesses on both sides, ‘shouting, clapping, cheering, and yelling’ were liberally indulged in. There is no doubt of this, nor is it denied by the defendants.”[6] More than this preponderance of evidence, though, Ball ruled them guilty so the team could appeal the Sabbath ordinance to a higher court in order to legally settle the question.

Each player had to appeal his case individually, but because they were all the same, the ruling for one would be the ruling for all. In the months in between this initial verdict and the first player’s appeal, Clark and the International Sunday Observance League turned their attention toward bars, assuming this baseball case would be a resounding victory. No other state, to their knowledge, was close to legalizing baseball, and Illinois would not want to become the first to do so. It is also likely Clark feared further action from organizations like the Chicago Amateur Baseball Association, which condemned Clark in a statement given to the Tribune on June 28th.

Whether out of overconfidence or cautiousness, Clark did not touch the issue of Sunday baseball, and the issue similarly neglected him. On January 14th, 1896, one week after Colts’ left fielder, Walter Wilmot, filed his appeal, he was declared innocent. The court found that no breach of the peace was committed that Sunday afternoon, and Wilmot had been unjustly fined. The case opened the door for the legalization of Sunday baseball, which occurred first in Chicago, then Cincinnati and St. Louis in 1902.

The Pushback from Puritanical States

Other states throughout the country underwent similar processes, with professional teams leading the charge. However, Eastern states with more entrenched puritanical traditions, like New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania resisted for decades the grassroots push to legalize Sunday baseball. In these three states, observance laws were more comprehensive and politicians were more dedicated to preserving them.

All three states had codified “Blue Laws” that built on centuries-long puritanical traditions. They prohibited the performance of “any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday…or practice [of] any game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever.” Though these laws stood in opposition to the First Amendment of the Constitution, they were upheld by each state’s Supreme Court, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1848.

Strategically, the Sabbatarians in these states turned their attention from drinking to gambling, claiming that if Sunday baseball were legalized, it would be impossible to prevent gambling, one of the worst moral depravities possible.[7] Further arguments were based on the rowdiness of games, the assertion that employers wanted Sunday baseball so they no longer had to give workers time off on Saturday afternoons to play the sport, and the degradation of Christianity.[8]

These argument held sway over many, but the pro-Sunday baseball individuals asserted that it was possible to separate gambling and baseball, and allowing workers to attend Sunday baseball games would instill in them “a greater reverence for the Supreme Being and His works, and create better and healthier citizens.”[9] With neither side willing to concede to the other, a politician’s stance on the issue played a large factor in local and state elections, which earned the pro-Sunday baseball side far more minor victories. However, many state officials were reluctant to challenge the authority of the Church.

The pro-baseball factions eventually surmounted the Church’s power due in part to World War I and the Great Depression. Major League Baseball used the war as an opportunity to express its patriotism, displacing religious institutions as the most fundamentally American institutions. Elected officials were no longer reluctant to counter the Church as opposing baseball was viewed by many as a greater transgression.

In New York, the duo of Judge Francis McQuade and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, backed by a number of clergymen, led the legalization movement. Both increased their efforts following the arrest of New York Giants manager John McGraw and Cincinnati Reds manager Christy Mathewson in 1917 for playing a Sunday game in New York. Aided by the MLB’s war effort, which tied baseball to various national charities like the Red Cross, the pair argued that Sunday baseball was essential in teaching youth moral and religious matters.[10] Backed by these two powerful men, the movement succeeded in 1919 with the passage of a bill which repealed many Blue Laws.

Massachusetts and Pennsylvania proved tougher cases than New York and were the last two states to have banned Sunday Baseball. Both had cases in the 1920s challenging the Blue Laws, but both cases failed. In Pennsylvania’s case, the Philadelphia Athletics in 1926 challenged the ban, asserting that baseball could not have been part of the law since it did not exist in 1794. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court asserted that professional baseball was, indeed, a form of “worldly employment” and was therefore illegal.

Nonetheless, both states’ legislatures repealed segments of the Blue Laws in the ‘20s, allowing Sunday activities like selling ice cream and having post-church picnics. Then, in 1928, Massachusetts held a referendum on the issue, in which 63% of the voters found Sunday sporting activities favorable. Sabbatarian legislators tried to stall the subsequent bill, but it was passed in February of 1929, leaving Pennsylvania as the sole holdout. However, once the Great Depression struck, the legislature and Supreme Court, by 1933, were forced yield to necessity. The state’s people and economy desperately required the relief brought on by baseball and football on Sunday afternoons, and a bill was passed legalizing sporting events between 2pm and 6pm on Sundays.


The push to legalize baseball on Sunday in the early 1900s created much conflict with puritanical church sects, putting questions of morality and religious freedom at the center of public discourse. The Sabbatarians, afraid of losing power to more liberal Christian immigrants, condemned the immorality of Sunday activities, citing the deep tradition of Blue Laws. Conversely, pro-Sunday baseball arguments spoke out against the totalitarian nature of the Sabbatarians, offering more democratic, pragmatic arguments that centered on workers’ rights. At the base of each of these arguments, however, was an attempt to tap into American patriotism and shape national identity. Ultimately, the more rigid theological arguments of the Sabbatarians lost out to the practical challenges of society, which necessitated religious freedom.



[1] Alexis McCrossen, “Holy Day Holiday: The American Sunday,” (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2000), 98-101.

[2] Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1889, pg. 2.

[3] Charlie Bevis, “The New England League: A Baseball History, 1885-1949,” (North Carolina: McFarland&Co., 2008), 198.

[4] Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1894, pg. 1.

[5] Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1895, pg. 1.

[6] Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1895, pg. 1.

[7] Buffalo Enquirer, March 17, 1911, pg. 8.

[8] The Reform Bulletin, Albany, January 31, 1913, no. 5.

[9] Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, May 27, 1913, pg. 5.

[10] Democrat and Chronicle, February 4, 1918, pg. 5.


Also see Gary Throne’s “Augustine: Memory as Sacrament,” Barry Craig’s “Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Paulette Kidder’s review of “Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Sara MacDonald’s review of “Mary Cyr,” Andrew Moore’s “Doctor Faustus: On Power and Human Freedom,” and Catherine Craig’s “Of Infinite Variety: The Promise of Comedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.”

Mary CraigMary Craig

Mary Craig

Mary Craig is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Baylor University. Her research interests include ancient political philosophy, modern political philosophy, the history of political thought, the American founding, American political thought, and Constitutional law.

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