Sunday baseball: the history of blue laws

I was searching around Google the other day and sorta got off track on what I was REALLY looking for as I’m prone do.  The advantage of that is I tend to learn a lot.  This time I picked up on the topic of blue laws and how they affected the sport of baseball.  Man, how things have changed!

First, let’s start with a general definition of blue laws for the whippersnappers out there who aren’t familiar with the concept of blue laws.

Straight from Wikipedia:

A blue law is a type of law, typically found in the United States, designed to enforce religious standards, particularly the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest, and a restriction on Sunday shopping. Most have been repealed, have been declared unconstitutional, or are simply unenforced, although prohibitions on the sale of alcoholic beverages, and occasionally almost all commerce, on Sundays are still enforced in many areas. Blue laws often prohibit an activity only during certain hours and there are usually exceptions to the prohibition of commerce, like grocery and drug stores. In some places blue laws may be enforced due to religious principles, but others are retained as a matter of tradition or out of convenience

As to blue laws’ relevance to baseball, there were many cases where they were enforced to stop games on Sunday.  It has been reported that as of 1906, five times that games took place on Sunday and the players or managers were arrested for violating the local code.

What were the particular reasons?  The Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society web site has a very extensive article on “The Fight for Sunday Baseball in Philadelphia” (very well worth the read for those interested in the topic).  According the article, legislators in the state assembly passed a law way back in 1794 was 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.

This law and more strict ones that were to follow influenced those who enforced these what were to be more commonly known as the “blue laws”.

Philadelphia is a good case study for the blue laws and how they affected the sport of baseball.  According to PAHS, it wasn’t until 1934 when a legal game of baseball was played on Sunday.  The other pro ballclubs were a little more lenient.

Professional Ballclub Cities and the Year Sunday Baseball was Legal

Chicago 1902
Cincinnati 1902
St Louis 1902
Cleveland 1918
Detroit 1918
New York 1918
Washington 1918
Boston 1929
Baltimore 1932
Philadelphia 1934

Professional ballclubs (and those in the East) weren’t the only ones who were affected by blue laws.  While not widely publicized, it took its toll on minor leagues as well.   The Nebraska Minor League website also has a good article detailing the history of playing games on Sunday.  By the early 1900s, Nebraskan teams were being arrested for playing on the Sabbath.  Some were playing knowing full well they were going to be arrested.

In 1903, a decision went to the Nebraska state supreme court.  The court affirmed the earlier decision that made Sunday illegal.

Bit by bit through the mid 20th century, the blue laws were taken off the books.  It wouldn’t surprise me though if some laws were still lingering on today, forgotten and just not being enforced.

Just something to think about as you’re about to sit down to watch some Sunday Baseball.

PS I found this humorous.  There’s a vintage baseball team called the Winona Blue Laws.  Clever.

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