Skip to main content
Original Issue

Almost Never on Sunday

In the early days of pro baseball, playing—or even watching—a game on the Sabbath was as reprehensible as calling a woman's limb a leg

Exorcising the demon of Sunday baseball during the 1890s seemed a clear and absolute necessity to many people. The nation stood at a moral crossroads, they argued: if America did not draw the line at Sunday baseball, the country's future would be downhill all the way, à la Rome and numerous other hedonistic societies. "It can be shown by God's word that a man who breaks the Sabbath is a ruin to society," one minister threatened, "because no nation can prosper that does not respect it." Another described baseball as "moral leprosy" and added, "It is a traveling contagion that should be quarantined for the public good. The pleasure-seeking spirit weakens and destroys the nobler traits of character. It turns men into dudes and women into dudines."

All this difficulty arose not because of hedonism, but because the game was growing in popularity during an era when Sunday was the only day of leisure for many working men. Thoroughly aware of this vast untapped source of attendance, many enterprising owners and managers decided at about the same time to risk eternal perdition for larger crowds. Accordingly, they announced their intention of playing games on the Sabbath and hell—legal hell, at any rate—promptly broke loose.

One of the National League's first Sunday games was played in Baltimore's Anne Arundel Park between Baltimore and Washington on June 8, 1890, and from the very beginning it was possible to smell money. The park gates did not open until 1:30, but well before then thousands of fans were waiting to go inside. The first of many Baltimore and Ohio excursion trains arrived at 2:20, disgorging would-be spectators from packed coaches. By the time the players took the field at 3:30, nearly 9,000 fans—a huge crowd for the time—filled the wooden bleachers, and almost as many youngsters clustered around the 12-foot-high fence that separated the unholy event from the rest of Anne Arundel County.

Two hours later the game ended in a 5-4 victory for Washington. No one had been struck by lightning during the contest, but the very next day the Sabbath Association of Maryland swung into action.

The message of SAM was clear: Sunday baseball was on the road to success. Before the entire public fell victim to its evil spell, the demon, as mentioned, would have to be exorcised.

The exorcist selected by SAM was James Armiger, the genial but methodical sheriff of Anne Arundel County. Immediately after the infamous Sunday ball game, Armiger consulted with Maryland State's Attorney J. M. Munroe and the pair of them located a statute that proclaimed, "no persons whatsoever shall work or do any bodily labor on the Lord's Day, commonly known as of charity and necessity always excepted...and any person transgressing this section and being thereof convicted before a justice of the peace shall forfeit $5.00...."

Armed with the terrible swift sword of Article 27, Section 247, Sheriff Armiger sallied forth on June 15, 1890. All eyes were upon him as he entered the ball park, but, to everyone's surprise, Armiger sat quietly in the press box from the beginning to the end of the contest. Then, and only then, did he approach Baltimore Manager William Barnie and inform him that he was under arrest.

Released on $300 bail shortly afterward, Barnie announced that he had no intention of giving up Sunday baseball. He based his decision on the contention that baseball was entertainment, not work. After all, his lawyers claimed, other entertainment was available for Baltimoreans on Sunday. At Pompeiian Park, for example, weren't there several grand exhibitions and cyclorama entitled "The Last Days of Pompeii"? And did not the steamers Columbia, Emma, Louise, Chester and Tolchester regularly tour the bay with excursionists? Were the men who operated these displays and ships engaged in work or were they engaged in entertainment?

But the opposition was not impressed by this argument. More warrants were issued. Ministers railed against everyone connected with the Sabbath games, achieving new heights of hysteria in the process.

The following Sunday, Sheriff Armiger again strolled to the ball park, but this time he did not loll in the press box until the contest was over. Instead, he walked directly onto the field after the first inning and served papers on Manager Barnie, following which he arrested a different Baltimore player after each inning. Simultaneously, D.C. police moved against the Washington club by arresting the secretary and levying a fine of $2 per player, plus court costs. (The entire Washington bill came to $47.50.) Farther north, 12 members of the Law and Order League of Irondequoit interrupted a game between Brooklyn and Rochester, trying to serve warrants. There, blows were freely exchanged until members of the Law and Order League started getting the worst of it. At that point, the latter righteously agreed to allow the game to resume, but only on the condition that "the players considered themselves under arrest at the expiration of play."

The following season, as city councils and state legislatures across the nation debated the issue, attacks on the moral leprosy were stepped up. a climax of sorts being reached on May 24, 1891 during a game between Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The Cincinnati Chief of Police marched onto the field with 60 officers, arrested the whole team and carted the players off to the station, where they were fined a total of $5,400.

A happier story would end right here, with virtue triumphant. But as everyone knows, the disease of Sunday baseball, after a brief remission, succeeded in ravaging every major city in the nation. By the end of World War I, half a dozen cities had succumbed, and total disintegration had clearly set in by 1924, when Brooklyn opened its season not only on a Sunday, but on Easter Sunday.

As more than one minister warned before the turn of the century, America has not been the same since.