It’s been said that no one can understand the USA and the American people unless they appreciate baseball. A new book tells of the developments in political and social policy and even religious practices as played out in the century-long controversy over scheduling Sunday baseball games in New York State. Baseball historian Charles DeMotte, an adjunct professor of sociology at SUNY-Cortland, reveals a little-known chapter in the history of baseball and of American life in his new book “Bat, Ball & Bible: Baseball and Sunday Observance in New York.”
“If you build it he will come.” That mysterious but sage advice from the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” (adapted from the novel by W.P. Kinsella) could have had a different meaning had the action of that story taken place a century earlier. The “it” might still be a baseball field but on Sunday afternoons from the 1850s till the 1920s “he will come” could have referred to a police officer, sheriff, social reformer or clergyman seeking to stop a baseball game on the Biblical day of rest. Dr. DeMotte takes us back to the years when baseball was still evolving as a game and as a public spectacle. He makes it clear that state and local laws upholding the cessation of commercial and recreational activity on the Christian Sabbath did not necessarily outlaw the game as an unwholesome activity, even as the question of Sunday baseball was intertwined with prohibition and other social issues of the time.
A careful reading of the statutes also indicates a clear distinction between public and private activities. Thus a baseball game, or any other form of recreation, on private grounds would appear to be legal under the statutes, whereas similar activities on a municipal lot would be in violation of the law. However, any such game, private or public, would seem to contravene certain sections of the penal code if it disturbed the repose of the community or the sensibilities of any one individual.
The first half of the 19th century was a time of religious ferment in the United States, and especially in the “burned-over district” of upstate New York. It was also a time of rapid industrial progress and, of course, an era when the states lurched toward Civil War and the end of slavery. Professional baseball clubs began to appear, although their success and durability was never assured. Objections about desecration of the Sabbath seem to be balanced by secular sympathies for the working man. In the era before the 40-hour week, people who labored in sweat shops or on farms could benefit from a day out of doors.
“Bat, Ball & Bible” has a wonderful cast of characters including Dave Dishler and Tom Wheeler, respectively the Democratic and Republican leaders in Utica, who teamed up to bankroll a local ball team through proceeds from their joint gambling operation; William McAdoo, the New York City Police Commissioner who was content to allow Sunday baseball in outlying sections of Brooklyn; T. Stanley Day, the ChemungCounty Sheriff who in 1910 was himself hauled into court for refusing to arrest the players in a Sunday Elmira-Binghamton game and major figures in baseball history like Albert Spalding and American League founder Ban Johnson. Some “blue laws” are still on the books, but once it became possible for professional baseball to become part of a pleasant Sunday in New York State, remaining restrictions seem to also be rejected or wither away. American involvement in World War I may have been the final out. Baseball games became patriotic exercises, gate receipts were shared with organizations aiding military personnel as a brass band on the field played patriotic songs.
Charles DeMotte holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Kansas. His writings include “The Inner Side of History” (1997) and he presented a paper on “Baseball and Freemasonry in American Culture” at the 2001 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture.