Arrested for Playing Baseball! How the National Pastime became a church and state battleground in Nebraska.

Headlines from the era. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Esser)
Advertising a game, in defience of the law. (Lincoln Courier, 1891)
Baseball field in York, Neb. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Esser)
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June 6, 2013 - 6:30am

There was a time when the state put limits on what you could legally do on Sunday.  Most people recognize liquor laws are written with that in mind.  This summer is the 100th anniversary of a historic change in Nebraska law that changed Sundays forever in the state. 


This was the headline in the Red Cloud (Neb.) Chief on July 25, 1902:

The great baseball riot of 1902 did not make it into the state’s history books.  It was one event in a long series of conflicts, some of them ugly, over one of the most remarkable and heated political issues of the last century.

Until 1913 it was illegal to play baseball on Sunday.  This is the 100th anniversary of the vote by the Nebraska State Legislature to end the first of what were known as “blue laws.”

Earlier the Nebraska Supreme Court specified baseball was an inappropriate activity for what was regarded as “a day of rest” in the secular law and in most Christian churches. 

It wasn’t just baseball singled out.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s many states had “Sunday laws” or blue laws as they came to be known.  (See sidebar) 

A cartoon from the Dakota County Herald announced the opening of baseball season in Nebraska in 1910.  (Courtesty of the National Archives)

Nebraska’s statute banned “common labor” on Sundays, but it also singled out a variety of other activities in its opening paragraph: 

“If any person of the age of fourteen years or upward shall be found on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, sporting, rioting, quarreling, hunting, fishing, or shooting he or she shall be fined in a sum not exceeding twenty dollars or be confined in the county jail for a term not exceeding twenty days or both at the discretion of the court.”

It was not uncommon at the time for political leaders to intermingle their religious beliefs with secular law.  Richard Duncan, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law, said,“it’s pretty obvious that most of the legislators circa early 1900s were probably practicing Christians.

“It would just seem natural,” said Duncan that members of the Nebraska Legislature would “pick their day of religious rest that would apply to everyone.”

Biblical Tradition

Keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments.  References appear throughout the Bible (Leviticus 23:3:  “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.”).

Why were they called "blue laws?"

There are lots of theories, but two possible explanations are summarized by the Oklahoma Historical Society on its website: "Some contend that it is a reference to the paper's color upon which Puritan colonial laws were printed or wrapped, while others believe it designates those who observed the laws as 'true blue.'"

However the mythbusting website Snopes.com takes issue with that explanation, noting the earliest printed reference to the term 'blue law' appears in a 1781 history book and no one has found any references to laws being printed on blue paper. 

Others claim the term is related to the description of the stuffy and stiffly moral Americans as blue bloods.  Again, no definitive proof, so the origins of the phrase continues wrapped in mystery.  (Clipping from the Omaha World-Herald Headline)

The origin of the command to protect the Sabbath originates from the story of creation, according to Craig Walls, senior minister at Southpointe Christian Church in Lincoln. “God created (the earth) for six days and then rested,” Walls said.  “There needs to be a day of rest for mortal man as well.”

That one commandment put many devout Christians at odds with the other passion of the day:  baseball.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s “baseball was what every town did,” Bruce Esser said.  Esser maintains NeBaseballHistory.com, an exhaustively researched website dedicated to Nebraska’s baseball history. It “was the thing to do in Nebraska in the early 1900s was to go to a baseball game in the summer.”

This was a time when many Nebraska towns had their own minor league teams and thousands of people filled the stands at games all over the state. “It was a matter of civic pride to have a good team,” Esser said.

However playing on Sunday was a particular problem because of the blue laws.  Community attitudes varied greatly.  In Omaha the local team ignored the law and played Sunday baseball starting in 1900.

“Some towns like Columbus in 1910 just turned a blind eye to the law and went ahead and played Sunday baseball,” Esser said.  “Other towns like Lincoln, and Beatrice and Kearney and York, it was impossible to play Sunday baseball.”

Dozens of articles appear in Nebraska newspapers of the era reporting conflicts over baseball on Sunday.  Teams in Fremont, York and Scribner were all arrested at various times. 

When a team in Hershey, Neb. scheduled a game for a Sunday in May in 1900 the North Platte Telegraph reported it “was a complete fizzle.”  Apparently few people attended.   Those who stayed away were “a better class of citizens” according to the paper.

A 1906 newspaper story reporting the arrest of baseball players in York appeared above the box score from the Sunday game between teams from Blue Hill and Harvard.  (Omaha Bee courtesy of the National Archives)

In 1904 the newspaper in Oakland, Neb, The Independent, decided it would not advertise or report on Sunday games, which another paper editorialized would be “a serious blow” to the sport in that community. 

The Nebraska chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union made protesting Sunday baseball a priority along with adding a ban on liquor in the state constitution, stopping theater performances on Sunday and “deploring extreme styles of dress.”

Teams would find creative ways to play their games and satisfy the fans.  “Sometimes they would move to a town in a different county to play,” Esser said. “In one case they actually went to Kansas to play. They just got on a train, played on a Kansas field and came back.”

The state was deeply divided on the matter.  Sandy Griswold, a sports columnist for the Omaha World Herald, called the law “idiotic.” 

Even in counties where Sunday ball was illegal they often defied the law and local religious leaders who protested. 

Jews and Seventh Day Adventists had some leeway to honor their Sabbath Day.  If they honored Saturday as a day of rest, they were allowed to operate their businesses on Sunday.  (According to the book “God and Caesar in Nebraska,” it was well known in Lincoln you could get a Sunday shave and a haircut in the area near Union College, operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church). 

Questioning 'The Day of Rest"

Lawmakers and courts argued the blue laws didn’t violate anyone’s religious freedom since the statutes had good intentions beyond anyone’s faith.

“On this basis you could understand there could be a secular purpose, almost like a labor law.  Let’s make sure everyone has a day off,” Duncan said. 

Sometimes church leaders made sure local police enforced the law.  “The police would show up.  People would be arrested,” Esser said. Oftentimes players would appear before the local judge pay the ten or twenty dollar fine, and return to play the following week.  (The fines were a minor inconvenience compared to the punishment recommended in Exodus 31:15.  “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.”)

The 1911 league team representing Nebraska City.  (Photo courtesy of Bruce Esser)

Efforts to enforce the law resulted in some memorable showdowns on the ball diamond, but nothing compared to the baseball riot in Nebraska City. 

It began when a group called the Law & Order League insisted the sheriff in Otoe County shut down Sunday baseball and on one particular game it all came to a head.   When the sheriff showed up to break up the game, players and angry fans surrounded him.  As the crowd roughed him up someone stole the officer’s revolver. 

When the melee subsided the sheriff eventually issued tickets to the entire team including manager Tim O’Rourk.  The team returned to finish the game that same day. 

A few weeks later the county judge threw the case out. The Otoe County Attorney, upset with the verdict, appealed the case of State vs. O’Rourk all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court.  

At issue was whether baseball could be legally defined in the state statute as a “sporting” activity.  The justices not only ruled it qualified as “sporting,” but stated emphatically the law served a higher purpose in the community.

“The Supreme Court in their ruling said it would lead to mayhem if we had Sunday baseball,” Esser said. “It would disrupt the moral fiber of the state by allowing Sunday baseball.”

In ruling on State v. O’Rourk, Chief Justice Maxwell wrote:  “As a Christian people, desiring to preserve (their liberty) the State has enacted certain statutes, which recognize the fourth commandment and the Christian religion and the binding force of the teachings of the Saviour (sic). Among these is the statute which prohibits sporting (and) hunting.”

(Click here to read full ruling from the Nebraska in State v. O'Rourk)

Changing the Law

A 1913 editorial cartoon from the Omaha Bee illustrates the Legislature's priorities in 1913.  (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Baseball became the hottest political debate in the state.  An editorial cartoon in the Omaha Bee depicted the three most important issues facing state legislators in 1913:  the death penalty, a woman’s right to vote, and playing baseball on Sunday. 

Lawmakers had tried and failed to have the ban lifted before, but in 1913 they succeeded by changing the law to leave the decision up to individual counties and towns.  Some held local elections.  Some city councils and county boards made the decision.  Other cities like Omaha just did what they had always been doing:  playing baseball on Sunday.  One town after another dropped the ban.

Pressure to allow other activities followed.  The citizens of Wymore wrote to the governor announcing they would openly begin fishing on Sundays.  Anglers said the revised law was discriminatory since the Legislature specified baseball was the only “sporting” activity allowed.

Barbers challenged the law since police in some communities singled out those giving haircuts on Sunday.  Eventually barbering was added to a list of allowed business activities.  Drug stores, movie theaters and car dealers eventually all got specific exemptions as well. 

The attitudes towards restricting business and entertainment on Sundays changed dramatically.  Law professor Richard Duncan thinks it makes sense it was baseball, called the national pastime, that would lead the way. 

“If you are going to use something to break the stranglehold of the blue laws than what would put more pressure on state legislatures than people wanting to go out and watch the national pastime and see the boys of summer play ball,” Duncan said.

Some blue laws, especially those involving liquor sales, lingered in Nebraska into the 1950s.

Today people like Pastor Craig Walls can catch a Sunday game with his kids.  “I guess if you are not going to be in church there is not a better place to be than at a baseball game,” he said recently. 

Walls finds the whole episode in Nebraska history to be “incomprehensible.”  Being a loyal Cleveland Indians’ fan, he has no problem with the law changing.

The Nebraska City River Hawks (in blue) schedules league games on Sunday, 100 years after players from their home town were arrested for playing the game.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“I know well-meaning people want to hold on to some values, and there is a value in honoring the Sabbath,” Walls said. “But when we enforce that we get entangled with the state and that always ends badly for the church.”

Recently the Nebraska City River Hawks traveled to Lincoln to play the opening game of the season in the Southeast Nebraska League.  These players had never heard baseball players from their hometown had been arrested defending their right to play ball when they wanted to play.  Pitcher Frank Stidd said the very idea of it was “pretty amazing.”  The politics and religion behind those types of debates just don’t matter to him.

“Just to be out here playing is good enough for me,” Stidd said, “as long as I don’t go to jail.” 

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