There was a time when baseball could have landed you in a Nebraska jail.
On opening day for the Nebraska City River Hawks this year, the River Hawks came to Lincoln to play the Bombers in the Southeast Nebraska League. As Bruce Esser, who runs a website dedicated to Nebraska’s baseball history, explained, it’s part of a long sporting tradition in this state.
“In the late 1800s and early 1900s baseball was the sport. Football was a minor sport at that point and time,” Esser said. “Baseball was what every town did. It was a matter of civic pride to have a good team.”
“It was the thing to do in Nebraska in the early 1900s was to go to a baseball game in the summer… Playing on Sunday was a particular problem.”
At the turn of the last century, laws in many states banned any kind of business or entertainment on the Sabbath, and for Christians that meant Sunday.
“Some towns like Columbus in 1910 just turned a blind eye to the law and went ahead and played Sunday baseball. Omaha played Sunday baseball starting in 1900. Other towns like Lincoln, and Beatrice and Kearney and York, it was impossible to play Sunday baseball.”
Impossible because of the blue laws, which were originally enacted by 17th century Puritan colonists. They were designed to enforce a community’s religious standards.
Pastor Craig Walls is senior minister at South Pointe Christian Church in Lincoln, Neb. and a devout Cleveland Indians fan.
“I guess if you are not going to be in church there is not a better place to be than at a baseball game,” Walls said.
Walls reminds his parishioners that honoring the Sabbath day comes from the Jewish tradition of ceasing from work from sundown Friday through Saturday sundown. He’s even used the sport in his sermons to make a pitch for the New Testament team.
“There is an eternal sense to baseball. It could have no ending. It could go on forever,” he said. “And then the fact that there is sacrifice. Sacrifice bunts where you give yourself up. That’s such a metaphor for life.”
But turn-of-the-century life was not always that simple for Nebraskans. The far-reaching blue laws made it difficult to get in a game on Sunday. Richard Duncan teaches law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a special interest in religion, the law, and the Boston Red Sox.
“You know it’s pretty obvious that most of the legislators circa early 1900s were probably practicing Christians. It would just seem natural to them to pick their day of religious rest that would apply to everyone,” Duncan said.
Teams usually played two games a week, but there was also a perfectly logical reason why some teams had to play on Sunday.
“The turn of the century, a lot of these ballplayers were part-time ballplayers,” he said. “They probably worked in factories during the week, and on the weekends they played baseball and people wanted to have that entertainment.”
But it was the church leaders across Nebraska who made sure local police enforced the law; shutting down grocery stores and barbershops and baseball games seen as threats to the moral fiber of the community.
“The police would show up,” Esser said. ”People would be arrested. It was a $10 fine or 10 days in jail,” he said. “Sometimes they would move to a town in a different county to play. In one case they actually went to Kansas to play. They just got on a train, played on a Kansas field and came back.”
In 1902, a group called the Law and Order League pressured the Sheriff in Otoe County to shut down Sunday baseball, and during one particular game, 1,200 fans in the stands, it all boiled over.
The headline in the Red Cloud Chief, blared, “Sunday Baseball Results in a Riot! Sheriff Attempts Arrest of Players!”
“A warrant sworn out by a member of the Law and Order League was placed in the hands of Sheriff Brower for the arrest of the two teams. At the close of the third inning the sheriff appeared. When he arrived on the grounds an angry crowd surrounded and hustled him violently. His revolver was taken away from him. He succeeded in arresting four players and took them to a justice’s office, where they were placed under bonds.”
A number of city pastors were at the justice’s office. Friends of the players threatened and jostled them. A rock was thrown at Rev. C.M. Shepherd of the Methodist. Rev. Shepherd was chased to his home.
The local churches got no sympathy from the local judge. The entire case was thrown out of his courtroom. The Otoe County prosecutor didn’t like that verdict. He appealed it all the way to the State Supreme Court. And this was not even the first Sunday baseball case argued before the highest court in the state.
“The Supreme Court in their ruling said it would lead to mayhem if we had Sunday baseball, that it would disrupt the moral fiber of the state to allowing Sunday baseball,” Esser said. “So at that point the church was very much in a moral position. Baseball was a competitor to attending church”
Sunday 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: the death penalty, a woman’s right to vote, and playing baseball on Sunday. The paper’s sports columnist, Sandy Griswold, called the law “idiotic.” In 1913, state law changed. Local governments could decide whether to allow play. Soon the protests ended. Baseball had beaten the Bible. Today, people like Pastor Craig Walls can catch a game with his kids. He’s glad he has the choice.
“I know well-meaning people want to hold on to some values, and there is a value in honoring the Sabbath, and I totally agree with that, but when we enforce that we get entangled with the state and that always ends badly for the church,” he said.
Over the next few years, one restriction after another was relaxed. The state allowed drug stores, barber shops, movie theaters, dance halls and car dealers to open for business on Sundays. Blue laws lingered largely unenforced until the 1960s. The pattern was the same in other states across the country.
“It’s kind of interesting because baseball was referred to as the national past time,” Duncan said. “And so if you are going to use something to break the strangle hold of the blue laws than what would put more pressure on state legislatures than people wanting to go out and watch the national past time.”
With an orange Nebraska sunset to the west, the mercury vapor lights formed a ring around the Nebraska City River Hawks’ perfect green diamond. From a distance the young men on the field looked like the players you see on century old promotional posters for a town’s semi-pro team. It was a Wednesday night, but as the players turned their thoughts to Sunday’s game, it was clear that some of them like Frank Stidd have 100 years of perspective.
“Just to be out here playing is good enough for me,” Stidd said. ”As long as I don’t go to jail.”