Blue laws and baseball

Found a new papist conspiracy. This one involves Sunday blue laws, those hit-and-miss regulations that limit liquor stores, car dealerships and a host of other commercial enterprises from doing business on Sunday. Their enforcement depends on local ordinances, history and prejudice.

To be honest, blue laws were never much of a Catholic thing. They were a little too anti-Catholic Nativist Protestant in interpretation. Sunday golf good; Sunday baseball bad.

I got interested in the subject when doing a little research on the impact of Sunday blue laws on baseball. “Baseball: The Golden Age” (Oxford, $24.95) by Harold and Dorothy Seymour gave the topic a good review.

Sunday blue laws date to a Virginia statute of 1610, a decade before the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock. The idea was to eliminate commerce as competition to the Sabbath. When the Massachusetts Bay Colony followed suit, the myth had it that the edict was printed on blue paper, thus the name. Not true, but the myth is more fun.

Cracks in the application of blue laws appeared as America industrialized and the Catholic immigrant work force grew. Bad enough that the immigrants were exploited as cheap labor and discriminated against because of their faith. But to prevent people from entertainment on their Sunday rest after a 60-hour week in the coal mines seemed downright cruel.

Still, at the beginning of the 20th century, only five major league clubs allowed pro baseball games on Sunday. Supporters of the blue laws argued that fans “did not [get] a glimpse of God in a frenzied crowd” cursing and brawling over a game.

The ban on Sunday baseball became one of the great American Protestant crusades. Preachers would drive around on Sunday making sure there was no ball playing in public parks. In 1912, a minister in Connecticut called the sheriff to break up a game and caused a near riot.

As late as 1927, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voted 7-2 against Sunday baseball, ruling that “no one ... would contend that professional baseball partakes in any way of the nature of holiness.” In fact, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were the last holdouts, not lifting the ban on Sunday baseball until 1934.

The Church generally argued against the ban. As early as 1905, Bishop Michael Hoban of Scranton, Pennsylvania, wrote in favor of allowing “harmless amusements” including baseball for his people. Their lives were hard enough. A creeping secularism would undermine faith a lot quicker than Sunday baseball.

Like all things, there were good and bad in Sunday blue laws. They prevented a seventh work day in factories. But supporters got crazy when two Brooklyn kids were picked up by police in 1913 and held for hours accused of tossing a ball around on Sunday.

So I was surprised to discover that the Catholic Church is behind a modern conspiracy to make Sunday a national day of mandated worship in America.

The idea of the Vatican-led conspiracy is being promoted by a fringe group of Seventh Day Adventists. When Pope John Paul II cited Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (“On Capital and Labor”), writing of Sunday rest as a worker’s right that the state should guarantee, they saw the writing on the wall.

Adventists hold Saturday to be the true Sabbath, and those on the fringe believe that once the national Sabbath law is enacted, they will be rounded up for violating the law. This will trigger a worldwide apocalypse. So it goes.

The Church is not in the business of enacting a universal Sunday blue law. I mean, I would have gotten a memo or something.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.