Tonawanda News

October 13, 2013

BOOK NOOK: When baseball wasn't allowed on Sundays

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Whatever your plans for Sunday, stop in the name of the law. Unless it involves churchly endeavors, your agenda may well have been prohibited, about 100 years ago.

And especially if it involved baseball.

In the whimsically titled “Bat, Ball & Bible,” Cortland State professor Charles DeMotte seriously chronicles, at length, the quest of the folks he calls Sabbatarians to keep the national pastime on a six-day-week schedule from one end of the Empire State to the other.

He’s not kidding, folks. On Aug. 6, 1893, the Buffalo Bisons sought to avoid prosecution by playing a Sunday game on Grand Island, virtually uninhabited at the time, and transporting the fandom by steamship. There weren’t enough spectators to today fill a No. 40 bus and while the Herd beat Binghamton, 12-4, they lost a bundle; for baseball on Grand Island, it was one and done.

On July 25, 1904, police intervened and made two arrests when the Herd tried to play at Tonawanda Driving Park.

DeMotte does not include these misadventures, though he does reference the late Bison historian, Tonawandan Joe Overfield. “BB&B” chronicles club owners’ schemes to escape the rundown of the law. Some would schedule a ballpark church service, pass the collection plate a couple of times and then offer the game for free. Others offered free admission but mandated purchase of a scorecard.

Even Ernie Banks couldn’t have played two under those conditions.

The point the professor makes is that it all reeked of hypocrisy. This was way before artificial lighting and a five-day work week, so Sunday offered blue collars their only shot at baseball attendance. Yet pursuits of the privileged, such as golf, tennis and boating, continued with impunity. To DeMotte, that added the insult of mandated activities to the injury of a long week at the grindstone.

While he doesn’t belabor the point, the author also suggests the so-called “blue laws” as a means of keeping the workers in line — in church, where most of the clergy would preach a work ethic, as opposed to the ballpark, where they might actually get to exchanging gripes and come to the realization that they were being badly used by their employers.

Not all the faithful lobbied against Sunday baseball. A movement called Muscular Christianity, presaging the likes of Niagara Power sponsor Fellowship of Christian Athletes, preached that the lessons learned in keeping fit for competition were almost as vital as those acquired in the sanctuary.

One “compromise” proposed limiting Sunday baseball to a three-hour time slot. That sure would pinch today’s Yankees. One judge dismissed charges, saying the game in question was so badly played that it didn’t even qualify as baseball. In Buffalo, a priest changed Mass hours so as to accommodate ballgame attendance, declaring that God was in the sunshine as well as the church.

DeMotte fairly compares the debate to such modern issues as, for example, same-sex marriage in which, as he sees it, a minority imposes, through legislation, its will on a more free-thinking majority, with nasty political in-fighting.

While scholarly, with enough footnotes for a novelette, “Bat, Ball & Bible” reads well, grammatically pristine, with such detail that an obsessive editor starts looking for insignificant errors just to prove that he’s paying attention. This nit-picker found only a team missing in a long-ago International League, Washington misplaced to the National League in 1906 and a misspelling of Chautauqua.

By today’s standards, that’s practically a perfect game.

Doug Smith covers baseball, theater and writes book reviews for Greater Niagara Newspapers.

• WHAT: "Bat, Ball and Bible" • BY: Charles DeMotte • PUBLISHER: Potomac Press • GRADE: A-