The headline in the Red Cloud (Neb.) Chief on July 25, 1902 was startling by anyone’s measure. SUNDAY BASEBALL RESULTS IN RIOT AT NEBRASKA CITY! SHERIFF ATTEMPTS ARREST OF PLAYERS.
The great baseball riot of 1902 did not make it into Nebraska’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. Nebraska was not alone. Debates over the morality of engaging in "common labor" and recreation on Sunday raged all over the country.
Until 1913 playing baseball in Nebraska on Sunday was reason enough for the sheriff to throw a team in jail. The Nebraska Supreme Court singled out baseball as an inappropriate activity for what was regarded as “a day of rest” in the secular law and most Christian churches.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s many states had “Sunday laws” or blue laws. Nebraska’s statute banned a whole list of things that clergy assumed would not be to God's liking.
|Headline from the Red Cloud (Neb) Chief, July 1902|
“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.”
Strict interpretations of the Bible shaped almost every aspect of secular law at the time. 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.”).
That one commandment put many devout Christians at odds with the other passion of the day: baseball. This was a time when many Nebraska towns hosted minor league teams. Thousands of people filled the stands at games all over the state. A winning team was a matter of civic pride.
Community attitudes about Sunday recreation varied greatly. In Omaha one local team ignored the protests from some ministers. It wasn't a secret. There were ads in the paper. and played Sunday baseball starting in 1900. Sandy Griswold, a sports columnist for the Omaha World Herald, called the law “idiotic.”
Conflicts were inevitable. Dozens of articles appear in newspapers of the era reporting conflicts over baseball on Sunday. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, famous for opposition to all liquor, added the evils of baseball to its pious protests along with stopping theater performances on Sunday and “deploring extreme styles of dress.”
Teams in Fremont, York and Scribner all ended up in court at various times. Other towns protested by not buying tickets. When a team in Hershey, Neb. scheduled a Sunday game in 1900 the North Platte Telegraph reported it “was a complete fizzle." Those who stayed away were “a better class of citizens” according to the article. The editor of the paper in Oakland, Neb. refused to run ads for the beloved local team because they ignored the baseball ban.
|Dakota County Herald, April 1910|
Town team leagues found creative ways to play their games for eager fans. Bruce Esser, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of early baseball told me teams had to keep moving around to stay out of trouble. “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.”
But nothing could compare to the baseball riot in Nebraska City. A group called the Law & Order League insisted the sheriff in Otoe County shut down Sunday baseball. When the sheriff showed up players and angry fans surrounded him. As the crowd roughed him up someone stole his revolver.
The entire team, including manager Tim O’Rourk, earned a citation from the sheriff. Apparently they weren't impressed. 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. The justices were asked if baseball could be legally defined as a “sporting” activity and thus an illegal activity on the Sabbath. The justices not only ruled it qualified as “sporting,” but stated emphatically the Sunday ban served a higher purpose in the community. (Read the ruling here!)
In 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.”
|Editorial cartoon from The Omaha Bee, 1913|
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 for years. In1913 public opinion tempered and state lawmakers agreed that maybe a friendly game of baseball would not undermine the social fabric of the community. Sort of.
The revised law left the decision up to individual counties and towns. Some held local elections. Some city councils and county boards made the decision. Teams in Omaha did what they had always been doing without interruption: playing baseball on Sunday. One town after another dropped the ban.
Imagine trying to explain to the NCAA why College World Series games couldn't be played on Sunday in Omaha.
(Editors note: research for this post came from an NET News radio story that aired on the 100th anniversary of the change in the Nebraska's anti-baseball law. Listen to it here!)