Believe it or not, there was a time it was illegal to play baseball on Sundays. Decades ago, the same blue laws that today don’t allow people in certain states to buy alcohol or cars on Sundays, also applied to baseball.
That’s how it came to be that two Hall of Famers — John McGraw and Christy Mathewson — were arrested exactly 100 years ago, Aug. 19, 1917, when their teams played a baseball game on a Sunday in New York City.
It seems silly when you think about it in 2017. Sundays are the biggest baseball games of the week for some teams. It’s when teams often hold their jersey retirements. And when baseball fans come together for the national game of the week.
But in 1917, things were different. Pro sports couldn’t be played on Sunday in New York (and many other states) because it was illegal to sell tickets. The conflict had been going on for many years. Back in 1904, Charles Ebbets, the owner of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, thought of a clever way around this, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He said admission to the game was free, but charged for a scorecard that determined where fans would sit. He was taken to court for breaking the blue laws. He won at first, but lost on appeal. And so went baseball games in New York on Sundays.
That was until 1917. The New York Giants, managed by McGraw, agreed to play against the Cincinnati Reds, managed by Mathewson, at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. This wasn’t a normal game, though. The teams had agreed to move up the date of another game to accommodate 2,100 soldiers from the 69th Regiment who were shipping out to France the next day and soon would be involved in World War I.
Newspaper reports say that 34,000 people attended the game, which was also supposed to raise money for the troops heading overseas. A concert for the soldiers preceded the baseball game.
That didn’t buy the managers any goodwill from authorities. They were arrested at the ballpark and two days later, were summoned to court. You can read the New York Times article about the court summons from Aug. 21, 1917 right here.
Police said that because the game counted on the NL schedule – yes, they had arguments about whether games *counted* 100 years ago too, just not the All-Star game — that it was in violation of the law.
When McGraw and Mathewson went to court, however, they got a very different message. The judge, Frank McQuade, who was called the “the father of Sunday baseball in New York” in his New York Times obituary, threw the case out and instead praised McGraw and Mathewson “for lending their services to the patriotic cause.”
It was a win for baseball — though, as the Society for American Baseball Research notes in McQuade’s bio, he wouldn’t exactly be accepted by today’s legal standards. He was friends with McGraw, which certainly wouldn’t fly in court now. Nonetheless, McQuade then made this a personal cause. He spent the next year campaigning to get New York’s blue laws changed to allow baseball to be played on Sundays.
By April 19, 1919, the law had changed and three months later McQuade threw out the first ceremonial first pitch at a sanctioned Sunday game at the Polo Grounds.
It was a good end to the story of McGraw and Matthewson getting arrested, but the start of another tale for McQuade. In the years that followed, he would become a minority owner of the Giants and a team executive alongside McGraw. That didn’t end well for McQuade. He eventually clashed with other owners and was fired, which set off a year’s long legal battle.
But, hey, at least the Giants could play baseball on Sundays in New York.
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