We take baseball games on Sunday as a rite of the game. Yet that was not the case until the first third of the twentieth century. To play or not to play on Sunday was the question. And one that was debated fiercely in city halls and state legislatures. Major league baseball was not played on Sunday in New York until May 5, 1919, and Philadelphia until April 8, 1934.
Today’s hitter is Hal Chase, he was the first National Leaguer to officially get a hit on Sunday in New York City, and in doing so lead to the arrest of his Manager, and the opposing team’s manager as well. It was a single in the fourth inning at the Polo Grounds on Sunday, August 19, 1917.
The game was a Charity game for the Military dependents of soldiers fighting in Europe during the First World War. As W.J MacBeth wrote in the New York Tribune, “From an artistic standpoint and a local angle there was much to be desired… Cincinnati showed right where charity begins, accepting it by a 5 to 0 score.”
A large crowd of 24,000 saw a patriotic and sacred band concert for which was the guise of the game being played and noted as an artistic triumph. After the concert the troops marched in 2500 men from the New York based 69th Infantry Regiment. The 69th infantry known as the ‘Fighting 69th’ is still in existence today and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the regiment marched into the Polo Grounds that day and took their seats, W.J MacBeth of the Tribune witnessed that the soldiers were, “accompanied by a continuous howl of mad applause.”
At the end of the seventh inning, the game was stopped to auction off a baseball signed by President Woodrow Wilson. The stipulation was that whoever won the ball would in turn give the ball to the regiment’s Chaplin, so the ball could be taken to France and auctioned off again for the benefit of widows and orphans. The Polo Grounds auction netted $500 dollars for the cause.
Because it was illegal to play baseball in New York City on Sunday, even with a military parade concert and auction both John McGraw and Christy Matthewson found themselves in front of the Judge.
Baseball Magazine of October 1917 took the opportunity to give their opinion of the arrests of McGraw and Mathewson.
As it was, a crowd equal to the population of a fairly large western city, had the opportunity of enjoying a healthful, inspiring contest in the open air, while many thousand dollars were donated for the use of those soldiers who are called to give their lives if need be, for the cause of freedom on the fields of France.
A cynical observer might say that the cause of freedom requires attention much nearer home. Certainly the musty, moth eaten, and cobweb covered blue laws which still clutter up the legislative archives of the greatest state in the Union are as senseless and absurd an infringement on personal liberty as exists anywhere.
Once again the fact was emphasized that no one can perform a worthy and sensible act on Sunday in New York City without dangermost of becoming involved with one of the most bigoted, idiotic and contemptible laws which ever disgraced the statutes of a civilized community. It was a fine occasion for certain meddlesome busy-bodies with sixteenth century brains in so far as they might be said to have any brains at all, to butt in and as a climax of imbecility, serve with summonses the two managers of the contesting teams who had given their time and services gratis to a worthy cause.
What makes this game such a compelling event were the four major characters in this game: Hal Chase, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, and the US Army. This is a drama of extremes: of Good and Evil, acts of reverence and charity, and of sincere patriotism and civil disobedience.
Simply put Hal Chase was perhaps baseball’s worst person ever – in a class by himself, as Bill James noted, “Something about him made wrong shine as it were right and evil smell like good, “ and then continues , “The secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace that evil.”
His manager of the day was Baseball’s most noble and honorable pitcher. Christy Mathewson, Baseball’s Christian Gentleman. The same man who never pitched on Sunday, as a promise to his mother to honor the Sabbath. Yet he made no promise to his mother about managing, and was in the dugout this Sunday afternoon. When the US entered the War months later in 1918, he resigned his post with the Reds and enlisted. He was appointed Captan and assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service where he was accidentally gassed which effectively ended his baseball career and shortened his life. He died in 1925 of complications from Tuberculosis.
As manager of the Reds, Mathewson brought charges against Chase for throwing games, yet when the hearing for Chase went to the National League President, Mathewson was in Europe and without credible witnesses, Chase was let off.
John McGraw, at one time Mathewson’s manager, did not challenge his star pitcher about playing on Sundays, nor let it hinder the Giants from being baseballs winningest team under his tenure. Of course, with Blue laws prohibiting games on Sunday, Mathewson’s wish was easy to comply with.
Baseball is the American Pastime, because it embodies and embraces all that this county is; the legal, social and ethical tradition and how each generation defines and redefines such traditions. I find it so appropriate that days the blue laws were broken the first base hit was by baseball’s most dishonest and evil character. Moreover, the presence of baseball’s most honorable and devoted pitcher gives Sunday baseball its moral approval. The purpose of the game in wiping aside archaic laws was an act of sincerest Patriotism: to honor support the troops, and it is a baseball tradition that thankfully continues to this day.
As for the real decision of the game played on August 19, Baseball Magazine reported:
MAGISTRATE McQUADE’S decision in the McGraw-Mathewson case deserves the approval of every lover of baseball and every champion of personal liberty in this country. We quote from his decision;” The public owe McGraw and Mathewson a vote of thanks instead of having them here to answer a charge of violating the law.
“It is my opinion that there was no infraction of any statute. Playing baseball on the first day of the week, when not amounting to a serious interruption of the repose and religious liberty of the community, is not a violation.
Baseball Magazine October 1917 http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/BBM/1917/bbm196i.pdf
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Free Press 2001.
W.J. MacBeth, “Fighting Sixty-Nineth Watches Giants Lose” New York Tribune, Monday August 20, 1917. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1917-08-20/ed-1/seq-11.pdf
The first Sunday baseball game was actually held on April 17, 1892 (Cincinnati 5 St. Louis 1). By 1902 Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati all revised their local blue laws enabling Sunday baseball, but that was not the league norm. It took the Giants-Reds game of August 19, 1917 to establish the precedence. By 1918, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington allowed Sunday games.