Criminal Baseball: The Chicago Colts and the Sunday Observance League

Every Day Is Like Sunday

Readers of the Chicago Daily Tribune woke up on the morning of June 23rd, 1895, to discover that the day’s baseball game between the Chicago Colts (fore-runners to the Cubs) and the Cleveland Spiders was likely to be delayed. On account of police raid. As the paper reported, the Rev. W.W. Clark of the Sunday Observance League had demanded warrants for the arrest of team captain Cap Anson and the rest of the Chicago starting nine, for breaking the Sabbath laws.

Gilded Age ministers launched a myriad of reforming crusades against the real and perceived evils of the day, including alcohol, prostitution, poverty, disease, and yes, breaking of the Sabbath. At this time Chicago boasted a particularly active chapter of the International Sunday Observance League run by the particularly aggressive Rev. Clark. The main targets of their crusades that year were the saloons that numbered one for every 335 Chicagoans, especially those found in the German immigrant community, but Clark also had an eye on baseball.

Sunday baseball was no oddity by 1895, but could still arouse objections among the more fastidiously observerant. Clark, singular even within the League for his empahsis on stringent enforcement of the existing laws, decided to ask Chicago Mayor Swift for a police detail to reinforce the constables at West Side Grounds and serve warrants on all players involved in this particular game. Mayor Swift declined the request, and the Chief of Police then made himself scarce as well. Colts team president Hart insisted the game would be played, and advised that even if arrests were made, delays would not amount to more than five minutes. (Tribune, 6-23-1895) Instead, Clark wound up getting the coincidentally named Justice Cleveland to issue warrants against the Colts, as well as two of the Spiders. (6-24-1895)

The Raid
That Sunday, Clark began the game watching from the rooftop of a friend's home, before coming down to supervise as Justice Cleveland and his force of constables proceeded. The Tribune reported on the spectacle:

Five minutes’ intermission for arrests was the program at the ball game yesterday. Just before the game opened Umpire Galvin stood in front of the grand stand and taking off his hat and making his most polite bow announced:

“The game will be delayed for five minutes after the third inning.”

Then he smiled sweetly and the crowd on the bleachers yelled.

And after the end of the third, Anson gathered his team and sent them to the clubhouse to be arrested for disturbing the peace. Said the Tribune:

The crowd waited patiently, and in less than five minutes play was resumed. There were fully 10,000 people on the ground and many of them were in the outfield. When the colts went to be arrested several hundred of the spectators followed and made divers threats against the constables who had the warrants, but President “Jim” Hart managed to quiet the Chicago sympathizers and the arrests went on.”

Hart had brought in his own Justices of the Peace to accept the $100 bail bonds, in case Justice Cleveland refused. That not being the case, the nine Colts players - – Anson, William Lange, Walter Wilmot, George Decker, Ace Steward, Bill Dahlen, W.L. Everitt, M. J. Kittridge, and C.C. Griffith - were released back to the field. The warrant also named two members of the Spiders, third-baseman Chippy McGarr and first baseman-manager Patsy Tebeau. (Not to be confused with his two brothers and teammates, White Wings Tebeau and Pussy Tebeau) Chippy and Patsy did not play that day, and thus were not served with the warrants. When play resumed, the 10,000 in attendance saw the Colts go on to squish the Spiders, 13-4. (6-24-1895)

In Court
The trial began July 9th. With a healthy dose of what can only be described, anachronistically, as snark, the next morning’s column began “Papa Anson and his Colts were tried yesterday morning on a charge of playing ball. At least it must have been this, or else they would have been discharged.” (7-10-1895)

The first witness at the trial was E.F. Cornell, the friend who had invited Clark over to his home. According to Cornell, they were “much disturbed by the noise of the ball game; so much so that he had gone upon the roof of his house and watched the game. Mr. Clark… had also been disturbed, and had joined him on the roof.” It is unclear whether or not the men brought along fishing nets to catch home run balls. The prosecution conceded that the arrested players had not themselves made any sort of disturbance. Cornell admitted the players were “quiet and orderly. The noise, he said, was made by the spectators, who clapped their hands and cheered the various plays.” Clark concurred. (7-10-1895)

If Clark seems to the modern reader a bit overzealous in prosecuting players who by his own accounts behaved in good order, it is worth remembering that at the turn of the century, baseball facilities and the crowds they housed were a far cry from what we know today, more prone to the sort of outbursts that might draw the ire of the Observance League. Just that summer, the fourth of July game “was mainly an exhibition of how a police force of half a dozen man cannot control a mob of 22,000 people bent on doing as they please.” Someone “exploded a huge fire-cracker between Umpire “Jimmy” Galvin’s legs while the fat little ex-pitcher was trying to decide whether on of “Hutch’s” curves was a ball or a strike.” As was customary, the overflowing crowds were allowed onto the field, creating a temporary ground rule that any ball hit into the crowd would count as a home run. Ten were hit that day. (7-5-1895) Besides leading to unusual home run totals, crowds milling about the field often were a prelude to threats of violence against managers and opposing players. Just the year before, near-disaster struck when fire broke out in the West Side Grounds stands, causing fans to try to bum-rush the barbed-wire fence that had been erected to keep them from attacking the umpire. (More on this topic sometime later this year, I hope.) Similarly, the infamous story of “Merkle’s Boner” can not be understood without appreciating the imminent and regular danger of mob violence. (More on that, hopefully, sometime before I die.)

The defense did not contest the fact that the team played ball on a Sunday. President James Hart testified that indeed, the team was playing ball (and good ball, opined the Tribune) that day. The constable responsible for the arrests also endorsed the players’ good behavior, and that even the spectators were cheering “good-naturedly.” Even the beat reporters came to the team’s defense, while one man identified only as John Addison said “that he had often heard more noise from a band at a funeral or at church” The Colts’ attorney warned that if hand-clapping constituted breaking the Sabbath laws, then all Sunday meetings would have to be stopped.” (7-10-1895)

Verdict
The presiding judge, Justice David Ball, ruled eleven days later. Guilty. Anson and the rest of the starters were fined $3 plus costs “for disturbing the peace of a private family by playing baseball on Sunday, June 27th.” (This was the second time that the crack crew of the Tribune has gotten the date wrong in an article. In 1895, June 27th was on a Thursday.) The decision read:

The evidence shows that an exhibition game was in progress and that, quoting the words used by witnesses on both sides, “shouting, clapping, cheering, and yelling” were liberally indulged in. There is no doubt of this, nor is it denied by the defendants. Counsel representing both parties submitted able arguments and numerous citations, all of which have been duly considered and the court is of the opinion that the evidence sustains the complaint.

However, Ball further said that his guilty verdict was informed by a desire to give both sides the right to appeal the matter of Sabbath ordinances to, if you will, a higher court. Indeed the Colts’ attorney immediately appealed, as team President Hart said the decision held no practical consequence on the team, certainly none on their ability to play the game scheduled for later that Sunday afternoon. Rev. Clark, unsurprisingly, thought otherwise. (7-27-1895)

Nuts on Clark
The Colts played that day, the first of a string of losses for Clark across the second half of 1895 and into 1896. In October the Sunday Observance League issued a proclamation rejecting Clark’s methods or his efforts to speak on the League’s behalf. Clark had announced that the league would try to strong-arm the mayor into strict enforcement of the Sunday laws against saloons by seeking a writ of mandamus, a legal order compelling a public official to execute the responsibilities of his position. Said one of the directors,

if anything is done looking toward a closing of the saloons Sunday it must be under the leadership of some older and greater man than Mr. Clark. The fact is he has domineered in the work of the league so far, and we had to rub the vitriol into him today to make him understand he must not presume to speak for others than himself. (10-10-1895)

The baseball campaign didn’t go any better for Clark. Walter Wilmot, the ex-left-fielder and now manager of the Western League’s Minneapolis Millers, became the first of the players to hear his appeals verdict on January 14th, 1896. Each player had a separate appeal, but given the identical nature of the cases, there was little doubt that all would receive the same decision. The jury returned a not guilty verdict, effectively ending the League’s efforts against Chicago baseball. (1-15-1896)

In other words
While fans are attracted to baseball, or any sport, in part as a way temporarily to remove themselves from the vicissitudes of the external world, at the same time baseball is part of that world, offering us a slightly better understanding of our relationship to society by understanding baseball’s relationship to it. And here, we see an American society struggling to find balance between great new wealth and opportunities to pursue recreation and material fulfillment offered in the Gilded Age, and a renewed energy for non-material moral and spiritual rejuvenation. This tension played out across American in countless different ways, including on the ball field. A quick perusal of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract includes a similar trial in Cleveland in 1885 and again in 1897. Each time the guilty verdict held, leading to an end to Sunday baseball in the city going into the 1900s. (45,68) The Brooklyn Dodgers avoided the “Blue Laws” that regulated Sunday businesses by not charging admission. (86) The Highlanders (fore-runners to the Yankees) once handed out cards asking fans to keep quiet during an exhibition game in 1909. (91) The last account chronicled by James occurs, unsurprisingly, near the end of the Progressive Era in 1917, with a Tennessee court denying a request for an injunction against Sunday baseball in Nashville, (113). Charlie Bevis in Sunday Baseball notes that New York legalized Sunday ball in 1919, leaving Massachussettes and Pennsylvania the last two states with both Major League teams and blue laws. But the historical trend was clear. With respect to the blue laws, baseball got the green light.

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