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For the first time in state history, Indiana now allows alcohol to be sold for carryout on Sundays. And while the issue of legalizing Sunday alcohol sales has lingered in the background of legislative sessions since 1977–at times popping up to become the subject of heated arguments–it hasn’t been the most contentious debate the state has had about permissible activities on the first day of the week. The period from 1891-1909 saw debate over an issue so controversial that the rapidly intensifying rhetoric that surrounded it made Sunday alcohol sales look like a technical corrections bill: The legalization of Sunday baseball.

The issue began because Indiana’s First General Assembly that met in Corydon in 1816 enacted a common type of law at the time called a “closing law.”  The law made Sabbath breaking a crime, and outlawed “common labor” on the first day of the week. Though there were a few minor modifications made to the law over the years, it basically remained the same until 1884.

That year, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were established as the first professional baseball team in the state capital, joining the upstart American Association. The American Association had been founded to compete with the National League, which had been around a few years longer but was already becoming the preeminent major league baseball organization. To gain a competitive advantage over their National League counterparts, the American Association sold alcohol to fans at their games, earning it the nickname “The Beer and Whiskey League.” But alcohol wasn’t their only advantage: While the National League clubs played in cities with strict closing laws, the American Association chose cities with lax or ambiguous laws that allowed them to draw huge crowds on the one afternoon each week when spectators didn’t have to work: Sunday.

Though the Indianapolis Hoosiers went out of business after just one season, the legislature realized the huge threat that baseball presented to the sacredness of the Sabbath. They responded in 1885 by passing a new law that prohibited playing baseball on Sundays. So serious was this offense that they put it in Article 5: Crimes Against Public Morals, an article that began with bigamy, incest, and public indecency, and ended with pimping, prostituting, and sodomy. As a result, right in the middle of this portion of the law dedicated (more or less) to sex crimes sat Section 2000a:

2000a. Base-ball. 1. It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to engaged in playing any game of base-ball where any fee is charged, or where any reward or prize, or profit, or article of value is depending upon the result of such game, on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, and every person so offending shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be fined in any sum not exceeding twenty-five dollars.

When professional baseball returned in Indianapolis for the 1887 season, it was naturally in the form of a Sabbath-respecting National League team. The St. Louis Maroons, like many teams in the National League, were on the verge of going out of business in part because they didn’t play Sunday games and had trouble drawing crowds on workdays. Becoming the Indianapolis Hoosiers was an attempt to change the club’s fortunes, but after three seasons in which they finished last (1887) or second-to-last (1888 and 1889) in the National League, the club folded anyway.

Convinced that Indiana would only have success attracting and keeping a professional club if Sunday baseball was legal, Sen. Thomas S. Guthrie (R-Delaware County) introduced a bill to repeal the ban in 1891, the first session after the Indianapolis Hoosiers had gone away. The bill attracted little attention, and was quietly killed without a hearing, but would be reintroduced every session for the next eighteen years. In again went largely unnoticed in 1895, but generated real controversy for the first time in 1897 when Sen. Harry S. New (R-Marion County) introduced a version that would allow Sunday baseball in Indianapolis, but prohibit it in the rest of the state. The initial controversy arose less from the implications for Sabbath desecration as it did from small towns seeing an unfair carve-out for the big capital city. Though New presented a petition signed by 1,000 business owners across the state in favor of his bill, religious groups responded with 15,000 signatures on petitions against the bill, and it, too, was killed without a hearing.

When a newly constituted American Association was founded as a minor league in 1902, Indianapolis was thrilled to serve as the home of the Indianapolis Indians (the same team which still exists today). Professional baseball had come back, but it seemed clear that the ban on Sunday baseball would be an obstacle to keeping the franchise in the long term. So with renewed interest on the topic in 1903, Rep. Willis Miner‘s (R-Marion County) version of the Sunday baseball bill dominated the session. When it passed the House on a 60-21 vote, and dominated legislative debate for the session, opponents began looking for ways to insert a poison pill, or to at least water it down. They got the Senate to go along with the poison pill option, amending it from applying only to cities with a population over 100,000 to any city with a population of 16,000 or greater; the bill narrowly failed 23-25 on the Senate floor. In 1905, Rep. Samuel K. Ruick, Jr. (R-Marion County), replaced Miner in the House and as lead author on the bill. His tactic involved filing two versions of the bill: The first, which tried the watered down approach by allowing games only between 2 P.M. and 6 P.M. and prohibiting liquor from being sold at games, went nowhere; the second, an outright repeal of the law, failed 44-48.

These sessions were especially notable for the constant rallies, protests, and petitions organized in favor of Sunday baseball by the business community, and against it by groups of ministers and women’s social clubs. The circus-like atmosphere and harsh rhetoric around the issue made a strong impression on one legislator in particular: Booth Tarkington was a burgeoning young author who served a single term in 1903. He would write a collection of short stories called In the Arena based on that session–with one story devoted entirely to the Sunday baseball issue–and go on to win the Pulitzer Prize twice later in his career. While he relished the opportunity to serve his community, he found the politics of Sunday baseball entirely distasteful. At the session’s end he would write in the Indianapolis News of his experience, “You may buck the machine and get hard fighting, a lot of rough handling, and have some pretty fancy tricks played on you; but when you are looking for real trouble, follow your sense of right when it conflicts the the ideas of a Sunday-school superintendent.”

In 1907, proponents of Sunday baseball found an unlikely hero in Sen. Thomas W. Brolley (D-Jennings and Scott Counties): Where the issue had been championed primarily by Republicans from Indianapolis, he was a Democrat from the rural southern part of the state. Nonetheless, his version of the bill–which added the quirk that baseball was allowed, but only if it was played at least 1,000 feet from a church–passed the House; after two-hours of debate with a packed gallery in the Senate, however, the bill died 15-35 in his own chamber. Undeterred, he introduced the same bill in 1909. After passing both chambers, Gov. Thomas Marshall vetoed the bill on the grounds that the language might be vague enough to allow sports other than baseball to be played on the Sabbath. Though they had the numbers to override his veto, Brolley instead reworked the bill to remove any ambiguity; when the bill passed both chambers a second time, Marshall neither signed it nor vetoed it. In a written message to the General Assembly, Marshall noted, however, that he still disagreed with it:

The number of cases of nervous breakdowns and suicides and of inmates of insane asylums and sanatoriums, is largely increased, in my judgement, by the failure of mankind to recognize…the necessity of one day of rest out of seven. I, however, believe that so great is the interest in this question that a large number of my fellow-citizens whose views do not coincide with my own, would think that another veto of this bill was simply injecting into this question my personal views in this matter and that I was using my pretended views as to the constitutionality of this act in order to uphold my private views upon the question.

The fallout from the debate was unlike anything we’re familiar with today: When Sen. William H. O’Brien, Sr. (D-Dearborn, Franklin, and Ohio Counties), refused to vote on the bill during the 1903 roll call, he was declared in contempt of the Senate. He later explained he had remained silent because he had made a promise to his wife that he wouldn’t vote for the bill; but after hearing the debate, he was convinced he couldn’t vote against it. Rep. Walter S. Ratliff (R-Wayne) was a Quaker who was in the process of earning his Masters Degree from Earlham College when he voted in favor of Sunday baseball in 1909. Despite the fact he completed all the coursework requirements that spring, shortly after session ended he received a letter from Earlham’s President telling him he would not be awarded the degree. It began: “My Dear Sir:–It is my opinion that on account of your failure to be governed by your pledges on moral questions, you had better consider that you are no longer a candidate for a degree here.” Additionally, the president ordered Ratliff’s picture and biography be cut out of every copy of the school yearbook, and Ratliff left the Quaker community in response to how some members of the church were treating even his father over his legislative votes.

But the backlash didn’t just impact legislators: After the bill passed, the Indianapolis Indians began scheduling Sunday games. When a Marion County Superior Court judge struck down the law in May 1909, the Indians played their games anyway. After their game on Sunday, May 23, Indians Manager Charles Carr was arrested and charged with desecrating the Sabbath. He cut a deal with the court to postpone his trial until after the season was over, by which time the team had played twelve Sunday games. Carr was convicted on twelve counts of Sabbath desecration, but only fined $1. He successfully appealed his case to the Indiana Supreme Court, which overturned the lower court’s ruling and allowed the Sunday baseball law to stand. Because opponents were unsuccessful at their attempts to repeal the law over the next decade (ultimately giving up in 1919), we’ve had Sunday baseball in Indiana ever since–but if you were watching the Sunday games from home, you had to buy your beer on Saturday for a century more.

Selected Bibliography

  • Carmin, Michael Lee. “Indiana’s Sunday Alcoholic Beverage Sales: Regulation Without Justification“, published in 1979 in the Indiana Law Journal (Vol. 55, Iss. 1, Art. 9)
  • Kingsbury, Harmon. “The Sabbath: A Brief History of Laws, Petitions, Remonstrances, and Reports”, published in 1840
  • The Revised Statutes of the State of Indiana“, published in 1888.
  • Walsh, Jusin E. “The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978”, published by the Select Committee on the Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1987 (pages 292-294 and 408-410 cover Sunday baseball)
  • “Sunday Baseball”, published in the Indianapolis Journal on February 12, 1903 (pages 1 and 2, with the account of Sen. O’Brien on page 2)
  • Tarkington, Booth. “Legislative Session as Viewed by Booth Tarkington After a Fortnight”, published in the Indianapolis News on March 28, 1903 (page 4)
  • “Refuse Ratliff Master’s Degree at the College”, published in the Richmond Palladium on March 15, 1909 (pages 1 and 8)
  • Journal of the Indiana House of Representatives, 1909 (pages 1114-1115 include Marshall’s veto and veto statement on the first Sunday baseball bill sent to him; pages 1337-1338 include Marshall’s statement about why he would not sign nor veto the second Sunday baseball bill)