By jim zbick
The popularity of sports on Sunday has never been an issue in our lifetime, but a century ago it was a hot-button topic locally.
The controversy over playing ball on the Sabbath in this state can actually be traced as far back as 1794 when legislators in the Pennsylvania Assembly passed "an Act for the prevention of vice and immorality, and of unlawful gaming, and to restrain disorderly sports and dissipation" on the Lord's Day.
Changes in American society during the latter part of the 19th century brought a gradual relaxation in those strict laws and by 1902 large cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati permitted Sunday baseball. Although more common in professional ball, it began filtering down to other levels around the country as the 20th century progressed.
The movement to have Sunday baseball, however, received much opposition from religious groups in Pennsylvania. Those who supported the Blue Laws argued that playing professional baseball on Sunday was a "breach of peace," and that games would be "a disturbance to persons in that neighborhood desirous of preserving the peace and quiet of Sunday so that they may in such peace and quiet pursue their religious worship and meditation."
Connie Mack, who owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics through the first half of the 20th century, was a supporter of Sunday baseball mainly because of the revenue it brought a franchise sorely in need of funds. By 1918 professional games on the Sabbath were allowed in Cleveland, Detroit and Washington. New York City joined the fold the next year, and Boston and Baltimore signed up for Sunday baseball in 1929 and 1932, respectively.
Philadelphia's first legal Sunday baseball game between major league teams, however, didn't occur until April 8, 1934, when 15,000 watched the Phillies beat the Athletics 8-1 at Shibe Park.
The local area had its own brouhaha over Sunday baseball in 1911. At that time, Lansford, Mauch Chunk and Nesquehoning were the only teams playing Sunday ball but Coaldale was expecting to soon begin playing and other towns were expected to follow.
In May, players who participated in a Sunday game between Nesquehoning and Lansford even found themselves part of a legal action. Included in the crowd of over 1,000 people at the game in Nesquehoning were Pastor Joshua of the Welsh Baptist Church and Pastor Noon of the Methodist Church.
Rather than watching the action on the field, however, they were much more interested in gathering the names of the players. Warrants were soon served on 17 of the 18 who played in the game.
Before taking legal action, the ministers had appealed to Baird Snyder, superintendent of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, which owned the grounds where the games were played, but he refused to interfere. The teams offered a compromise, whereby they would start their games at 4 p.m,, and thus not compete against church services and Sunday school, but the ministers turned it down.
One writer for the Tamaqua Courier expected Squire Watkins of Nesquehoning to administer a small fine against the players with the admonition "to go and sin no more." He said the case amplified "a much-mooted question as to whether Sunday ball playing is any more of a desecration of the Sabbath than a trolley ride, partaking of a glass of soda water or a plate of ice cream."
While Sunday baseball was a hot topic of conversation in the Panther Valley area in 1911, the mood was tame compared to the emotions boiling over at one church in Schuylkill County. Local residents were shocked to learn that five members of the Greek Catholic congregation of Minersville were arrested for attempting to dynamite the rectory on June 16 with "the intent to take the life" of the Rev. Andrew Kaminsky, pastor.
Trouble between the pastor and members of the church committee had been brewing for months. The Rev. Kaminsky reportedly left the church for a period to have his eyes treated in Philadelphia. Members of the church felt they were not properly notified and the committee presented him with a note of dismissal.
They also barricaded the church doors which blocked the priest from holding service.
"When the priest returned he found himself locked out of his own church and proceeded to enter by force, and having done so, conducted mass as though nothing had occurred," the Courier reported.
The phrase "enter by force" involved the priest applying an ax to the door and busting his way inside the building.
What had started as a church feud took a more ominous path on June 16, when a can of nitroglycerin, several sticks of dynamite and 50 feet of fuse were found on the front doorstep of the church. The fuse had been lighted but went out.
One of the five arrested, Simeon Bardon, had been a rock man at a local colliery and state police found that he had recently taken an extra quantity of fuse from work.