How Sunday baseball came to Detroit

Fans crowd the field for the first game of the 1907 World Series at Bennett Park in Detroit.

It’s hard to imagine a Sunday without big-league baseball, but for many years a silent Sabbath was the rule. In Detroit, as elsewhere, ordinances banned most Sunday amusements. The feeling among clergy and many leading citizens was that the day was better spent in quiet spiritual reflection. But by the late 19th century, urban workers were clamoring for entertainment on their only full day off during the week.

It was not unusual for ballplayers and fans to be arrested and hauled off to jail for daring to play on Sunday. In an attempt to skirt the so-called blue laws, early Tigers owners George Vanderbeck and Jim Burns scheduled seventh-day dates in communities where enforcement was known to be lax. Between 1896 and 1905, the team played 50 Sunday games in such diverse places as Springwells Township, Mount Clemens, River Rouge, Grand Rapids, Toledo, and Columbus, Ohio.

Two-thirds of these bootleg games were played at Burns Park, a slapdash wooden facility constructed on the Burns family’s property in Springwells Township. Although the games consistently drew large crowds, the Tigers abandoned the venue after three seasons. The reason was its unsavory environment. Patrons tended to be coarser and more demonstrative than those at Bennett Park, the Tigers’ regular home during the rest of the week. Next door to Burns Park was a hotel whose bar was a favorite gathering spot for fans.

“Those were the days!” exclaimed Walter O. Briggs, a regular Burns Park patron and future Tigers owner. “Why, you used to see more fights there on a Sunday afternoon than you see now in the big leagues in five years. The players fought each other and the fans; the fans fought the gate tenders; and the tenders fought the ground keeper. The customers would come out all ginned up; fights started before a ball was pitched, lasted throughout the game, and continued long afterwards.”

It was exactly this kind of rowdyism that had American League president Ban Johnson plotting to move the Detroit franchise to Pittsburgh. However, new owner Bill Yawkey and his right-hand man, Frank Navin, helped turn the team’s image around after gaining control in 1904.

By 1907, a combination of factors finally brought Sunday ball to Michigan and Trumbull. These included a growing liberal view toward Sunday recreation and a red-hot team pursuing the city’s first pennant in 20 years. The fact that new mayor George Codd and many of the city’s aldermen, including John Lodge and James Vernor, were former amateur players and great Tiger fans also encouraged Navin to try to make Detroit only the fourth big-league city (after St. Louis, Chicago, and Cincinnati) to regularly host Sunday games.

On August 18, 1907, a turnout of 9,635 saw the Tigers and New York Highlanders play the first Sunday game at Bennett Park. Included in the crowd were several high officials, including the new county sheriff – former Tigers owner Jim Burns. Nobody interfered as the Tigers won, 13-6.

Detroit played two more Sunday games at The Corner without incident in 1907. Navin, gambling that pennant fever would drown out any protesting clergy and aldermen, scheduled eight Sunday contests in 1908. He was rewarded with record crowds. While politicians maintained their indifference, business owners vocalized their support, noting that Sunday games provided much-needed recreation for factory workers tuckered out from six-day work weeks.

In 1909, as the Tigers clawed their way to a third straight pennant, baseball fever reached an all-time high. Ten Sunday games at Bennett Park produced crowds as large as 18,478, then a monumental figure. Except for a few dwindling protests from the city’s older citizens, the games were played without interference. Although the blue laws wouldn’t be expunged from the books for several more years, for all intents and purposes the holy war over Sunday ball was now over.

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