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Blue Laws & Baseball
Tennessee v. Nashville Base Ball Association

State v. Nashville Base Ball Association, 1919
RG 170, Supreme Court Trial Cases

Johnny Beazley was barely one year old when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on a controversial case involving baseball and the state's "blue laws." The decision would affect the state's professional teams: the Nashville Volunteers, Memphis Chickasaws, and Chattanooga Lookouts. It even affected kids playing in the corner lot.

In Tennessee and throughout the United States, playing baseball on Sunday was offensive to many people because they believed it violated the Sabbath. In many cities and states "blue laws" (the origin of the term is still debated) were enacted to prohibit or restrict certain activities on Sunday. Sports, alcohol sales, movies, and commercial activity were frequently forbidden on that day, and many blue laws are still on the books. Tennessee's statewide blue law was enacted in 1803.

In the Supreme Court at Nashville, the state slugged it out with minor league baseball in State v. Nashville Base Ball Association (1919). The clash first arose in 1916 over the Nashville Volunteers' practicing and playing games on Sunday — in defiance of the blue law. The state's case rested primarily on the grounds of preserving the Sabbath as a day of rest.

street car

Streetcar on Buchanan Street with advertisements for a Temperance meeting and a baseball game, Nashville, Tennessee, June 28, 1907
Library Photograph Collection

The state also argued that playing baseball on Sunday constituted a nuisance, while the defendant countered that the sport was a clean, healthy national pastime. The lower court judge even attended a Sunday game to see the "nuisance" for himself and found none, so he denied the state's injunction to halt play. On appeal, the decision was reversed, so the dispute was taken up in the state's Supreme Court.

Baseball game at Greenwood Park

Postcard showing a baseball game at Greenwood Park, Nashville, Tennessee, ca. 1900
Library Photograph Collection

Some Sulphur Dell area neighbors testified in depositions that Sunday games were immoral, that noise from the park disturbed their day of rest, and that auto and buggy traffic congested the streets. One witness said that while sitting on his porch, he could always tell when Nashville made a run. Other residents saw no immorality in the games. One claimed that the streetcar made much more noise than the games. Another witness stated he never saw any mischief making, drinking, fighting, or gambling at the park.

In the end, the high court ruled in baseball's favor. It reasoned that since baseball did not exist when the original law was passed, it did not apply to the game. Nashville Vols skipper Roy Ellam commented excitedly, "De-elighted!"



Hand-sewn leather baseball from the Civil War era
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Minor league baseball game (1)
Minor league baseball game (2)

Minor league baseball game, Chattanooga, Tennessee, ca. 1947
Library Photograph Collection

Little League baseball game

Little League baseball game, Milan, Tennessee, 1950s
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection