Historical Baseball Blurb: Joseph Andrews Sommers

It's totally possible this is not him

On May 28, 1885—almost 120 years ago, Joseph Andrews Sommers, apparently known as Pete, was arrested in Cleveland for playing baseball on Sunday.

This is interesting for a bunch of reasons. The first is obvious: arrested for playing baseball!? Those of you who have read Johnny Tremain are no doubt familiar with the (now antiquated) law against certain activities on the Christian Sabbath—like working, and, apparently, playing baseball.

Bill James reveals that the judge refused to admit evidence that a bazillion people played baseball on Sunday in Cleveland, all the time. Which is appropriate, because whether other people commit a crime with impunity or not shouldn’t matter whether an accused person is guilty. That lots of people sell cocaine and get away with it doesn’t mean that any given cocaine dealer who gets caught should be excused.

Then again, there has to come a point where the indifference of law enforcement enters the equation. Clearly the playing of baseball on Sunday had been open and notorious, and nobody had made an effort to curtail it until poor Pete got on somebody’s bad side. Anyway.

 Another reason it’s interesting is the constitutional arguments that arose from this case. Obviously this is the sort of law that is laughable today because it is so clearly an instance of the state enforcing a religion. Sommers might have wished to keep a different Sabbath, and he would not be the beneficiary of unequal protection if the state barred him from doing so. Apparently these issues were raised on appeal, although I cannot for the life of me find the case anywhere. Sommers’s defense also suggested that Pete had not, in fact, been “playing,” but following his avocation, and that the jury should have been instructed to consider that.

A third reason it’s interesting is that details are seriously sparse. It’s tough to find out what was really going on here. Who was Pete Sommers, the minor league catcher? Who did he piss off? Where did his case go? I like to think he was a dashing rogue, sleeping with the girlfriends of all the police officers who

Anyway, there you have it. Baseball, our national pastime, was once a criminal charge! Let us laud and lionize our noble progenitor, Pete Sommers, for he bravery in the face of adverse abuse of institutionalized power. For baseball!

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