Help in High Places
This article was published in the 2010 The National Pastime.
On May 3, 1897, the ministers of Atlanta announced their determination to stop Sunday baseball. They weren’t alone in their campaign: Protestant clerics all over the country were involved in a cultural war to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath not only from baseball but also from other secular threats as well.
The Atlanta Constitution reported: “Nearly every preacher in Atlanta has joined the movement and they say that they will not stop until there is no such thing as Sunday baseball at Fort McPherson, Sunday concerts or any other form of amusement that they regard as demoralizing.”1
Indeed, the Atlanta Evangelical Association was aiming at prominent targets, including the federal government. The Constitution reported that the most important target “and the one that would be most widely felt if successful is the abolishment of Sunday mails [which] they claim . . . is unnecessary and totally in violation of the law laid down in the scriptures.” The group even declared, “The war is on and . . . Sunday must be respected in Atlanta.”2
As serious as that sounds, things were peaceful in Atlanta compared to other communities throughout the country where preachers pushed for quiet Sabbath observance. The baseball magnates who operated teams all united in pushing back—the amateurs in pursuit of pleasure, the professionals in pursuit of dollars.
Fort McPherson, headquarters of the U.S. Army in the South, was an important and integral part of Atlanta’s economy and social life. The city had worked hard to land the fort and was proud of it, although its presence was not without problems. In April 1897, thirty gamblers came before Judge John D. Berry in the City of Atlanta’s criminal court for indulging in their favorite pastime at the fort. Their defense was that city and state courts had no jurisdiction over offenses committed on a government reservation.3
Gambling, however, was not the target of the Evangelical Association. Dr. R. V. Atkisson, pastor of the Central Congregation Church, had identified that target for the association a month earlier when he decried “the evils of the practice [baseball games], showing that large crowds went out from the city every Sunday; that as a rule, an objectionable class of people were at the garrison on that day; that by the yelling and noise the whole place was disturbed.”4
The Evangelical Association had first gone about its business quietly, appointing a committee to call on the fort commander, who had in turn referred them to the War Department in Washington, D.C. While the ministers undoubtedly resorted to prayer, they also turned to a more earthly source of help in high places. They wrote to Col. Alfred E. Buck, a former Republican chairman in Georgia, who was then in Washington. Buck immediately took the letter to the War Department. That approach worked like an answered prayer.
Dr. Atkisson soon reported that “an order had been received at the fort preventing any more games. The Constitution added: “There seems to have been no game Sunday, and the order has gone forth that no more shall be played. The other ministers of the city are equally jubilant, and consider it a great victory for their cause.”5
The biggest change in the local baseball scene, however, wasn’t due to the ministers’ victory. The Atlanta team in the Southeastern League, which hadn’t been playing on Sundays anyway, played its last game on May 29, because the entire league had folded due to “poor patronage.”6
The Fort McPherson baseball team continued to play, just not on Sunday. And the fort continued to be an integral part of Atlanta society. The Constitution reported on Sunday, June 6: “Next Saturday afternoon the ladies of the Episcopal church of West End will give a bicycle meet at Fort McPherson. Captain Cook has generously consented to keep open the fort till 10 o’clock in the evening.”7
Moreover, Atlanta continued to have Sunday entertainments, including two separate band concerts on Sunday, August 1. Extra streetcars were scheduled to run for both events.8
Despite losing Sunday baseball thanks to help in high places, Atlanta’s other Sunday amusements continued, demoralizing or not.
RICHARD MCBANE, a retired newspaperman, is the author of "Glory Days: The Akron Yankees of the Middle Atlantic League, 1935–1941" (Summit County Historical Society, 1997), and "A Fine-Looking Lot of Ball Tossers: The Remarkable Akrons of 1881" (McFarland, 2005).