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August 02, 2016

Baseball in Noblesville and Hamilton County: The Sunday Baseball Trial

Clarence 1 Baseball in Noblesville and Hamilton County: The Sunday Baseball Trial

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

In a previous post, I mentioned an event involving the 1908 Noblesville baseball team and their 18-year-old first baseman, Clarence Wyant. Son of a local house-painter and a top athlete in high school, in July of 1908 he would be up against an opponent tougher than any big-city pitcher – he would face the state “Blue Laws”.

Civic LeagueThe Blue Laws were about regulating activities in a Sunday, such as closing businesses. Noblesville had always had a reputation for strictness in this area. Evidently this was not considered severe enough, because in April of 1908, a Civic League had been formed in Noblesville. Their goal was the continued moral improvement of the city. They stated that they would accomplish this by pushing for the enforcement of laws that had been only selectively enforced in the past. The first law that they chose was one that had been created fairly recently.

The state of Indiana had passed a law against Sunday baseball in March of 1905. It was part of a general law on Sabbath-breaking and was grouped in with laws on pornography and prostitution. It was challenged at every session of the legislature after that. The first test of the baseball law had been a trial held in Greenfield, Indiana, in 1907. That player had been found guilty and the case went to the Appellate Court, where it had been upheld.

One way that the baseball teams attempted to get around the blue laws would be to hold their games in a venue that would be used for other events as well. Then the public would not be “charged admission” to the game. The fee they paid was simply to enter the stadium, and the fact that a baseball game happened to be in progress was merely a coincidence. In Noblesville, the team used the county fairgrounds (now the site of Riverview Hospital). The local paper asked sarcastically if people were paying 25 cents to view the “remains of the once famous frog ponds of that classic park.” Since people were paying money to see the baseball team play at the county fairgrounds, and since the team would often play on a Sunday, this seemed like a clear violation. The Civic League filed an affidavit with the County Prosecutor’s office to have the case tried in the county circuit court. The trial was set for the last week of July.

George StephensonThe county prosecutor, Cassius Gentry, (who would later go on to have a long career as a judge), was reluctant to try the case. He didn’t press charges until the political pressure became too strong. The trial was presided over by Justice of the Peace Joel Stafford and had a full twelve-man jury. Clarence Wyant may have been chosen as the defendant because of his experience doing mock trials in high school. He was represented by George Shirts, a grandson of some of the first settlers of the county. There were three witnesses called: George Stevenson; one of the fans who had seen the game; and Clarence himself. After the testimony was taken, the prosecution and defense attorneys gave their final arguments. Interestingly, George Shirts’ closing argument barely mentioned guilt or innocence. He talked instead about the public embarrassment that the Civic League was causing the town. The jury was then recessed and, after fifteen minutes of deliberation, returned a finding of Not Guilty.

The local paper had referred to the Noblesville trial as a “test case” and a “friendly suit”, but there were still hard feelings about it. After the trial, a local minister gave a strong sermon about moral failures in the town. However, he was fighting a losing battle. The Sunday baseball law was revoked in by the state legislature in 1909. Society was changing its views about professional sport. It was in 1908 that Indiana native Albert Von Tilzer wrote the music to the song “Take Me out to the Ball Game.” Then in 1910, William Howard Taft began the tradition of the President throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season. The game was now the National Pastime and had become a respectable way to spend an afternoon. And today, although it still has the occasional scandal, at least no one worries about the day on which it’s played.