Folkways are always getting ahead of legal codes, especially codes that restrict such ubiquitous human interests as sport or diversion. When this happens, the offending laws generally get ignored and people go their fun-loving, illegal ways.
Still it came as a jolt the other day to learn that the State of Pennsylvania, reacting at last to generations of burgeoning sport activity, has just legalized the Sunday picnic.
Also made legal in the Pennsylvania legislature's epoch-making but unheralded statute change: Sunday golf, tennis, boating, swimming, bowling, basketball, shooting at inanimate targets and similar "healthful or recreational activities."
Is it possible that Pennsylvania's Sunday picnickers, golfers and shooters at inanimate targets have been criminals? Indeed it is possible, criminals since 1794 when the state's first governor, Thomas Mifflin, moved to "restrain dissipation" by signing a bill outlawing any Sunday "sport or diversion whatsoever." The law set fines of $4 or six-day jail sentences for violators.
True, the Pennsylvania law was not particularly strict by the Puritan standards of the times. Most of the United States, imbued with some of the zeal which brought on Salem's witch trials, was still bending every effort to limit relaxation. Massachusetts had fined its citizens for not attending church and jailed them for taking Sunday walks. Connecticut also captured Sunday strollers, gave them an hour in the stocks—a penalty Rhode Island raised to three hours. The world was for work and worry (actors were given 15 lashes, if caught). It wasn't a century for golfers or picnickers.
Nor did 19th century U.S. Victorians see much reason to change the old antisporting laws. Etiquette books were advising Philadelphia ladies that just two inches of ankle could show as they crossed a street, and texts on how to bow found more favor than those on how to swing a mashie.
It was, then, quite a testimonial to the wisdom of Pennsylvania's law-enforcement officials that in all the 166 years that followed the Act of 1794 not a single sporting soul seems to have been arrested. Nor, it might be added, was much attention paid to another clause of the same law that set a fine of 67¢ for cursing on Sunday. Yet the Sunday sports ban stayed on the books in about its original form, except for an exemption for baseball and football passed in 1933.
Retrospectively, certain Pennsylvania doings now appear in a new light. In golf, to pick an example, the venerable Merion Golf Club can now be viewed as a harborer of lawbreakers for half a century. Ben Hogan, most spectacular scofflaw of them all, it seems, won the dramatic 1950 National Open at Merion in a three-way playoff one grand exciting Sunday, and escaped scot-free. The gallery too went unarrested. Or consider that Gettysburg Sunday golfer, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The new law doesn't excuse his Sabbath-breaking past, but it does put him in the clear from now on.
Governor David L. Lawrence, a onetime picnicker himself, signed the new bill but was mighty cautious about it last week. "I only signed it, I didn't advocate it," he said with political circumspection. Statehouse wags, second-guessing the Governor, were suggesting that he should have left the 1794 law on the books, enforced it in a border-to-border sweep some Sunday and thus raised millions toward his state budget. (Antisports-man Mifflin died a pauper, which may or may not be significant.)
But the Pennsylvania action doesn't end the last trap for the unwary sportsman.
In Massachusetts, for example, though it is legal to play golf on Sunday, it is still illegal to play miniature golf. You can hook a Massachusetts fish on Sunday, but you can't spear one. And one sweeping Bay State statute says the contestants in a Sunday sporting contest must receive no pay between 2 and 6 p.m. that day.
A police chief in the Boston area was appalled at hearing this the other day. He'd made many a dollar playing a semi-pro second base on Sundays. "We were always paid by 6 p.m.," he sadly recalled. "And all those years I prided myself on being a law-abiding guy."
Don't feel bad, chief. Like all those Pennsylvania picnickers you were just way ahead of your time, legally speaking.