Pennsylvania blue laws remains

January 28, 2020 GMT

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — As the young man ran down the alley, a policeman in pursuit with his revolver drawn, a woman ran alongside.

“For God’s sake, don’t shoot,” she pleaded.

Patrick “Patsy” Joyce wasn’t just a victim of police brutality. He was a victim of Pennsylvania’s blue laws.

The 23-year-old was being chased by police in Philadelphia that day in May 1921 over a dispute about a baseball being tossed around on the Sabbath.

Blue laws were enacted nationwide to preserve the Lord’s Day for prayer and rest. Pennsylvania had plenty of them, one of which made it a crime to play baseball or football on Sundays. Ninety-nine years later, that’s technically still the case in much of the state, including Allentown.

While other states officially wiped their blue laws off the books decades, or even more than a century ago, Pennsylvania never did. Not even when it rewrote its entire criminal code in 1972.


House Bill 1174 by Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Fayette, would repeal this one. The legislation passed the House unanimously in May and is winding through the Senate.

“Many of these acts were enacted several decades ago and are simply archaic and are no longer applicable in the 21st century,” Dowling wrote in a legislative memo. “In addition, the existence of these outdated laws contributes to the already complex and confusing nature of government.”

‘I will shoot’

Joyce wasn’t involved in the game of catch that annoyed a church official so much that he summoned police shortly before noon. But Joyce was in the middle of the quarrel that resulted when an officer broke up the game.

An argument escalated into a fight. Patrolman William Drennen clubbed one of the ballplayers. Joyce happened by, pulled the policeman away and fled, according to accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Evening Public Ledger.

Drennen, his face bloodied from the scrum, chased after, service revolver drawn.

“For God’s sake, don’t shoot,” pleaded the woman in the alley where they ran.

“I will shoot the ...,” Drennen replied, according to the Evening Public Ledger.

Joyce stumbled. Drennen, bleeding badly from a cut lip and possibly nursing a fractured right elbow, caught up to him, grabbed him by the shirt with one hand and fired with the other.

The patrolman got away from a mob at the scene, but did not escape justice. He was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

A century of debate

Previously, there had been occasional uproars about the state’s blue laws. Joyce’s death prompted another. The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger published an editorial assailing the law as being out-of-touch with modern attitudes.

The newspaper argued the tragedy could have been prevented if “Sabbatarians” hadn’t blocked attempts to relax the law, according to a 1970s research paper by Penn State professor J. Thomas Jable.


A century later, lawmakers finally are scrubbing it, and others.

They’ve already done away with the blue law restriction on Sunday hunting, allowing it three days a year. The Legislature is also debating bills to allow car dealers to open on Sundays and to repeal limits on when concerts and movies can be shown on the Sabbath.

Most of the blue laws are ignored, with support from the state Supreme Court. It ruled in 1978 that most are unconstitutional because of their sporadic enforcement. Some, though, such as the ban on Sunday car sales, are strictly adhered to.

The first restriction on Sunday activities came in 1779, according to a paper by Penn State professor John A. Lucas titled “The Unholy Experiment — Professional Baseball’s Struggle Against Pennsylvania Sunday Blue Laws 1926-1934.”

Another was passed in 1794, an act “for the prevention of vice and immorality, and of unlawful gaming, and to restrain disorderly sports and dissipation.”

It prohibited “any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday, works of necessity and charity only excepted.”

That included “any unlawful game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever.”

A subsequent law a few years later allowed churches to put chains across highways to prevent traffic near them on Sunday, according to a Chicago Tribune history of blue laws, which noted, “Other states had blue laws, but Pennsylvania was swathed in them.”

Blue laws fell first in western states such as California and Oregon. But they held fast elsewhere, and occasionally, they resulted in violence.

Roland Parks, a teenager, was shot in the stomach in Tangier, Virginia, for ”’loafing on store porches on Sunday while church services are being held.″ The constable who shot him was lauded by the mayor.

″Now they will know that we mean to enforce the law,” he said, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Elsewhere, attempts were made to skirt the law. The minor league Baltimore Orioles let people attend Sunday games for free, which technically wasn’t a violation of Maryland’s statute against “professional” baseball. Then the team required fans to buy a program, with the cost varying based upon where they were seated, according to the Tribune.

In Philadelphia, the city-owned Crystal Pool at Woodside Park defied the law and opened on Sundays. It paid a weekly fine of $10 — to the city, which was the butt of vaudeville jokes such as ″I was in Philadelphia last weekend, but it was closed.″

Pennsylvania’s prohibition on Sunday sports finally bent, but didn’t break, with the public’s demand to be able to see professional teams such as the Philadelphia Athletics.

In 1933, lawmakers enacted compromise legislation. Baseball and football could be played on Sunday between 2 and 6 p.m., if local voters approved a referendum. Most of the larger cities and towns approved, while many rural communities didn’t, according to the research by Lucas. Allentown officials told me they are unaware of any referendum occurring.

Unfortunately, the 1933 change came 12 years too late for Patsy Joyce.




Information from: The Morning Call,