Mama Always said, “Don’t Play Ball on Sunday”

 

 

In the early 20th century, baseball players were anything but role models mothers wanted their children to idolize. Mothers regarded them as a rough-and-tumble bunch; men who would rather play a senseless game than work for a living. With a ballgame played in two hours at most, baseball players had a lot of spare time on their hands. Any mother knew idleness led to trouble when youngsters were involved. And even today, in a mother’s eyes, does a child ever really grow up?

The only thing many mothers of a hundred years ago despised more than baseball itself was the idea of playing the game on Sunday. In many cases, local laws supported them. Blue laws prohibited many Sunday activities, particularly if they involved providing entertainment for profit. Remnants of blue laws still exist. In Texas, liquor stores and auto dealerships are closed on Sundays. A hundred years ago, baseball became the center of the blue law controversy.

As the Texas League gained popularity, pressure increased for laws to be changed to allow baseball seven days a week. A professional franchise sitting idly for just a day could hardly turn a profit. A day gameless meant the loss of the usual $50 guarantee for the visiting team. Still, owners were left with daily expenses and travel costs, and that one game may have meant the difference a team continuing play or dropping out of the league.

More than one owner or manager found ways of working around the blue laws. In putting together its circuit, a meeting held at least annually, Texas League stalwarts like J.M. Gardner, William Ward, and Doak Roberts would dominate discussions and rail against awarding franchises to communities with prohibitions on Sunday baseball. and occasionally a team, was detained for breaking Other owners and managers simply chose to ignore the law, and in most cases the constable simply turned his head. But on occasion, a manager and sometimes even an entire team found itself in jail rather than at the ballpark. Normally, all involved were quickly bailed out of jail by enraged spectators who had paid their nickels to see nine innings of baseball.

By the 1920s, many communities relaxed their prohibition on Sunday activities. Mothers, on the other hand had never been early-adopters when it came to change. The only law that really mattered to a kid with a ball, a bat, and a mitt was the one a mother enforced. Violations were often followed by trips to the woodshed. So it was. For many years, mothers did their best to protect their sons from the game’s inherent and detrimental sins. Some even continued to attempt to influence their sons’ choices long after they had reached adulthood. My great-grandmother, Mary Phillips Rutherford of Petty, Texas, was not an exception.

By the latter half of the 1920s, Mary and her husband Jack had raised a family of seven children—five sons and two daughters—with four of the boys and one girl having survived the dangers of infant mortality. Of the four surviving boys, at least three had an interest in baseball, led by the oldest, Frank, born in 1906. Frank was a member of the Petty “Nine,” the local town ball team that played teams from nearby communities on a regular basis.  In fact, between Frank, his brothers, and their cousins from up the road, the Bevilles, Petty almost had a complete team. The Beville family fielded a fine bunch of ball players itself, led by all-around athlete Elvis and his brother Joe, who became a much sought after pitcher and had tryouts with Oklahoma City of the Texas League and Knoxville of the Southern Association. Ultimately, he played only briefly with Knoxville’s East Texas League affiliate, Tyler, before he decided professional baseball was not for him.

Frank became Petty’s team leader and was well-known on the town ball circuit in Lamar and Fannin Counties. Much to his mother’s chagrin, even after marrying Lorene Dellinger in 1926, Frank continued to play ball when he wasn’t working on the family farm. And Sundays, as always, were certainly no time to be working!

One summer Sunday in the latter half of the 1920s, Frank and his Petty teammates hopped aboard the Texas and Pacific Railroad headed for Paris, where they would challenge a team from the Lamar County seat.  Despite a much smaller pool of talent to choose from, the Rutherford- and Beville-led Petty squad was formidable. With Petty in command on the scoreboard, Frank stood at the plate in the middle innings. Never a shy hitter, he swung at the first pitch and wrapped it past the third baseman into left field. Knowing his team had a substantial lead, Frank tried to stretch his base hit into a double. He didn’t hesitate as he rounded first base.  But Paris’ outfielder hustled to the ball, and Frank could see his two-sacker wasn’t a given. Frank, the second baseman, and the ball all arrived at the bag together, and an unintentional but violent collision ensued. Years later, Roscoe Jones, either a player or a spectator sitting in the bleachers, noted that out of the dust, he heard what sounded like a shotgun.

Frank lay on the ground trying to make sense of the loud crack Roscoe had heard as well as the jarring pain shooting from his lower leg. It wasn’t long before everyone realized Frank had likely fractured or broken some bones, and he was driven to the Paris Sanitarium for treatment.

Family members do not necessarily agree on the name of the doctor treating Frank that afternoon, and there is a question as to whether the physician may have been less than sober when Frank arrived. In order to protect the innocent, we’ll simply note that the doctor confirmed a break in Frank’s lower leg, but he noted it was nothing too severe. Surgery was unnecessary; the doctor merely aligned the bones and applied a cast to Frank’s leg. Believing his patient to be in suitable condition, the doctor announced he would be leaving town for a few days but would return on Friday to see how Frank had progressed. In the meantime, he assigned a far less experienced intern to watch over Frank in his absence.

Long before the 20th century, physicians knew that bones carried blood vessels and were prone to bleed when broken. In response, the tissue around a broken bone can be expected to swell. The swelling may appear immediately, or it can take up to five days to be noticeable. Perhaps Frank Rutherford’s doctor did not believe his leg to be broken so severely that swelling would become an issue; yet, soon after the doctor left the hospital, Frank began to experience extreme discomfort beneath his cast. He repeatedly begged the intern to loosen the wrapping and allow his leg to breathe. But the intern told Frank he was not authorized to alter the cast in any way. Frank continued to writhe in pain, but it lessened as the week went along.

As promised, the doctor returned by the end of the week and cut open the cast to see how well Frank’s leg had healed in the first few days. Upon seeing Frank’s blackened limb, he immediately took him to surgery. The cast had, in fact, been set too tightly to allow for swelling, and the circulation of blood to Frank’s leg had stopped. It wasn’t long before the surgical team realized that gangrene had set in. Frank’s lower leg was “dead,” and amputation was necessary. They could only hope the infection had not entered his bloodstream and spread to other parts of his body.

Many who lose limbs enter into stages of grief, including anger and depression. Frank, on the other hand, took the news in stride. When Lorene asked Frank what he expected to do, he simply responded, “Well, I guess I’ll have to work with my head instead of my feet.” In short order, he did just that. In the coming years, Frank Rutherford worked as a clerk and managed a cotton gin.

When Greenville’s Monty Stratton, a major league pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, lost his leg in a hunting accident in 1938, Frank could do more than simply empathize, and Stratton’s attempt to continue playing on a prosthetic leg inspired him. As he heard of people in the area who lost limbs in farming accidents or of World War II veterans returning home to adjust to life with a disability, Frank made the rounds, speaking with many and explaining that dreams don’t ever die, they just change. He became a self-appointed ambassador for those with disabilities, although no one who ever met him would say Frank had the slightest feeling he had been disabled himself. After all, he had been hurt playing a game. Others with similar injuries had been providing for their families or fighting foreign enemies. Frank felt himself to be fortunate. After all, he was able to work and raise a family, something so many others he met could no longer expect.

Over the years, Frank Rutherford continued to use his head rather than his feet, eventually opening what was essentially an early “convenience store” in Petty, selling groceries and gasoline just a few steps from his house. He continued to operate the store into the late 1970s before retiring.

When I visited my great-Uncle Frank during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was mesmerized by his wooden leg and the oval hole I could stick my finger inside. He warned me his leg was home to a family of mice, and he couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t be bitten; yet, I somehow remained unscathed.

Uncle Frank’s leg did not fail to create its difficulties. His daughter JoAnn, my father’s first cousin, tells of lying in bed with the artificial limb that had essentially become a detachable part of Frank’s existence. She recalls being overcome by the smell of alcohol on heavy wool socks he used to clean the stub of a leg left below his knee. In fact, when she mentioned the smell in a recent email, my senses quickly came alive. I was reminded of the time when, without malice, I kicked Uncle Frank’s wooden leg, knowing he had the one shin I could kick without fearing retaliation. Little did I know that the stub happened to infected at the time, and he found my playful kick quite painful. Uncle Frank was not pleased, and I’ve never kicked another leg since.

Despite what baseball took from him, Frank never lost his love of the game. By about 1975, I had become a baseball fanatic, and on weekend visits to Uncle Frank’s house, I was often greeted by Vin Scully and the NBC Game of the Week on television. I also recall summer evenings sitting on the couch next to Frank’s chair as we struggled to filter the conversation around us and listen to the Texas Rangers broadcast on WBAP out of Dallas. We kept abreast of what the likes of Toby Harrah, Fergie Jenkins, and my personal favorite, Juan Beniquez. All accomplished a lot at much-maligned Arlington Stadium, despite the fact those Rangers teams had normally fallen so deeply in the standings by mid-June that all hope was lost for the long summer ahead.

There is no doubt that if I had the same interest in early twentieth century Texas baseball when I was a teenager as I have today, Uncle Frank could have told enough stories to fill volumes. I have little doubt he personally knew Lamar County Texas League legends like Tony Thebo and Ben Shelton. But when Frank Rutherford died in 1987, he took those stories with him to Forest Hill Cemetery. As so many have during the course of their lives, I often think, “If I could have just one hour…”

Unfortunately, Uncle Frank didn’t leave me with the litany of baseball knowledge I seek today, but his promising, yet all-too-short, baseball career did leave me with one lasting lesson. When Momma says don’t play on Sundays, chances are she’s right.

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