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Easter Sunday: A Phillies History

How laws and schedules conspired to keep baseball and Easter apart

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Easter at the ballpark is the marriage of two timeless traditions of Spring, when we can enjoy the Phillie Phanatic cavorting in bunny ears, or even the Easter Bunny tackling Teddy Roosevelt.

However for much of baseball’s history this commingling was very rare or even impossible, and especially so in Pennsylvania. For one thing, the baseball season used to begin in mid-to-late April, or even early May, meaning that in most years in the late 19th and early 20th century, Easter had already come and gone before the season even began. For example in the first 70 years of the Phillies franchise (1883-1952), 56 of the 70 Easters fell before the start of the season. In fact that still happens occasionally to this day, including as recently as 2015 and ‘16.

The other reason that Easter and baseball took a long time to meet was the existence of state and local Sunday Blue Laws, which prohibited sporting events (and many other forms of entertainment, as well as shopping) from taking place on Sundays. And this was exacerbated for the Phillies, A’s, and Pirates because Pennsylvania was the last state with major league baseball to permit games on Sundays.

Blue Laws regarding baseball were relaxed gradually after the turn of the last century:

- Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati all legalized Sunday games in 1902.
- In 1917, the managers of the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds were both arrested for playing a Sunday game at the Polo Grounds. It would be another two years until New York changed its laws.
- Washington D.C., Cleveland and Detroit changed their laws in 1918.
- Boston held its first Sunday game in 1932.
- Pennsylvania was the final holdout, eventually voting in 1933 to allow local jurisdictions to decide whether or not to allow games on Sundays.

In the 14+ years that Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were the last remaining holdouts, teams juggled their schedules to work around the restrictions and get games in in order to keep pace with the rest of the league. Sunday baseball historian Charlie Bevis is quoted in The Battle for Sunday Baseball:

“The Athletics often made the train trip to Washington to play the Senators on Sunday, with occasional one-day forays to New York to play the Yankees. The Phillies played many weekends in New York, playing the Giants at the Polo Grounds on one day and the Dodgers at Ebbets Field on the other day. The Pirates ventured from Pittsburgh frequently on one-day Sunday excursions to Cincinnati and Chicago.”

As a result of these two factors, the timing of the holiday and Sunday Blue Laws, in the Phillies’ first 39 years (1883-1921), Easter Sunday occurred during the season only six times, and in each of those six cases it was against the law to play that day.

The Phillies finally played their first game on Easter Sunday in 1922, in Brooklyn, where the prohibition on Sunday baseball had recently been lifted. Their first Easter Sunday game at home was in 1935, and that was a tie. In the 51 12 years they spent at the Baker Bowl (1887 to mid-1938), that was their only Easter Sunday game there. The Phillies didn’t have a win or loss at home on an Easter Sunday until 1946, and then there was one of each that day in a doubleheader.

Once Blue Laws regarding baseball games came off the books, Sunday baseball became the norm, and the Phillies played on 37 straight Easter Sundays which fell after the start of the season, from 1930 through 2017, plus one rain-out (50 still occurred before Opening Day over that time). However that streak came to an end in 2018, and most of us will recall that weird Sunday off-day in Atlanta:

A lot of teams build in a day off during their opening series of the season in the event they have to call for a rainout. The Braves, apparently confident they’d get Thursday’s game in, instead chose Friday for a day off in order to allow them to be home Sunday. That affected the Phillies too, of course.

Another oddity: from 2000 through 2019, the Phils played on Easter Sunday 12 times — every one of them happened to be on the road.

The graphic below shows what the Phillies were doing on Easter Sunday on each year in their history. The gray boxes are the years when Easter did not fall within the season, and the blue ones denote the years when Easter was during the season but Phillies games were prevented by Blue Laws:

Best performances

On Easter Sunday in 2014, a declining Ryan Howard led the Phillies to a 10-9 slugfest win in Colorado by going 4 for 5 with a HR, 3 RBIs, and the second-to-last triple of his career. Jimmy Rollins went 3 for 4 in that same game, with a double and HR.

In the second game of an Easter doubleheader in 1974, the Phillies went to the 8th inning trailing the Mets 3-0. Larry Bowa capped off a 3 for 5 day with an RBI double in the 8th to put them on the board, and then a game-tying single in the 9th in a game the Phillies ended up winning 5-3.

In another doubleheader game 2, Del Ennis hit two HRs and drove in five runs in the Phillies’ 7-1 win in 1954.

On the mound, Roy Halladay struck out 14 on Easter Sunday 2011, but even better were complete game shutouts by Robin Roberts (4-hitter in 1954), and Curt Schilling (4-hitter in 1993), and especially a 3-hitter by Mike Krukow in 1982.

Finally, in his season debut in 1933, journeyman Jack Berly threw a 2-hit shutout to beat the Dodgers 2-0. That was one of 18 starts that Berly made in the majors — in the other 17 he compiled a 5.86 ERA. By the way, with no TV commercials and a faster pace, that 2-hitter took all of 1 hour and 28 minutes.

There’s another player with Easter exploits on his resume — April is his best month, including five home runs and a 1.226 OPS in his 10 career Opening Days. In addition, in 2017 he had a two-home run game on Easter Sunday, including a walk-off, 3-run shot with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th. The player was Bryce Harper, and the opponent was the Phillies. On Easter the following year he had another two-homer game, this one in Cincinnati. Alas he won’t get a chance to add to those Easter Sunday accomplishments this year.

Finally, for a team accomplishment, just two years ago the Phillies completed an opening series sweep of the division favorite Braves on Easter Sunday 2021. Zach Eflin held Atlanta to 1 run over 7 strong innings, and Andrew Knapp (!) homered in the 2-1 win.

Other happenings in Easter baseball:

Record on Easter Sunday

The Phillies have played on 42 Easter Sundays, including eight doubleheaders which bring the total number of games to 50. And with the season starting earlier and earlier, and the rolling back of Blue Laws, baseball on Easter has been much more common in the second half of Phillies history than it was in the first:

First 70 years (1883-1952) 7 meetings, 8 games
Last 70 years (1953-2022) 35 meetings, 42 games

Also, between Blue Laws and that road-game streak noted earlier, tomorrow will be only the 16th Easter Sunday on which the Phillies have played at home (and the 19th game):

Home: 15 meetings, 18 games
Away: 27 meetings, 32 games

Given the franchise’s overall losing record over its history, it’s no surprise that they also have losing records when playing on most holidays (or most days). However Easter is the one major holiday on which they have won more than they lost (they’re also even on July 4th):

28 wins
21 losses
1 tie

Thanks to the vagaries of small samples, at one point they had even won 21 of their first 31 Easter Sunday games, with a 21-9-1 record through 1985.

All of the 7-game advantage has come at home: 12-5-1 at home, but 16-16 on the road.

This is their record on all the other major holidays:

One thing to note here is that in their 140-year history, the Phillies have played way more than 140 games on some holidays. The holiday doubleheader used to be a staple in days gone by, though that really hasn’t been the case now for over 50 years.

We’ll go into this more in-depth as the other holidays come up through the season.

But for now, Happy Easter!