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Small Florida Town Repeals 1908 Ordinance That Banned Baseball

April 12, 1996

WEBSTER, Fla. (AP) _ Tyler Whitlock, 8, and Rainer Berry, 9, played pitch and catch in a baseball complex near city hall on this bright Thursday, blissfully unaware that they were breaking the law.

Until the Webster City Commission took an extraordinary vote late Thursday, the boys could have been arrested, or given a ticket, for violating an ordinance banning baseball in Webster.

The recently discovered law _ making it a crime to play baseball within the city limits _ was passed in 1908 in this community of 800 residents 50 miles west of Orlando.

The hand-written ordinance was still in force until part-time Mayor Robert Rinker and City Attorney Al Parsons led a move to bring it before a commission meeting Thursday, when it was repealed.

The five-member commission voted unanimously to throw out the musty law banning the national pasttime as well as other ancient, little-used and rarely observed laws adopted in the early 1900s.

It was all done in a lighthearted manner until Webster Police Chief Dennis Johnson objected, saying he thought the widespread publicity had made the town ``a mockery to the world.″ But even Johnson, who is chief umpire for the city youth baseball leagues, joined in the fun at the end.

Why the grand old game was outlawed in Webster 88 years ago is a mystery.

The mayor and city attorney tried to research records and minutes, but many of them were missing _ if they were recorded at all.

So the reason for the law is open to speculation.

``I think it’s because of the bad reputation that ballplayers had in the late 1800s and lasting well into the first third of this century,″ said professor Kevin McCarthy, who teaches English at the University of Florida and has written a history of baseball in Florida.

Professional players used to drink openly, curse, spit, chase after women, gamble _ ``you name it,″ said McCarthy, speculating that city fathers might have wanted to protect youth from such bad habits and went to the extreme measure of prohibiting it in Webster.

``It’s a very strange law, and I’ve never heard of a city that did that, here or anywhere else,″ said McCarthy, who did extensive research for his new book, ``Baseball in Florida.″

Parsons, who discovered the handwritten ordinance while preparing to codify the city laws, said, ``It just flat out excluded playing in the city limits without the permission of the mayor.″

It didn’t specify a fine or penalty. The law was amended in 1912 to permit baseball at the high school and a city ballpark, ``so you can see, if there was a ballpark, it was never taken very seriously,″ Parsons said.

The 1912 ordinance imposed a fine between $1 and $5 for playing anywhere but at the two designated fields.

``Baseball has been one of the major sports activities around here for as long as anyone can remember,″ Parsons said. ``We’ve even held tournaments for T-ball, Little League and the Babe Ruth League.″

The mayor’s 9-year-old son plays T-ball. City clerk Sandra Lawrence is a coach for one of the teams and her 13-year-old son is a player in the Dixie boys league. The public works director, Mark Herrell, is a certified umpire along with the police chief.

``There was never a ban against baseball in Webster, really,″ insisted the chief. But he relented to good-natured ribbing and joined in the joking about selling baseballs signed by the council members _ with the funds going to charity.

McCarthy noted that baseball has been important to Florida since the Washington Capitals began using Jacksonville as a spring training site in 1888. Other major league teams followed in the early 1900s _ into Gainesville, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg and other cities.

Webster was something of a crossroads for the traveling professionals and might have felt its small-town quality threatened, some city leaders speculate.

Some of the early laws repealed Thursday forbade the sale of alcohol long before Prohibition, banned Sunday sales of any merchandise, established penalties for unsanitary outhouses and tried to keep hogs off the streets.

Stanton Gideons, 51, who was on the city commission for six years and didn’t know the law existed, said Webster ``has always been very active in baseball.″ But, he mused, past mayors and commissioners loved to pass new laws.

``They’ve probably got more dog ordinances than New York City,″ Gideons said.

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