Play is Not a Crime: A quick history of Baltimore's 'No Ball Playing' law


Councilman Ryan Dorsey first proposed City Council Bill 18-0285 a little over a year ago in late 2018 with the idea to repeal an outdated city law prohibiting ball playing in the street. I started doing some research on the history of the “no ball playing” signs seen in parks and on city streets back in November.

Thankfully, Councilman Dorsey invited me to share my research and testimony last week in support of his proposal. The council committee voted to move the bill forward with amendments including one to repeal the prohibition of “trick or fancy” bike riding (a legacy of the 1890s era “safety bike” craze) and to change the title to: “Repealing the Prohibition of Fun.”

It still needs approval from the full City Council but, I expect it to pass, and then go to Mayor Jack Young sign, veto, or sit on until it goes into effect automatically. I’m happy with my small role in the bill’s progress and hope you enjoy my testimony.


Good morning.

It has been over seventy years since the Sun featured the city’s bans on playing in the street and prohibition against trick riding on a list of “dust-covered laws” and “ancient rules”—two of the many ordinances for which the “need” had “apparently vanished.”1

The Sun was right to question these laws way back in 1946 but the reporter may have been a bit confused about the reason. By the 1940s, these laws had been used often to turn children at play into criminals and put the police to work clearing roads for drivers instead of preventing violence or investigating crimes.

Critics of Councilman Dorsey’s proposal to change the law could argue that the laws are rarely enforced. But the truth is that these laws have been enforced so often for so long they have helped turn Baltimore into a place where many families are afraid to let their kids play in the street. Children who do are subject to harassment by the police.

These critics might come back and say the streets are dangerous—kids should play in parks and on playgrounds. But, as history shows, parks and playgrounds have never been enough. And, if a city doesn’t allow kids to play in the street, are they really welcome anywhere?

Regardless of our differences, we can all agree these laws are old. The earliest relevant account I could find is from 1848 when John and Jason Hughes got caught playing ball in the street and had to pay a dollar each.2

The old law came up more often in the years after the Civil War when baseball clubs popped up on the corners of nearly every American city. By 1872, at least one Baltimorean was fed up with “baseball maniacs” and pleaded with the city for more enforcement of the then little-used ball playing ordinance.3

Around the turn of the century, this old public safety measure took on a new role: a quick way to kick kids off the streets and make way for drivers in fast-moving cars.

In 1898, the Sun reported on the outcry among children and parents after Police Marshal Samuel T. Hamilton issued a “far-reaching order” to “disperse boys who congregate in numbers upon the smoothly paved streets to play.” One concerned mother wrote in to the paper:

“To children play is as essential to a rational development as is food. Take it away and injure them, besides piling up trouble for parents, teachers, and even the police”

One boy responded:

“Why don’t the police make us get off the earth altogether and be done with it? What’s a fellow going to do with himself, anyway? The police are always kicking about something… Just because we can’t vote and ain’t got any ‘fluence, we ain’t got rights.”4

Newly paved streets did become more hazardous as cars and trucks began crowding out bicycles and horse-drawn carts. Advocates for children pushed for off-street playgrounds where young people could avoid the dual dangers of reckless drivers and police harassment. But, they didn’t give up on those kids playing in the street either.

In 1910, the Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore formed a “Guild of Play” that organized supervised street play at seven locations around the city. By the summer of 1926, the Playground Athletic League operated playgrounds—including fourteen roped-off “street playgrounds”—all over.5

"Playground Athletic League" map showing street playgrounds, 1926

Of course, some critics even complained about these supervised street playgrounds. One testy 1914 letter complained about the “roller-skate fiends” on his block and questioned the city’s “legal authority” to permit the activity.6 In June 1923, Police Commissioner Charles D. Gaither claimed that the officers were simply “doing their duty” when they arrested three small children, aged ten, eight, and seven, for playing with a rubber ball in the street in front of their own homes. Gaither argued:

Ball playing, kite flying and stone throwing are forbidden by law. This no longer is a village, and if we don’t enforce these laws somebody will be writing letters asking why we don’t keep the children out of the way of automobiles.7

At least a few Baltimoreans pointed out that drivers had a responsibility to stay out of the way of children. In October, Mrs. William M. Maloy spoke at a meeting of the Baltimore Safety Council, explaining her view that “Drivers should not only have their automobiles under control at all times but should prepare for any contingency which the thoughtlessness of a child playing in the street might incur.”8

You can probably guess how the rest of the story goes. The city’s street playgrounds disappeared in the 1930s. Some neighborhoods had nice parks and safe places to play but many neighborhoods didn’t. In many neighborhoods, kids grew up being chased out of the street by police—among them former Police Commissioner Edward J. Tilghman, who grew up on the 2400 block of Etting Street just above North Avenue.9

But, the story doesn’t end there. In the years after World War II, no ball playing in the streets quickly turned into no ball playing in the parks. I’ve found reports of “No Ball Playing” signs going up in Chinquapin Park in 1953, Wyman Park in 1954, and Elmley Playground a few blocks east of Clifton Park (near Edison Highway and Erdman Avenue) in 1960, among many others.10 Recreation centers surely helped with the shortage of play spaces but, as you all know, the number of recreation centers has dropped from over 130 in 1980 to less than 50 today.11

"Indignant Citizens," November 1954, Sun

How has all this worked out so far? Well, I don’t have the numbers on how many fewer baseballs have broken windows, but it isn’t looking good for kids.

The federal government’s official guidelines for physical activity recommend that young people get at least an hour of activity every day. In 2013, three in ten Baltimore high school students reported less than an hour of vigorous physical activity every week.12

Around one in four of Baltimore’s middle and high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless.13 Physical activity not only can improve physical health—it can also reduce depression and anxiety.

When Project Play Baltimore surveyed 2,000 East Baltimore youth in 2017, more than one in three said they didn’t have or didn’t know of any safe place to play in their neighborhood.14

We can do better.

Over the past few months as a Bloomberg Fellow and Masters of Public Health student, I’ve been excited to work Dr. Keshia Pollack Porter, a leading researcher on play streets around the United States. Her research has found that encouraging street play can build stronger relationships between neighbors and give young people the physical activity they need to grow up whole and healthy.15 Dr. Porter and I are currently working with the Department of Transportation, Bikemore, the Central Baltimore Partnership, the Neighborhood Design Center and others to organize a play streets pilot program this spring.

Changing this law sends a powerful message to kids and all the people who care about them. Changing this law says Baltimore City wants you to play and grow up healthy.


  1. Roger S. Williamson, “IT’S STILL AGAINST THE LAW: It’s Still against the Law to Drive a Jitney More than 15 Miles an Hour in Baltimore,” The Sun, September 15, 1946. 

  2. “An Interesting Speculation,” The Sun, March 20, 1848. 

  3. Northwest, “Base Ball Nuisance,” The Sun, June 13, 1872. 

  4. “RIGHTS OF THE BOY: He Feels That The Latest Order Of The Police Is An Infringement Of Them,” The Sun, March 12, 1898. 

  5. “CHILDREN TO TAKE PART: Games, Songs And Drills At Playgrounds On The Fourth ‘GUILD OF PLAY’ ESTABLISHED Miss Genevieve Turner Will Direct The Work In Congested Neighborhood,” The Sun, June 21, 1910; Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore, “[1912–1913 Annual Report]” (Baltimore, MD, 1913), http://archive.org/details/report00chil_0. 

  6. “Street Playgrounds Not Good For Morals,” The Sun (1837-1994); Baltimore, Md., December 20, 1914. 

  7. “Says Patrolmen Do Duty In Arresting Small Boys,” The Sun, June 16, 1923. 

  8. “Motorists Are Warned In Talk By Woman,” The Sun, October 31, 1923. 

  9. Rafael Alvarez, “New Police Commissioner Emphasizes Respect for Others, Fairness,” The Sun, March 16, 1987, sec. Maryland. 

  10. Isaac B. Rehert, “Adults’ Complaints Result In Playground Softball Ban,” The Sun, August 3, 1960; “Photo: Indignant Citizens,” The Sun, November 13, 1954; Reuben J. Hecht, “Letters To The Editor: He’s Not Annoyed,” The Sun, December 2, 1953. 

  11. The Aspen Institute, “State of Play: Baltimore” (Project Play Baltimore, August 13, 2018), https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2018/08/Baltimore_SOP.08.13.18.lo_.pdf. 

  12. Beverly Pierce et al., “A Summer Health Program for African-American High School Students in Baltimore, Maryland: Community Partnership for Integrative Health,” Explore (New York, N.Y.) 13, no. 3 (2017): 186–97, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2017.02.002. 

  13. Baltimore City Health Department, “2017 Community Health Assessment,” September 20, 2017, https://health.baltimorecity.gov/sites/default/files/health/attachments/Baltimore%20City%20CHA%20-%20Final%209.20.17.pdf. 

  14. The Aspen Institute, “State of Play: Baltimore.” 

  15. Keshia M. Pollack Porter et al., “Transforming City Streets To Promote Physical Activity And Health Equity,” Health Affairs 38, no. 9 (September 1, 2019): 1475–83, https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2019.00454; M. Renée Umstattd Meyer et al., “Systematic Review of How Play Streets Impact Opportunities for Active Play, Physical Activity, Neighborhoods, and Communities,” BMC Public Health 19, no. 1 (March 22, 2019): 335, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6609-4.