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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Billy Sunday, the Baseball Evangelist
By Wendy Knickerbocker

Professional athletes who are also professing Christians are common in today's cultural landscape, but in the late nineteenth century this was not the case. Billy Sunday, who was until Billy Graham this country's most successful evangelist, found the Lord while playing professional baseball in the 1880s. In the days before radio, Sunday used newspaper coverage and baseball to become the most famous preacher America had ever known. His sermons reached hundreds of thousands of people, and he was widely quoted and admired.

Billy Sunday was born in Ames, Iowa, in 1862. His father died in the Civil War a month after Billy's birth, and he grew up in rural poverty. After high school he was "discovered" playing baseball for the Marshalltown, Iowa, local team. He then played professionally in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia from 1883 to 1890. Sunday was a weak hitter, so he was only a part-time outfielder for the Chicago team from 1883 to 1887. He was sold to Pittsburgh in 1888, where he became their full-time center fielder. Pittsburgh traded him to Philadelphia in August of 1890.

Sunday's career statistics represent a solid though not outstanding performance: batting average .248 over 499 games, near the middle of National League hitters for the decade; 236 stolen bases in 368 games, an excellent number; and a low fielding percentage of .883. He was an average hitter, an exceptionally fast runner who didn't get on base very often, and a frequently spectacular fielder with a high number of errors. He was good-looking and personable, and sober at a time when temperance was gaining popularity in the Midwest. He was also an avowed Christian. Professional baseball was a rowdy arena filled with plenty of rough characters, but Billy Sunday was earnest and well behaved. Many fans loved him for that, as did his teams' management.

In the summer of 1886 Sunday joined a local church in Chicago and began teaching Sunday school and attending religious meetings when the team was on the road. Around the same time he publicly accepted Christ at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, and from then on he spoke at YMCAs whenever and wherever he could. In the fall of 1888 he married Nell Thompson, whom he had met at church in Chicago, and he spent the next three winters working at the Chicago YMCA.

From his first appearance as a Christian speaker, baseball provided Sunday's publicity, his audience, and his speeches. His appearances at churches and YMCAs were widely noticed and commented on in both local and sports newspapers, and men of all ages turned out to hear the popular ballplayer. Those first speeches were somewhat rough: "Satan don't want to get a young man who after a while may dispute with him the realm of everlasting meanness. You bet he don't. It is the generous young man, the warm-hearted young man, the ardent young man, the sociable young man who is in danger, my friends. He's the fellow that Satan behind the bat wants to catch napping. He's the chap that the devil in the box wants to pull on with a snake curve. Hold your base. Wait for your ball."1

Sunday first attempted public speaking at prayer meetings at his church and at the Pacific Garden Mission. According to the mission's historian, after Sunday's conversion, "[H]e went there at every opportunity and learned to give his testimony. Although he was a poor speaker, his baseball halo gave him a weighty background for his words. He stammered and fumbled for words at the Sunday school, Y.M.C.A., and Christian Endeavor meetings where he spoke, just as he did in the mission meetings, but still he was in demand."2

Sunday did gain some practice speaking at churches and YMCAs in the towns in which he played baseball. The newspaper reports were favorable, and most noted how well he handled himself. This account of an 1890 appearance in Philadelphia is typical:

 

William A. Sunday, the young evangelist, who is well known as centre fielder of the Philadelphia Club, addressed young men last Sunday evening at the First Presbyterian Church. . . . When Sunday appeared on the arm of Pastor Burns . . . there was some disappointment at the absence of everything pertaining to his profession. The famous Chicago sprinter was as self-possessed and clerical-looking as the pastor himself, and he conducted the opening services as naturally as a clergyman with years of experience.3

 

Rather than being compliments on Sunday's speaking ability, however, the positive reports were probably an expression of approval that he dressed and acted like a minister instead of a ballplayer. He remained a clumsy speaker during his early years of preaching, but eventually continuous practice and determination won out.

In the spring of 1891, with little experience in ministry, Billy Sunday quit professional baseball to accept a full-time job at the Chicago YMCA. His title at the YMCA was Assistant Secretary of the Religious Department, but he was primarily a street minister. He worked from 8 A.M. to 10 P.M., six days a week. Then in 1893 he was offered the job of assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, a widely known evangelist who had studied with Dwight Moody. Sunday's new mentor preached temperance, personal salvation, and middle-class values in revivals throughout the small cities of the Midwest, and Sunday accompanied him for the next three years. In January 1896, Sunday went out on his own, holding his first revival in Garner, Iowa.

Sunday spent the next dozen years holding revivals in the small towns of the rural Midwest. He later referred to those years as his time on the "kerosene circuit." Although his reputation grew steadily over the years and he rarely lacked invitations to speak, he did struggle in relative anonymity for more than a decade.

Advertising was an immediate concern for Sunday. Chapman had a wide reputation, and bringing attention to his revivals had not been a problem. Sunday, however, was a relative unknown as a preacher. Baseball was quite popular everywhere in the Midwest, so Sunday utilized his reputation as a baseball player to spark interest in his revivals. He often organized pickup baseball games in towns where he preached. One newspaper reporting on the upcoming Garner revival "to be conducted by W.A. Sunday" noted that "this must be ŽBilly' Sunday who used to play ball for Anson with the Chicago White Stockings. ŽBilly' is as true a Christian gentleman as he was a rattling ball player, and that is saying a good deal."4

Sunday understood that any publicity was better than none, and he enhanced his baseball fame with other attention-getters whenever he could. In 1896 in Pawnee City, Nebraska, Sunday claimed that "an infidel" began cursing and harassing him. "He said he did not believe in a God, and if there was a God let him strike him dead. He dropped to the floor and before a doctor arrived he was dead."5 There has never been any confirmation of this incident, but it was widely reported in small-town newspapers all over the Midwest. A few years later he employed a giant from the Barnum and Bailey circus to act as an usher for his revival in Knoxville, Iowa.

It was during those years preaching in the rural Midwest that Sunday honed his skills as a showman. The most popular, and often only, forms of entertainment in those small towns were revivals, traveling variety shows, and baseball games. Sunday learned to be a one-man combination of all three.

He knew how to please a crowd from his days as a baseball player. The fans had loved Sunday's speed and recklessness, and he knew it. He ran for stolen or extra bases at every possible opportunity, as much to hear the applause as to gain the base. His authorized biographer described his appeal to fans: "Sunday was the sort of figure the bleachers like. He was always eager—sometimes too eager—to Žtake a chance.' What was a one-base hit for another man was usually good for two bases for him. His slides and stolen bases were adventures beloved of the Žfans'—the spice of the game. He also was apt in retort to the comments from the bleachers, but always good-natured. The crowds liked him, even as did his team mates."6 He never lost that ability to connect with an audience.

It soon became apparent to Sunday that he would have to spice up his sermons if he was going to succeed as an evangelist. When he first went out on his own, he had simply reworked Chapman's sermons. It was not long before Sunday found his own voice and began to weave his own sermons from Chapman's outlines. He began by telling stories about the things he knew, particularly baseball and temperance.

Sunday himself had apparently never been much of a drinker, and choosing temperance did not seem to be much of a challenge for him. Sunday had several examples of the effects of alcohol among his baseball teammates. In one of his most popular sermons, called "The Devil's Boomerangs," Sunday told about three Chicago teammates. Mike Kelly, Ned Williamson, and Frank Flint had been star players in their day, but they drank themselves into dissipation and early death. At the end of the story Sunday would ask, "Did they win the game of life or did Bill?"


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2004 issue.

—EFQ

 

WENDY KNICKERBOCKER was an academic librarian for twenty years and is now a writer and researcher. A Maine native and devoted Red Sox fan, she is also the author of Sunday at the Ballpark: Billy Sunday’s Professional Baseball Career, 1883–1890 (Scarecrow Press, 2000).

© 2004 Wendy Knickerbocker

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