Billy Sunday, Evangelist

This article was written by Robert P. Muhlbach

This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

In recent years there has been a rather surprising emphasis on religion in baseball. This “born again” movement is based largely on the establishment of the Baseball Chapel Program, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Danny Thompson Award for exemplary Christian spirit in baseball.

Major League baseball has had a number of players — from Dennis J. Sullivan, who played 100 years ago, to George Jeffcoat, who pitched during World War II who became ordained clergymen. But none compared with William Ashley Sunday, whose name was a household word for most of the first 35 years of the 20th century. He was even immortalized in the song about Chicago, “the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down.”

Billy Sunday was born in Ames, Iowa, November 19, 1862. His father died while serving in the Civil War, then under way, and his mother, unable to support the two children, placed him in the Soldiers Orphan Flome in Glenwood, Iowa. He developed exceptional skill as a runner and as a baseball player in high school, and gained the attention of Cap Anson while playing ball in the latter’s home town of Marshalltown.

Sunday was asked to join Anson’s Chicago team in 1883, and in his debut on May 22, he was fanned four times by Grasshopper Jim Whitney of Boston. It is true that Sunday did not develop into much of a hitter, hitting .259 over his 8-year career. But he was a good outfielder and an excellent baserunner. He closed out his career with 84 steals with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 1890.

In 1886 Sunday wandered into a meeting of the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago and was soundly converted to the religious life. He joined the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church and was elected an elder. He gave up baseball after the 1890 season and in 1891-93 was assistant secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Chicago.

Sunday associated himself with a noted evangelist in Chicago for three years and then branched out on his own. His first “solo flight” took place in 1896 in Garner, Iowa, and he was very well received. He developed an original and sensational style which, while shocking to some of his hearers, was entirely successful in reaching the class of people he aimed to convert. He came under the church sponsorship of the Chicago Presbytery in 1898 and was formally ordained in 1903. By that time he already had a well-functioning organization and a wide following. In 1898 he had married Helen Thompson, a girl he had met in Chicago, and she became the business manager of his organization. Homer Rodeheaver managed the choir and led the singing, and several other staff members handled the advance work and the detailed coordination needed for a large revival meeting. It is apparent that many of the procedures used in the Billy Sunday revivals in the early 1900s were adopted and adapted by the Rev. Billy Graham for his religious crusades nearly a half century later.

Billy Sunday made his first impact in tent meetings in the towns of the Middle West. However, it was not long before no building could be found large enough to accommodate the huge crowds that flocked to see him. In the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh special tabernacles, seating from 12,000 to 18,000 were erected for his services. He possessed a magnetic and forceful personality, a fine physique, and intense enthusiasm, and he preached with all his might. Going forward and clasping Billy’s hand at the end of the service was known as “hitting the sawdust trail,” as most tabernacle floors were covered with sawdust.

He was a master at the picturesque epigram and his sermons were filled with baseball language. He would wind up like a pitcher and slam a fist into his other hand as he threw a “fastball at the devil.” To demonstrate a sinner coming home for salvation he would slide headfirst on the floor, groping with his hand for home plate. He ranted and raved against the evils of drink. One reporter of the period indicated that he preached the divine wrath rather than divine love. Another indicated that he “preached a crude version of the ultraconservative evangelical theology of the middle of the 19th century.” Another account follows:

From the time he announces his text until the sermon closes he storms and rages up and down the platform, whacking the pulpit and twisting and working his body until we are as much amazed at the physical endurance of the man as at the resources of his tongue. He outrages every rule of church decorum, and slaps in the face all our traditions of dignity and reverence in worship. He stops in the middle of a prayer to command some enthusiastic brother waxing too loud with “amens” to “shut up!” But not for a moment is he a clown, much less a mountebank.

The highpoint of his evangelical career was probably his mammoth meeting in New York City in April 1917. Some 68,000 converts were claimed and the final free-will offering of some $60,000 was given to the Red Cross. Frequently the final offering went to the Billy Sunday organization and the published record indicated that $51,000 was collected in the Philadelphia meeting and $46,000 in Baltimore.

When it was pointed out to him that his permanent converts were much smaller in number than his total converts, he candidly admitted that “I never yet have been satisfied with the results of any campaign I have every conducted.” He made no pretense to culture and laid no claims to learning, although he had numerous honorary doctor of divinity degrees conferred upon him.

The religious crusader was strongly opposed to playing ball on Sunday, a day set aside for worship. But this did not lessen his intense interest in the sport. He made a great hit as a guest umpire at semipro games in various cities where he was preaching. In 1934, in response to a reporter’s question, he named his all-time baseball team. He included only two from his own playing era – Buck Ewing as catcher and John Clarkson as one of the pitchers. The inference is that he followed baseball pretty closely after his retirement in 1890.

Sunday’s popularity waned somewhat after 1920 but he continued to preach rousing sermons right up to his death in Chicago of a heart attack on November 6, 1935. He was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chicago. The famous evangelist was controversial and some considered him out of step with his time but he was credited with aiding the cause of temperance and many communities were cleaned up by his revival campaigns. The New York Times referred to him as “the greatest high-pressure and mass-conversion Christian evangelist that America or the world has known.”