(This is the second in a series on infamous or controversial historical figures who also had a notable association with baseball. For the first installment on John Dillinger, click here, and for the third installment on Marty Bergen, click here.)
Chicago, the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down” – Lyrics from “Chicago” by Fred Fisher
During the early part of the 20th century, William Ashley “Billy” Sunday was one of the most influential social and political figures in the United States. The evangelical convert turned fundamentalist firebrand gradually built a nationwide following in cities big and small with a combination of biblical knowledge and homespun preaching that attracted thousands of people at a time. In addition to advancing a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity, Sunday was also an advocate for American interventionism, progressive social justice and conservative cultural behavior. In particular regarding the latter, Sunday railed against the evils of drinking (as an influential advocate of Prohibition, Sunday’s impact on early-20th century history can’t be overstated), dancing, gambling, reading fiction and watching movies. To Sunday, these frivolous pursuits (“you can’t waltz into heaven,” he would frequently tell his audience) were a distraction from a person’s faith. One pastime, however, was excluded from Sunday’s black list…baseball.
Not only did Billy Sunday tolerate baseball (except when it was played on Sunday, which in many towns was against the law until the middle of the century), but he was actually a vocal proponent and often attended games. Considering the game’s culture, which at the time was rife with gambling, carousing and excessive consumption of alcohol, Sunday’s support of baseball seems contradictory at first glance. However, there really is no divine mystery behind this conflict. You see, before becoming a renowned preacher, the reverend enjoyed an earlier career as a professional baseball player.
Like more than a few athletes of the time, Billy Sunday was first introduced to baseball while growing up in an orphanage, where he was placed by his widowed and impoverished mother at the age of 10 years. After moving from Ames, Iowa to nearby Marshalltown at the age of 18 in 1880, Sunday was recruited to play for a baseball team organized by the local fire brigade. Over the next two seasons, he starred for the local squad and, in the process, caught the eye of a Marshalltown resident named Cap Anson. By 1882, Anson, the manager and first baseman of the Chicago White Stockings (eventually the Cubs), was firmly established as one of the best players in the game, so on his recommendation, team president A.G. Spalding signed Sunday to a contract in 1883.
Although his career was instigated by two luminaries, Sunday didn’t exactly shine brightly on the field, especially in his major league debut when he struck out four times. During his five years in Chicago, Sunday only came to bat 750 times and served mostly as a replacement for King Kelly when the Hall of Fame outfielder shifted to behind the plate. Still, he found more than enough ways to help out the team. In addition to being a competent defender as well as one of the fastest men in the National League, Sunday also developed a rapport with White Stocking’s fans, making him one of the team’s most popular players despite his limited role. Sunday also emerged as a trusted ally of Anson, who delegated to him several business responsibilities. In many ways, Sunday really was a valuable part of the White Stockings. However, his off-field experiences while in Chicago turned out to have a much more profound impact on his future.
Like now, an off day in Chicago was a ballplayer’s delight in the 1880s. Although never prone to excess, Sunday wasn’t immune to an occasional drink or game of cards, which is exactly what he found himself doing along with several teammates on a Sunday evening sometime in the mid-1880s. Soon, however, the evening of revelry was interrupted by the sound of hymns being sung by a curbside choir. Attracted to the familiar songs, which his mother used to sing, Sunday instantly had an emotional reaction and vowed to clean up his lifestyle.
I bowed my head in shame, and the tears rolled down my cheeks like rivers of water. When the song was ended, ‘Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?’, the leader Harry Monroe of the Pacific Garden Mission, said: ‘Come, boys, down to the mission and listen to the speaking and singing’. I arose and said: ‘Boys, good-by; I’m done with this way of living’”. – Billy Sunday, quoted in The Washington Times, May 13, 1903
After weeks of attending the Pacific Garden Mission, Sunday eventually joined the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church. When word of his conversion made news in the Chicago papers, Sunday feared the reception he would get from his hard-living teammates, saying, “I dreaded to report to practice that day for fear of ridicule”. Much to his surprise, however, his decision was met with encouragement, even from the likes of Anson and Kelly, whose sentiments were echoed throughout the team.
Following the 1887 season, Sunday was sold to Pittsburgh, where he played regularly for the first time in his career. Once again, Sunday became an instant fan favorite on the woeful Pirates, but by that time baseball had become his secondary pursuit. Toward the end of his playing career, Sunday attended Northwestern University during the offseason in preparation for a different calling. In 1890, Sunday was traded to Philadelphia, where he played out the season and then retired at the age of 27 to take a position as assistant secretary of the Chicago YMCA.
Sunday’s retirement from baseball allowed him to more vigorously pursue his evangelical vision. By the turn of the century, the Baseball Evangelist, as he was frequently called, was gradually gaining prominence and honing the skills he would use to attract a nationwide following. At no point, however, did he put his baseball career behind him. In fact, Sunday would often promote his appearances by making reference to his playing career and use baseball parlance when relating the crowd. What’s more, Sunday could hardly resist the temptation to break out his bat and glove at local games organized in the towns where he was preaching. In 1918, Sunday even participated in one of the first known “Old Timer’s Days”, when he, along with other old veterans like Fred Pfeffer, Tony Mullane, Jimmy Ryan and Jake Stahl, entertained enlisted members of the navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
Mr. Sunday never fails to take advantage of an opportunity to play ball, and he often is the star feature of the local games wherever he happens to be preaching. His gestures, and occasionally his language, savor of the game, although when he cares to he can preach as dignified a sermon as one would care to hear.” – The Washington Times’ Editorial Page, July 6, 1902
In addition to attending baseball games whenever his busy schedule would allow (in 1917, the New York Times wrote of the reverend lamenting a missed opportunity to see the Giants at the Polo Grounds because of a rainout), Sunday never passed up an opportunity to opine on the state of the sport. Like old timers before and after, he was fond of decrying the modern game. In a trip to New York in 1915, Sunday touted the supremacy of his old White Stockings team over the modern clubs, and even suggested that the style of ball played by Ty Cobb was inferior to the tactics used in his day. One can just imagine Cobb saying the very same thing after his retirement.
They crow nowadays when Ty Cobb gets home from second on an infield hit. Why, I pulled that twice in a series nearly thirty years ago. We pulled all the tricks they have today, although they have found new names for them since then.” – Billy Sunday, quoted in The New York Times, April 13, 1915
In another timeless screed, Sunday also railed against the greed of the modern player. When the Federal League sued the American and National leagues on the grounds they violated the Sherman Antitrust Laws, Sunday used the opportunity to sermonize on the economics of the game. “Without organization and a reserve clause…there isn’t a chance for the game to go on and be kept clean,” Sunday righteously proclaimed, adding “I blame the player of today for the condition of baseball. He should give his support to the men who have made the game prosperous and have put the players where they are”. Apparently, Sunday never met Charlie Comiskey.
Whether it was presiding over the funeral of a past colleague, sending a letter to be read at a mass honoring the start of the 1913 World Series, trumpeting baseball’s role in the war effort, or helping to celebrate the game’s 50th anniversary in 1926, Sunday always made time for baseball in between his sermons and political advocacy. The man who “saved a million souls” was always a baseball fan at heart, which isn’t really a surprise when you consider that the most avid baseball fans often have a zeal that would be the envy of even the most ardent religious leader.
The site of games being played on Sundays, beer sponsorships and millionaire ballplayers opting for free agency certainly wouldn’t please Sunday if he was still around today, but then again, it isn’t hard to imagine him still sneaking in a game or two in between appearances. A controversial figure both then and now, Sunday’s devotion to baseball is just another example of the inseparable relationship between the nation and its pastime.