He seemed to be born for baseball. William Ashley “Billy” Sunday was born on November 19, 1862. Seven years later, the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was founded. Billy grew up with a love for the sport, and he showed a particular aptitude for it.
He needed something to help compensate for his difficult start in life. His father died just one month after Billy was born. When he was 13, his mother was forced to send him and his elder brother to an orphanage. Two years after that, Billy ran away from the orphanage and tried to make a life for himself. He worked as a stable boy in exchange for a place to live and an opportunity to go to school. His heart was not in his studies, however. Baseball was the only thing that seemed to truly motivate him.
Billy dropped out of high school for the chance to play baseball. It was while playing for the Marshalltown, Iowa team that future Baseball Hall-of-Famer Cap Anson saw Billy in action. The young man signed a contract to play with the Chicago White Stockings.
At first, everyone wondered if the contract had been a mistake. Billy struck out the first thirteen times at bat. It didn’t take long, however, for him to regain his confidence. He was one of the fastest players in the game and used his sprinting skills to steal 92 bases in his career. Only the legendary Ty Cobb, with 96 stolen bases, would beat that record.
For eight years, Billy Sunday was the biggest name in baseball. He played for Chicago, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Philadelphia Athletics, drawing baseball fans to the games in droves.
Then, in 1886, something happened that fundamentally changed his life. Consequently, it changed the game of baseball and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, regardless of how they felt about the game.
It was a Sunday afternoon. Billy’s team was in Chicago to play, and he was out on the town with his teammates on their day off. They passed a street corner preaching service. What attracted Billy’s attention were the hymns; he remembered hearing his mother sing them, and they awakened pleasant memories. Wanting to hear more, he accepted an invitation to attend an evangelical Christian service at Pacific Gardens Mission. What he heard led him to trade his baseball uniform for a Bible and a baseball field for a pulpit.
In 1891, in answer to a call to preach, Billy turned down an offer for a $3,000 baseball contract ($92,686 in 2022). He would spend the next forty-four years reaching bigger crowds than he could have imagined when he was a professional athlete.
In the early days of his ministry, people showed up primarily to see the famous athlete. At his first public appearance as a preacher, the local newspaper reported, “Center fielder Billy Sunday made a three-base hit at Farwell Hall last night. There is no other way to express the success of his first appearance as an evangelist in Chicago. His audience was made up of about 500 men who didn’t know much about his talents as a preacher but could remember his galloping to second base with his cap in hand.”
It wasn’t long, however, until Billy’s reputation as an evangelist surpassed the name he had earned on the baseball diamond. Until Billy Graham, no American evangelist preached to so many millions or saw as many conversions in the course of his ministry.
Billy was not your stereotypical preacher. Eschewing the flowery theological language of the day, he preferred to speak in terms the common man could understand. “I want to preach the gospel so plainly,” he said, “that men can come from the factories and not have to bring a dictionary.”
His skills as a speaker included his ability to summarize an entire sermon with a one-liner. One of his most famous: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
His preaching style included using his entire body and occasionally throwing an odd object or two. As one newspaper wrote, “Sunday was a whirling dervish that pranced and cavorted and strode and bounded and pounded all over his platform and left them thrilled and bewildered as they have never been before.”
In a departure from traditional evangelism of the day, Billy tackled social issues, such as child labor, segregation, women’s suffrage, and temperance. Historians credit his stance against alcohol as one of the primary reasons for the adoption of the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. He was famous for saying, “To know what the devil will do, find out what the saloon is doing.” He also said, “If ever there was a jubilee in hell it was when lager beer was invented.”
His fight against alcohol did not end with the repeal of Prohibition. He continued to call for its reintroduction, proclaiming, “I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command.”
He brought to the pulpit the same fighting spirit that made him successful as an athlete. “I’m against sin,” he once said. “I’ll kick it as long as I have a foot. I’ll fight it as long as I have a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I have a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition.”
He concluded his sermons by inviting people to “walk the sawdust trail” to the front of the tabernacle to indicate their decision for Christ.
It is estimated that Billy preached to as many as 100 million people, face-to-face. The majority of those heard his voice without the benefit of electronic amplification. Sunday estimated that he had preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935. An estimated 1.25 million people came forward to accept the invitation at the close of his messages.
Billy Sunday preached his final sermon in October 1935 at First Methodist Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. Forty-four people came forward at the end of the service.
When he died of a heart attack on November 6, 1935, millions grieved and celebrated his life. Some of them remembered the curious footnote that once upon a time, he was also a baseball player.