May 22, 1883—A future as America’s foremost evangelist in the first third of the 20th century was the furthest thing on the mind of 20-year-old Billy Sunday as he made his major-league debut with the Chicago White Stockings. As it was, big-league pitching was giving him hell enough.
It would be another several years before Sunday had his come-to-Jesus moment, but his experience on this particular day should have been enough to make him plead for divine intervention—or, as an alternative, make a Damn Yankees-like pact with the devil. Facing “Grasshopper Jim” Whitney of the Boston Beaneaters, then in the midst of a 30-win season, he ended up striking out four times.
By rights, Sunday should not have felt too badly. The White Stockings had won the game, 4-3. Going bat to the dugout with his bat against that particular pitcher was nothing to be ashamed of: With virtually no restrictions on pitcher delivery in those days, Whitney came at hitters with terrifying speed. Moreover, Sunday had been signed by manager “Cap” Anson, a future Baseball Hall of Fame member who knew a thing or two about talent. Besides, Sunday was a rookie. He’d get over it.
But over the next couple of days, it seemed as if he wouldn’t. Sunday whiffed in his first 14 at-bats. Years later, then, when he would tell audiences, “The Devil has two strikes on you already,” one gets the sense that it had become more than a mere metaphor for him.
Eventually, Sunday did get the hang of major-league hurlers—enough to compile a .248 average over eight seasons. Better yet, he stole at least 246 bases in the 396 games in which records of that statistic were kept from 1886 through 1890, meaning that he might have approached 300 bases throughout his career.
In time, Sunday met a bigger enemy than a wicked fastball or curve: alcohol. In those days, there was little to do outside of the game except visit the local saloon, and Sunday fell easily into this lifestyle. Midway through his career, that changed one day as he sat with a teammate on a Chicago street. A woman passing by caught his interest with her spiel about coming to a revival meeting where fallen women would tell their tales of how drinking had started a downward spiral for them. Sunday attended the meeting, and promptly converted.
Sunday (what an appropriate surname for a preacher!) was no scholar—part of the reason why it took more than a decade for the Presbyterian Church to get around to licensing him. But, while addressing an audience, he was a phenomenon.
Sinclair Lewis based the title character of his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry on a number of ministers, but an indelible memory for him in the creation of the character had to be his 1917 visit to one of Rev. Sunday’s revival meetings. At that time, the United States was on the brink of passing one of Sunday’s great causes—Prohibition. This was before the rise of radio and movies in the 1920s, so all Sunday had was his voice, and that stage presence. But what a stage presence. Gantry had all the superconcentrated force of a stereotype, with virtually every form of hypocrisy that Lewis could think of. But as a preacher showman-athlete, he more than a little resembles Sunday.
It wasn’t merely that Sunday would pound the pulpit, roaring, the cynosure of all eyes in an auditorium, the magic voice that would coax sinners to walk down the “sawdust trail” toward the stage. He would also skip, run, bounce, and gyrate. In a throwback to his old playing days, he’d liken a sinner reaching for Heaven to a runner sliding for home, even running the length of the stage to demonstrate it. Another famous evangelical “Billy,” Billy Graham, had all the trappings of the modern media over the course of his long career, but his famous “crusades” were decidedly cooler affairs than the sawdust-and-sweat spectacles put on by Sunday.
In his Oscar-winning role in Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster was ideally cast. Before becoming an actor, he had been a circus acrobat, and he combined that physicality with a raw charisma that harked back to Sunday’s style before large crowds.
Sunday’s celebrity was great enough that he made significant money over the course of his career. Unfortunately, he would need that in his later years, for at the height of Prohibition, his sons indulged in the same drinking sprees that he had turned away from at the height of his career. Constantly, Sunday and his wife were forced to pay off extortionists to hush up his sons’ indiscretions. Perhaps the low point of his life occurred in 1933, when one of his sons, George, committed suicide.
(The accompanying photo shows Sunday late in his playing career, by which time he had come to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys.)