Sunday, March 10, 2013

COOL STUFF FROM LIBRARY BOOKS #23: "Billy Sunday The Ball-player" from the S.A.B.R., 1989

Many of us know that legendary preacher Billy Sunday was a star baseball player in the late 1800s before he took to his career in pulpiteering, but have you ever wondered just what kind of ball-player he actually was?

Well... Nestled in the stacks of the historic COPPER QUEEN LIBRARY in Bisbee AZ is a 144 page album-sized book called "Nineteenth Century Stars," compiled by the diligent researchers of the SABR [The Society For American Baseball Research.]

The edition there is the original 1989 printing pictured below, although informs me there has been a revised 2012 edition since then.

It is a book dedicated to the forgotten players of early, EARLY professional baseball, and contains 136 profiles of great ball players from the 1800s who have NOT been given Hall Of Fame status. The book is roundly fascinating, and is worth perusing-- if nothing else-- just for all the amazing NICKNAMES of these varied old-time, rough-and-ready, mustachioed, tobacker-spitting "diamond dogs." 

Here-- in one place-- are informative profiles of-- just to name a few:

Robert "The Magnet" Addy, Charles "Lady" Baldwin, Asa "Count" Brainard, Louis "The Gladiator" Browning, Thomas "Oyster" Burns, Elton "Ice Box" Chamberlain, Ignatius "One Arm" Daily, Michael "Ubbo Ubbo" Hornung, Peter "Monkey" Hotaling, William "Dummy" Hoy, G.W. "Jumbo" McGinnis, "Honest" John Morrill, Ed "Cannonball" Morris, Thomas "Toad" Ramsey, Native American player Louis "Chief" Sockalexis, "Silent Mike" Tiernan, "Rip" Van Haltren, and even James "Grasshopper Jim" Whitney!

LOVED all of this info, of course...but in all honesty the book was mainly useful to me for the following great player profile of one William Ashley "Billy" Sunday.  If you are a fan of either preaching or old-time baseball [I am a major fan of BOTH!] you will love this. I transcribed it myself, so i apologize for any spelling errors.

In any case it is truly informative.  When you read from the various biographical sources that Billy Sunday was considered in his time  a "star player," you can rest assured it is actually quite true:

Born: November 18, 1862, Ames, Iowa
Died: November 6, 1935, Chicago, Ill.
BL TR 5-10, 160

During his eight-year tenure in the NL, Billy Sunday became widely known as a fair batter (.248 in 499 games), a first-rate outfielder and the fastest man on spikes.  In 5 seasons with Chicago he played on 2 pennant winners, and performed capably in playoffs against the AA St. Louis Browns (1885 and 1886).  Yet "the famous sprinter with sabbatical name" remains best known for his post-playing career.  For, having had a Christian conversion experience in 1887, he went on to become of the most noted evangelists in American History.

Billy was the last of 3 sons born to William and Mary Jane Sunday.  His father, a Union soldier in the Civil War, was killed only weeks after Billy's birth. The impoverished widow sent her sons to homes for soldiers' orphans in Glenwood, then in Davenport, IA.  Leaving in his mid-teens, Sunday worked in Nevada, IA, first in a hotel, then doing farm labor.  Meanwhile he attended the local high school, working as a janitor.  His subsequent move to Marshalltown IA brought not only a furniture store job but also a place on the local ball team-- where he caught the attention of fellow Iowan (and Chicaog player-manager Cap Anson. By 1883, Sunday was a baby-faced rookie in the White Stockings outfield.

How good was Billy Sunday as a ball-player?  The best assessment came from Al Spaulding:

"People love to see him run!"

In no season with Chicago did his weak bat appear in more than 50 games, but his blinding speed made him a more important weapon. In 1887, Boston Herald readers placed him behind King Kelly and Monte Ward as the entire league's best base-runners. Sunday could reputedly round the bases in 14 seconds flat.  A match race with the vaunted Arlie Latham attracted national attention. Sunday won.

Fans remembered him once winning a game by stealing second, third and home on successive pitches! 

But only after leaving Chicago did Sunday become an everyday player, stealing 71 bases for Pittsburgh in 1888  and a career-high 84 wth Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in his final season, 1890.

Moreover, Sunday worked hard on his defensive game. With discipline, his speed became a marvelous asset. He had fielded a primitive .663 in 1884, but four seasons later it was .939 as he actually led his peers in put-outs and total chances per game. In 1890 he paced the league's outfielders in double plays.  His play in the field was becoming magnetic.

It was during the 1887 season, however, that the course of his entire life was changed forever.

On a Sunday Afternoon he sat, "tanked up," at the corner of State and Madison streets in Chicago. Across the street a Gospel Troupe appered, playing instruments and singing hymns Sunday remembered from his childhood.  Beginning to sob, Sunday arose and followed them to the Pacific Garden Mission, addressing his pals thus: 

"Goodbye, boys, I'm through.  I'm going to Jesus Christ.  We've come to a parting of the ways."

Although he continued to play ball through 1890, he refused to play in Sunday games, shunned drinking, smoking, cards and the theatre, and passed his free time giving inspirational talks at local YMCA chapters.  In 1888 he married Helen (Nell) Thompson, a solid Presbyterian woman of Chicago, and she bore him four children.  Finally in the spring of 1891, aged 28, Billy announced his retirement from baseball to enter full-time Christian work.

He began at the Chicago "Y," but then worked as advance agent and occasional preacher for a traveling ministry.  By early 1896, Billy Sunday was on his own.

He moved from mid-west small towns to large citied within a decade, in meetings held in specially built Tabernacles, holding up to 15 thousandSunday's absolute peak of popularity came in the decade 1910-1920  (notably in New York City, 1917), as he revisited all the great NL cities.

On April 17, 1911, in Toledo, he preached the media-event funeral service for 31-year-old hurler Addie Joss, who has just famously died of Tubercular Meningitis.

The famed evangelist never lost his interest in baseball, even though he remained strongly opposed to playing ball on the "Sabbath."  He loved to make a great hit as guest umpire  at semi-pro games in the various cities where he was preaching.

In his preaching, as befit his background,  Billy sunday was athletic and dramatic, earthy and colorful. Sermons were filled with baseball language: the "fastball of the Devil," the sinners "dying on 2nd or 3rd base," the "rally" for Christ and country.

Some accused Sunday of being intolerant, some of being too theatrical, some materialistic (although he lived in relative modesty and raised a fortune for charities!)    But he was always uniquely himself.  And in the end, his potent message rang more decisively across the American landscape than any ball he ever stuck on the diamond.

--Article contributed by James D. Smith, III
and L. Robert Davis


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