Billy Sunday: Baseball Star and Powerful Preacher

A talented baseball player used his charisma to preach God’s word.
Billy Sunday: Baseball Star and Powerful Preacher
Illustration of Billy Sunday preaching, by George Bellows. Metropolitan Magazine, May 1915. (BPL/CC BY 2.0)

Although he grew up poor, Billy Sunday’s hard work enabled him to become a famous and successful professional baseball player who was coined the fastest man in the game. And then, once he converted to Christianity, he used his fame as a star to become one of the most influential evangelists of the early 20th century.

Sunday was born in 1862 in Ames, Iowa to a poor family. After his father died in the Civil War just weeks after Sunday was born, his mother struggled to care for him and his brother. When he was 10, Sunday went to live in an orphanage but, at the age of 14, ran away to work as a farm hand.

Billy Sunday, circa 1921. (Public Domain)
Billy Sunday, circa 1921. (Public Domain)

While working at Col. John Scott’s Iowa farm, Sunday attended Nevada High School. In 1880, he moved to Marshalltown, Iowa where he had been recruited to join a fire brigade sports team due to his superior athleticism.

While Sunday worked odd jobs and competed in fire brigade tournaments, he joined the town’s baseball team. His skills caught the eye of local baseball star Adrian Anson, known as Cap Anson, who went on to be a professional baseball hall of famer.

Noticing Sunday’s speed on the field, Anson challenged him to a foot race against the fastest person on Anson’s Chicago White Stockings National League team. Sunday could not afford proper shoes, yet won the race by 15 feet running barefoot. Anson signed Sunday to the team on the spot.

However, during his first match, Boston Red Sox pitcher “Grasshopper” Jim Whitney struck Sunday out four times in a row. It would take Sunday seven more strikeouts and three games before he got his first hit in the professional league.

In fact, during his eight years as a pro baseball player Sunday was never much of a hitter: He ended his career with a total batting average of .248, which was average for players of that era. He was mainly known for his speed. He became the first player to run all of the bases in 14 seconds. He also led the league in stolen bases.

While playing baseball, Sunday took up an unhealthy lifestyle. Then, one day, his life changed forever. After a game one night, he and his teammates went out drinking in a Chicago saloon. As he wandered the streets with his teammates, he overheard a gospel preaching team with the Pacific Garden Mission singing hymns that his mother used to sing to him.

After some personal struggles, Sunday converted to Christianity and joined the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church. He dedicated his life to his faith and took a position at the Chicago YMCA, giving up the handsome baseball salary.

Sunday spent the next few years visiting the ill and praying for anyone who needed it. In 1893, he became an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the best known evangelists at the time.

Baseball Preacher

Billy Sunday evangelizing over the radio, circa 1920s. (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)
Billy Sunday evangelizing over the radio, circa 1920s. (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

In 1896, Sunday began to preach on his own. Over the next 12 years, he traveled to over 70 small towns across the country in what he called the “kerosene circuit,” as most of the towns he visited lacked electricity.

Sunday used his fame as a baseball player to his advantage. His sermons and preached with energy and excitement, and he incorporated baseball slang terms, such as, “The devil says I’m out, but the Lord says I’m safe.”

“I want to preach the gospel so plainly that men can come from the factories and not have to bring a dictionary,” Sunday said, according to Got Questions Ministries.

Sunday’s sermons were often grand theatrical performances, as he was known for spectacular stunts. He slid headfirst on the floor to demonstrate a sinner seeking salvation, or wind up like a pitcher to throw fastballs at the devil. Even though attendance started out small, he eventually preached to crowds of over 15,000 people.

Sunday gave over 20,000 sermons to over a million people; he was said to have converted 300,000 to Christianity. Sunday constantly preached against alcohol and many believe his sermons paved the way for Prohibition in 1920. He gave his last sermon a week before he passed away in 1935.

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