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Faces From The Past—III

July 2024
4min read

Just by luck, the same summer the Marshalltown fire brigade needed a fast man in the worst way for the fire-fighting competition, someone spotted this youngster from the orphanage, who could run like the wind. To show what an exalted honor it was to belong to a fire brigade, the boy joined up even though it meant missing his high school graduation. There were firemen’s tournaments all summer, but the brigade didn’t take full time, even in Iowa, so he hired out to the local undertaker— $3 a week, and enough time off for baseball, which suited him to a T. With him playing outfield, Marshalltown won the state baseball championship in 1883, and the great Cap Anson saw the boy and made him an offer. Now, being noticed by Cap Anson and being given a tryout with the Chicago White Stockings was as close to paradise as a lad could get in those days, and when he arrived in the city in a green suit with a dollar in his pocket, the pearly gates were in sight.

His real name was Billy Sunday, but the players called him hayseed and rube on account of his suit and playing ball in Iowa, and the first thirteen times at bat he went down swinging. Then the fastest man on the team challenged him to a hundred-yard race, and when Billy, running barefoot, beat him by fifteen feet, they figured he might catch on after all. For eight years he played ball—1883 through 1890—and one season he stole ninety-five bases. The only man to beat him, Billy claimed, was Ty Cobb, and that wasn’t until 1915.

In spite of his running, Cap Anson finally decided he was one of those fellows you might call good field, no hit, but what took the heart out of baseball for Billy was falling in love with a girl from the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Christian Endeavor—that and coming out of a saloon one day and running smack into a group of evangelists, hearing their gospel hymns, and getting converted, from then on it was all uphill, straight and narrow—no more drinking, swearing, or gambling, but talks at the Y.M.C.A., revival meetings, and a celluloid collar. America had seen revival preachers before— there must have been 150 years of tents and wooden platforms, calls to sinners, preachers running down smoking, chewing, drinking, dancing, and card-playing Christians—but no one had seen the equal of Billy. He blew in from the Middle West like a twister, telling folks he was nothing but a “rube of the rubes,” and by 1911 his name was better known than any of your foreign princes. “Get right with God!” was the motto. The church needs fighting men, not those hogjowled, weasel-eyed, sponge-columned, mushy-fisted, jellyspined, pussy-footing, four-flushing, charlotte-russe Christians.” Why, he could work himself into a rage against the devil till the sweat poured off him in a stream: then he’d shed his coat and vest and tie, roll up his sleeves, all the time crouching, jumping up and down, shaking his fist, and running back and forth across the stage.

Sometimes he was a sinner trying to slide into heaven like a ballplayer—and he would run the length of that stage and put on the prettiest hook slide you ever saw. “Lord,” he’d say, “there are always people sitting in the grandstand and calling the batter a mutt,” complaining that he can’t hit, he can’t get the ball over the plate, he’s an ice wagon on the bases. “O Lord, give us some coachers out at this Tabernacle so that people can be brought home to you. Some of them are dying on second and third base, Lord, and we don’t want that.” And then the old outfielder would leap to the edge of the platform, crouch there with one leg stretched out behind him, his arms pointing to some “boozer” in the audience, and holler out that a man who drank was a “dirty, low-down, whisky-soaked, beer-guzzling, bull-necked, foul-mouthed hypocrite!”

Once he described how Christ might divide the world, saying to him,  “'Bill, you take Massachusetts.’ If He says ‘Reign over Massachusetts,’ there’ll be something doing … I’ve got it in for that gang.” When he got to Boston he held a “Scotch Night,” and called to all those fellows in kilts: “Come on, Scotchmen. Show some of the grit of Wallace and Bruce!” Anyone who held back from hitting the sawdust trail, he said, had the “real, genuine, blazing-eyed, cloven-hoofed, forked-tail, old devil” hanging on his coattail. And he never forgot baseball. “Lord,” he would groan, “there are a lot of people who step up to the collection plate and fan.” Then he’d lash out at cheapskates who were too tight to pay for religion:  "Take a stand and get into the game!”

For nine years it went like that, audiences growing bigger all the time, flocking to hear the man who fought the enemies of God and America and motherhood and hard work. How they loved him and his smile, the friendly, boyish figure in the natty suit; every week there were thousands of “decisions,” with men and women walking down the aisle to shake Billy’s hand. Somebody figured he spoke to a hundred million people—and that was before radio or television—and brought a million down the trail. Then it was over. Something happened to America in the First War, and that was the end for Billy Sunday. All of a sudden it seemed as if he was trying to turn back the clock, to make believe this wasn’t the twentieth century but the nineteenth, and before long he was dead in the big towns. Oh, he still held meetings, of course, but they weren’t a patch on the old days.

By 1928 newspapers didn’t even bother to cover them, so when he arrived in Detroit he dropped by the News office just to let them know he was there. A photographer decided to get a picture of him in case the editor ever did run a story, and took him outside to the alley to pose. What he got was the old Billy Sunday, all right—stickpin and a big smile, same natty suit and peppy pose—except that Billy was sixty-six now and most people weren’t interested in what he had to say. The simple answers and “Brighten the Corner” weren’t enough any more.

—Richard M. Ketchum

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