Billy Sunday Preached His Prayer Pennant Winning Baseball Story
Billy Sunday pitching for Chicago - Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy warnes
Billy Sunday helped the Chicago White Stockings win a pennant and rank well in National League Standings in the 1880s, before he switched to a higher power.
Billy Sunday preached his prayer pennant winning baseball story to the saints and sinners of the gritty steel and gas belt towns of Indiana and Illinois who flocked to revival tents and schoolhouses to hear his preaching in the last part of the Nineteenth and early decades of the Twentieth Centuries. His prayer pennant winning baseball story involved his Chicago White Stocking teammates Cap Anson, Tom Burns, Fred Pfeffer, and Mike “King” Kelly. Significantly, it highlighted his own role in winning the 1886 playoff game with the Detroit Wolverines.
The Chicago White Stockings Sign Billy Sunday
Born November 19, 1862, in Ames, Iowa, William Ashley Sunday, or “Billy” as his teammates and everyone else called him, endured a childhood gouged by spikes of poverty. He climbed out of it in part by playing baseball on local teams and running. His speed and agility while he played on the Marshalltown, Iowa, city team captured the attention of Adrian Anson. “Cap” Anson also happened to be the captain of the Chicago White Stockings.
In 1883, Billy Sunday joined the Chicago White Stockings and by 1885, he had earned average statistics for his team. He batted a .256 that year against an overall lifetime average of .248. In his first game with the White Stockings, he struck out four times and it took him seven more strikeouts in three more games before he finally connected with the ball. He played part time his first four seasons with the White Stockings, taking over right field for Mike “King” Kelly so Kelly could catch.
Speed turned out to be Billy Sunday’s greatest physical asset, which he demonstrated running bases and in the outfield. In 1885, the White Stockings engineered a race between Billy Sunday and Arlie Latham, who held the title of fastest runner in the American Association. Billy Sunday beat Latham in the hundred yard dash by at least ten feet.
He also increased his fame with the fans, drawing them like batted fly balls to West Side Park in Chicago with his personality, winning ways, and athletic playing. Billy Sunday’s teammates liked him as well. Manager Cap Anson trusted him enough to make him the White Stockings business manager, which meant he handed the ticket receipts and paid the travel expenses for the team.
Billy Sunday Makes A Play for the Pennant
The 1886 season turned out to be a stellar one for the Chicago White Stockings, and they found themselves battling the Detroit Wolverines for the pennant in the September playoffs. The score numbers were close and the nerves of the players were wound as tightly as a baseball.
According to Billy Sunday, the Chicago White Stockings were against the wall in the ninth inning. The Detroit Wolverines were at bat. Charlie Bennett stepped up to the plate, with one man on second and another on third. The White Stockings pitcher had managed two strikes and three balls - a full count. Then Charlie Bennett hit the ball with a wallop and it sailed toward the club house.
The White Stockings had placed benches for spectators in the field. Billy Sunday saw the ball sailing over the benches in his section and realized it would land in the crowd. He yelled, “Get out of the way!”
Billy Sunday continued his story. He said the crowd scattered and he ran and jumped over the benches. As he ran, he prayed one of the fastest prayers he had ever prayed. He prayed, “Lord, if you ever helped a mortal man, help me get that ball.”
Pausing a moment for dramatic effect, Sunday gauged the reaction of his audience. Then, when he saw everyone sitting on the edge of their seats, he continued. He said that he jumped over the benches as though he had wings on his feet and he threw out his hand while he flew through the air. The ball struck his glove and stuck. The Chicago White Stockings won the game because of his catch, although they ultimately lost the World Series to the St. Louis Browns.
Waiting for his audience to relax, Sunday concluded, “I am sure the Lord helped me catch that ball, and it was my first great lesson in prayer.”
Billy Sunday Plays In Pennsylvania
In 1887, the Chicago White Stockings sold King Kelly and Billy Sunday became the team’s full time right fielder, but an injury restricted him to playing just 50 games. The Chicago White Stockings sold Billy Sunday to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys for the 1888 season. Sunday charmed the Pittsburgh fans as thoroughly as he had those in Chicago. One newspaper reporter noted that “the whole town is wild over Sunday.” Billy Sunday finished a full season for the first time in his career, playing center field for the Alleghenys.
The Alleghenys lost more games than they won in the 1888 and 1889 seasons, but Sunday played centerfield well and was one of the players leading the National League in stolen bases. Ty Cobb was the only player who beat Sunday’s record of 96 stolen bases in one season with his 98 stolen bases. Billy Sunday also held the National league record for running bases with a fourteen-second speed. He played his last professional baseball game for the Philadelphia Phillies on October 4, 1890.
Billy Sunday Pinch Hits For A Higher Power
Billy Sunday left baseball and became a famous and influential evangelist during the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century. He recalled his professional baseball career, like the 1886 pennant game with the Detroit Wolverines, in many of his sermons to fans on and off the baseball diamond.
Firstenberger, William A. In Rare Form: A Pictorial History of Baseball Evangelist Billy Sunday. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005.
Knickerbocker, Wendy. Sunday at the Ballpark: Billy Sunday’s Professional Baseball Career 1883-1890. Scarecrow Press, 2000
Names, Larry D. Bury My Heart At Wrigley Field: The History of The Chicago Cubs: Part One: When the Cubs Were the White Stockings. Angel PR, 1996
Rosenberg, Howard W. Cap Anson 4: Bigger Than Babe Ruth: Captain Anson of Chicago. Arlington, Virginia: Tile Books, 2006