Billy Sunday: The Baseball Evangelist

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WINONA LAKE, Ind. (WANE) – Mark Twain once wrote that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. When it comes to Billy Sunday, his truth is a script fit for Hollywood, as Sunday went from being the fastest player in Major League Baseball to a world-renown evangelist – and did it based out of northeast Indiana.

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Sunday, a native Iowan, was discovered in the 1880’s by Hall of Famer Cap Anson. Sunday made his MLB debut for the Chicago White Stocking (the precursor to the Chicago Cubs) in 1883 and quickly made a name for himself with his speed on the basepaths. An outfielder, Sunday was a solid hitter, posting a .248 career batting average, and a fan favorite. After five seasons in Chicago, Sunday played for the Pittsburgh Allegheneys, where he stole 71 bases in 1888. Traded midseason to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1890, Sunday stole a career-best 84 bases that season and was atop his game at just 27 years old.

However, after the season Sunday, who had converted to Christianity when he met his wife while playing in Chicago, decided to forgo the game of baseball – and it’s handsome salary – and work for the YMCA in Chicago for $83 a month.

Sunday would wind up working under Jay Wilbur Chapman, a Presbyterian evangelist, who gave Sunday his start in evangelism.

The rest, as they say, is history, as Sunday’s energetic style of preaching and conservative Christian approach made him a must-see event in the towns and cities he visited.

With the internationally revered Winona Bible Conference, Kosciusko county was a place Sunday and many other Christian leaders would frequently visit – and in 1911 Sunday permanently moved his family to northeast Indiana.

Sunday’s popularity continued to grow, as he toured the country, building tabernacles that seated up to 20,000 people. Sunday’s anti-liquor stance is considered to have played a role in the adoption of the 18th amendment (prohibition) in 1919.

Sunday eventually passed away in 1935, but is considered to be one of the most influential American evangelists in the first two decades of the 20th century. It is estimated that he preached to over 100 million people during his lifetime.

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