Baseball Player To World Famous Preacher

Billy Sunday was born in 1862 near Ames, Iowa. He became one of the most popular evangelists of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Billy spent most of his teenage years in an orphanage and never received a high school diploma or attended a seminary. Yet, through self-education he became better educated than most who went to college.

As a young man Billy played on local baseball teams, and because of his lightning speed and agility was recruited to play in the outfield in the major leagues for seven years. Outfielders in those days did not wear gloves. He played for the teams of the Chicago White Stockings (later called the White Sox), Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. He was just an average hitter, but because of his speed and base-running skills, he stole many bases.

One day in Chicago in 1886 the team had a free day. Most of the team members made it a time of carousing and drinking, but Billy went to hear a street preacher from the Pacific Garden Mission and was converted to Christianity. That day Billy’s life was changed forever.

When he joined a local Presbyterian Church he met his wife, Nell Thompson. They were married in 1888. Billy continued to play ball, but In 1891 he turned down a baseball contract for $3,500 a year to accept a job as Assistant Secretary at the Chicago YMCA for just $83 per month. He became a full-time assistant to one of the best known evangelists in the United States at that time, J. Wilbur Chapman.

Those were the days of religious revivals, and Billy’s job as an advance man was to precede the arrival of evangelist Chapman in the cities where he was scheduled to preach. Billy would organize prayer meetings and choirs and take care of necessary details before Chapman arrived. Billy listened to Chapman preach night after night, and this taught him valuable lessons in preaching and writing sermons. Chapman also critiqued Billy’s attempts at evangelistic preaching and showed him how to put a good sermon together.

Back then religious revivals were usually held in tents. Similar to the canvas cathedral that Moses and the Hebrews carried in the Sinai desert, revival tents also had dirt floors. Sawdust was used to soften the acoustics and to keep down the dust; hence was born the term “hitting the sawdust trail”. That term applied to the crowd members, who at the end of the preaching time, would walk down front to accept Jesus Christ.

Chapman unexpectedly decided to give up preaching on the road and began serving a pastorate in1896. So Billy Sunday started out preaching on his own. He began with a meeting in Garner, Iowa, and for the next twelve years preached throughout seventy communities located in Iowa and Illinois.

He was an evangelist for more than forty years. His wife, Nell, managed his revival campaigns and over the years turned it into a “nationally renowned phenomenon.” He conducted over 250 campaigns throughout the nation. Many of them lasted for several weeks. It is estimated that in the 20,000 sermons he preached he reached face-to-face over 100,000,000 people and led 1 to 1.5 million people to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. All this was before electronic microphones, sound systems, radios, and TV were even invented!

God gave him a platform to talk to presidents and wealthy businessmen as well as Hollywood stars When he preached, he used the full stage and often raced from one end to the other. His sermon notes were in BIG letters so that, when racing past the podium, he could see and read them. Then, to make his point, he would pretend he was sliding into home plate.

He was a strong supporter of conservative views on religion, such as the prohibition against alcohol. He did acknowledge that when he was a baseball player he had taken a few sips of alcohol and had even gotten drunk on a few occasions.

Here is an example of his preaching from one of his sermons:

Twenty-nine years ago, with the Holy Spirit as my guide, I entered this wonderful temple called Christianity. I entered at the portico of Genesis, and I walked down through the Old Testament art galleries, where the pictures of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Isaac, Jacob, and Daniel hung on the wall. I passed into the music room of the Psalms where the Spirit swept the keyboard of nature until it seemed that every reed and pipe in God’s great organ responded to the tuneful harp of David, the sweet singer of Israel.

I entered the chamber of Ecclesiastes, where the voice of the preacher was heard; and into the conservatory of Sharon; and the lily of the valley’s sweet scented spices filled and perfumed my life.

I entered the business office of the Proverbs and then into the observatory room of the prophets, where I saw telescopes of various sizes pointing to far off events, but all concentrated upon the bright and morning Star which was to rise above the moonlit hills of Judea for our salvation.

I entered the audience room of the King of kings, and I caught a vision of His glory from the standpoint of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I passed into the Acts of the Apostles where the Holy Spirit was doing His work in the formation of the infant church. Then into the correspondence room, where sat Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude, penning their Epistles.

I stepped finally into the throne room of Revelation where tower the glittering peaks. I got a vision of the King of kings upon the throne in all His glory, and I cried: ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall. Bring forth the royal diadem and crown Him Lord of all.’

Some of his better known quotes are:

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.

Better die an old maid, sister, than marry the wrong man.

One reason sin flourishes is that it is treated like a cream puff instead of a rattlesnake.

Give your face to God, and He will put His shine on it.

The law tells me how crooked I am. Grace comes along and straightens me out.

The reason you don't like the Bible, you old sinner, is because it knows all about you.

The backslider likes the preaching that wouldn't hit the side of a house, while the real disciple is delighted when the truth brings him to his knees.

The Bible will always be full of things you cannot understand as long as you will not live according to those you can understand.

You can't measure manhood with a tape line around his biceps.

Listen, I'm against sin. I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot; I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist; I’ll butt it as long as I've got a head; and I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth. And when I'm old, fistless, footless, and toothless, I'll gum it till I go home to glory and it goes home to perdition.

Billy Sunday was visiting his brother-in- law in Chicago when his heart gave out in 1935. His funeral was preached at Moody Bible Institute by another world-famous preacher of that era, Dr. Harry A. Ironside. For more than forty years Billy Sunday was an evangelist leading hundreds of thousands to Jesus Christ all because he heard and listened to that street preacher in Chicago.

In another of GOD’S OTHER WAYS© the Lord guided this uneducated, untrained baseball player and molded Billy Sunday into one of the best- known preachers of his era.


EVANGELISM - the commitment to or act of publicly preaching the Gospel with the intention of spreading the message and teachings of Jesus Christ.

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? Romans 10:13-14 ESV