Billy Sunday was a journeyman outfielder for three National League teams during a brief baseball career. Despite his modest offensive output on the playing diamond, Sunday’s sports memorabilia is a jewel in the collections of baseball enthusiasts.
This is due in part to his highly publicized career as a demon on the base paths. It is also partly due to his position as a fan favorite where ever he played. Ultimately his popularity mostly results from his extra-baseball career.
Sunday’s debut as a Rookie outfielder for the Chicago White Stockings was not particularly auspicious, yet the 21-year-old speedster had managed to steal fans’ hearts as his club finished second to Boston’s Braves in the pennant race.
In Sunday’s sophomore season, Chicago fell to fourth place for the 1884 season. Sunday hit a paltry .222 and made 27 errors in 73 chances for a rather dismal .663 fielding percentage. Despite his mediocre performance, Sunday lost none of his luster with fans.
In 1885 Sunday opened the season like gangbusters. In early July he was hitting at a .371 clip. He became more patient at the plate and started to accrue walks putting him on base even when his bat chilled in the second half of the season.
Sunday's spark helped return Chicago to its accustomed top of the NL heap. The team's slugging and stalwart pitching also contributed. No longer a liability, Billy is shown far right down front in a Harper's Weekly woodcut. Notice each of his teammates sports neatly sculptured, waxed mustaches; everyone, but Sunday!
His speed continued to win converts. One of the first sprinters to dash 100-yards in 10 seconds, he raced around the base paths in 14 seconds flat.
Anson featured his speedster. Sunday defeated the Canadian sprint champion. In St. Louis his backers put up $75,000 in a match race against a local speedster. Billy did not disappoint, prancing home with a five yard victory margin.
Chicago was proud of its championship team. A wood engraving of the team’s 11 stars appeared in the October 15, 1885 issue of the popular illustrated Harper’s Weekly. This issue has proven very collectible with baseball fans and copies of the five-cent publication regularly bring $200 or more from collectors.
In 1886 it was more of the same for Chicago. The champs, including Sunday, appeared on a Lorillard Tobacco team schedule card which has become a collector favorite. Even in VG this card books for $2,000 and better specimens have exchanged hands for several times that amount.
Chicago raced home with another pennant, but Sunday played infrequently and made little impact on the league-leading offense. A notable exception came in an important June game against rival Detroit which was pressing Chicago for league lead. Billy went deep into an overflow crowd that had spilled onto the field. Reports said the crowd "parted for the outfielder like the Red Sea for Moses." Sunday raced deep into the throng and made a circus catch reaching high overhead while still speeding away, the Willie May's catch of its era.
That same month, the clean cut youth raced toward immortality in yet another way. One evening after a game with the Giants, Billy and teammates were prowling Chicago's tenderloin district looking for mischief.
Alighting from a bar, the ball players settled on a curb to catch their bearings. Their reverie was interrupted by the serenade of a Gospel Mission troupe inviting them to see the errors of their ways.
In a scene right out of "Guys and Dolls," Sunday got up from the sporting crowd and followed the evangelists to a missionary store front nearby. There, he joined into the revival breaking out among the city's underclass and accepted salvation.
The next day at the ball park, Sunday expected to catch heat from his team mates for his conversion. Surprisingly even the most hardened ball players told him they respected -- even admired -- his decision.
Afield Sunday continued to struggle, but his life and career altered. In evenings he took to itinerant preaching at home and on the road. His fame as a ball player brought in large crowds of curiosity seekers.
Billy preached like he played ball . . . all cylinders racing. Plain-spoken and dramatic, the conviction of Sunday's heart and the spirit of his message rang true to many listeners.
A remarkable change came over Sunday's playing career, too. In improving the ball club's shady image, Spalding dealt away several rakish regulars. This provided the young outfielder more game time. He responded. In 1887 Billy had his most productive season at the plate, .291.
That season the popular ball player appeared on four prime sports collectibles which are avidly collected today. He and other team stars appeared on an imitation baseball currency note which is valued at $600-$800. He also appears on a Four Base Hits card valued at $1,000 and up depending on condition, an Old Judge N172 card valued at several hundreds of dollars, and a Buchner Gold Coin, priced at $50-$150.
Needless to say, Sunday’s sports card values are higher than all but a handful of the game’s greatest stars in each collector series.