Billy Sunday was one of the most popular stars on the world champion Chicago White Stockings ball club of the 1880s. Nevertheless, after the team's failure to repeat in 1887, the following February Spalding put Sunday's contract on the block.
However, the team owner so highly regarded his young fielder that he gave him permission to quash the trade. Pittsburgh, a bad franchise in need of a drawing card, offered Sunday a premium contract.
Sunday agreed to go after he and his fiancee talked it over. "We decided it would be a good move for me to go, and I did," he wrote. The move not only made financial sense, the change of scenery did Sunday good, too.
He came into his own as center fielder. Playing everyday, he led the league in put-outs with a sparkling fielding percentage to boot. His hitting did not materially improve, but he did place third in stolen bases.
Late in the season, he returned to Chicago to be married. Before the couple returned to Pittsburgh, they were feted by the Chicago franchise and its fans.
Sunday's comings and goings coincided with a great outpouring of baseball cards during the 1888 season, and Sunday appears on several issues in both Chicago or Pittsburgh uniforms.
Among Sunday's memorabilia from that season, he appears on a second issue of Chicago baseball currency valued at $600-$800, two varieties of G&B Chewing Gum cards (portrait and fielding) valued at $1,000 and $500 respectively, several varieties of Old Judge Cabinet-size cards and of Beck & Co. Yum-Yum cards valued at about $500 each, and an interesting baseball playing card valued at $500-$1,500 depending on condition.
In 1889, Pittsburgh did not improve. Neither did Sunday. In 1890 he tore up the base paths for the hapless Pittsburgh crew, which was so bad that only 20 fans showed up for one game.
In a July game, Billy was inserted as a relief pitcher. The first batter walked, the second tripled, the third doubled. Billy hit the fourth batter and walked back to the outfield.
Late in the season the last-place Pirates dealt Sunday to Philadelphia, a contending team. By then, however, catching up converts was more on Sunday's mind than shagging fly balls. At the conclusion of the season, Billy asked for release to work at Chicago's YMCA.
Philly management was unwilling to lose its popular attraction, but just before spring training cut him loose. The news was electric. Cincinnati offered him a $5,000 one-year deal. That was an amazing amount of money in 1891: five times what the YMCA job paid.
Although tested, temptation was declined. Sunday turned his efforts full-time to his religious work roaming Chicago's underworld for converts. After several years apprenticeship, Billy took his own tent revival on tour.
Sunday's revivals became electrifying. For nearly 40 years, he criss-crossed the country as the most renowned itinerant preacher of his era. Before large crowds, Billy confronted sin head-on. He spoke out against racial and sexual inequality much ahead of his time.
Collectors have cataloged nearly 70 varieties of Billy Sunday postcards. The most plentiful types available were published by C.U. Williams of Bloomington, Ill. These include both portraits and a series of poses. The Williams portraits are particularly fine. The postcards generally sell in the $12-$20 range.
The great evangelist was noted for his theatrical delivery and his sports analogies. The posed shots depict Sunday bent over or stooped, pointing in exaggerated fashion or clasping his hands to his mouth and shouting his biblical message to the rafters. These poses are valued at $5-$10.
Additional publishers of Sunday postcards include J. Inbody, Elkhart, Ind.; Forward Publishing Co., Omaha, Neb.; United News Co., Detroit, Mich; E.C. Kropp Co., Milwaukee; and a host of local printers who capitalized on the evangelist's local appearances.
From an historical standpoint, perhaps the most interesting are the tabernacle scenes which illustrate the building constructed specifically to hold the masses attracted to Sunday's crusades. Due to local interest, card prices for the crusade cards vary greatly, $2.50 to $25 or even more depending on content and condition.
Other Billy Sunday postcards include the preacher's wife, children, ministry associates, his home at Winona Lake, Ind., and theatrical cards of Billy with newsmakers. The family scenes are of modest value, $5. A personal favorite shows Sunday standing beneath the outstretched arms of Billy Robinson, "one of three noted Iowa Giants." Because of its uniqueness, this card is valued at $30.
It is estimated that Sunday preached the message of Christian salvation to more than 100 million listeners. Literally millions of converts responded. Sunday's ultimate legacy looms larger than base hits and put outs. The man who could go deep into the crowd to shag a fly ball or an errant soul can't be summed up on mere pasteboard.
Fred Reed is former News Editor of Coin World and Vice-President of Beckett Publications. A collector for over 40 years, Reed is a member of most national coin and stamp organizations. He is also Secretary of Society of Paper Money Collectors. SPMC awarded Reed its lifetime achievement award for his groundbreaking Civil War Encased Stamps: The Issuers and Their Times, one of his five books. Reed has also written on coins and currency, tokens and medals, stamps, comic books, post cards, Beanie Babies, sports cards and collectibles, engravings and lithographs, movie memorabilia, autographs, antique photography, and Civil War artifacts, all of which he avidly collects. Reed is a long-time member of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Dallas Press Club and the Society for American Baseball Research.