Who was the most renowned baseball player in the 1920s?
If you guessed Babe Ruth, the frolicsome Yankee home run hitter, or Ty Cobb, the fierce Detroit batter and base runner, or Connie Mack, the Phillies tall tactician of a manager, you wouldn't even be close.
According to a longtime baseball historian, that honor goes to a lifetime .250 hitter, who retired a generation earlier: William Ashley Sunday, a journeyman outfielder who toiled modestly for three National League ball clubs in the 1880-1890s.
According to Frederick Ivor-Campbell, who chaired the Society for American Baseball Research 19th Century Committee, Sunday, a handsome and popular ballplayer in his early 20s who left the base paths for the sawdust trail as an evangelist would have been known by more people around the country and the world than any of his baseball betters.
After a fairly modest baseball career, Sunday's revivals made him friend of presidents and commoners alike. In the process Billy Sunday became the most noted ball player of the age, better known than the likes of Ruth, or Cobb or Mack, according to Ivor-Campbell.
Testimony to Ivor-Campbell's belief are the numerous Billy Sunday biographies which have appeared. Sunday's life has been retold in nearly a dozen books ranking him closely behind such ball players as Ruth or Jackie Robinson.
Interest in Sunday is so rabid that these books themselves have become avidly sought after collectibles. Elijah P. Brown's 1914 text The Real Billy Sunday fetches $30 or more depending on condition. Sometime found autographed by the great evangelist, these copies can bring $100-$150 on the collectors' market.
Another popular title with collectors is Billy Sunday, the Man and His Message by William T. Ellis. Also published in 1914, the Ellis book is worth about $25-$30 with collectors, but "salesmen's samples" of the book can bring twice as much.
Even recent Sunday books are avidly sought after. All emphasize or deconstruct the Sunday evangelism myths, yet few acknowledge in sufficient detail Sunday's first claim to fame as a popular, upright ball player in an age dominated by scamps and tramps.
Although brief, Sunday's baseball experience is worth noting too, especially since vintage enthusiasts avidly pursue his baseball cards and memorabilia. These items are chased like artifacts of truly great HoFers and include tobacco and gum issues, baseball currency and cabinets.
Sunday's earliest brush with diamond fame was the five runs he scored in an 1882 Iowa state championship game. The 20-year-old blossomed as a local legend for his reckless abandon on the base paths and great range in the outfield, too.
Cap Anson heard about those exploits and wired Sunday to try out for his championship team. In May 1883 Sunday arrived in Chicago with "all his possessions in a cheap bag and a dollar in his pocket to spare."
Chicago's White Stockings had three straight pennants under its belt. Led by Anson and Mike "King" Kelly, there was little chance the country kid could crack its lineup.
Sunday debuted on May 22nd. A cold wind whipped in off the lake and the temperature hovered around freezing. Anson batted Sunday leadoff and installed him in left field.
Billy's debut was as cold as the weather. He fanned in the bottom of the first, thoroughly baffled by major league pitching. The story repeated itself a second time, a third and the fourth.
His K-string reached 13 before he made contact. "Welcome to the Big Leagues, Mr. Sunday," who quickly became a part timer at the end of Chicago's bench.
Anson stuck with his spirited rook. "I was convinced that he would yet make a ball player, and hung on to him," Anson recalled. He taught the lad to choke up and make contact. With Sunday's speed and the erratic fielding of the era, any grounder the lanky lefty laid down was an opportunity. Once Billy reached base he was a constant threat to steal.
Sunday was irrepressible. His honesty shown in an age when many ball players were suspect. Anson enlisted the young man as traveling secretary to arrange travel and book hotels. Soon he placed gate receipts in Sunday's care. "[Sunday] often carried thousands of dollars [cash] around with him in a satchel," an early biographer wrote.
By season's end, Cap's "Heroic Legend" had scored a lot of runs, but it also made a lot of errors. Playing with reckless bravado of a triple champion, Chicago finished bridesmaid.
Sunday improved slightly from his faltering start. He finished with a .241 batting average. His 13 hits were 12 slap singles and 1 double, but he got something together since he only struck out five more times in his final 42 plate appearances.
Base pilfering records were not kept as yet, but Billy did more than steal bases that first season. He stole fans' hearts. This clean cut, good-looking youth from Iowa was an instant hit with big city crowds. Fans lamented their young rookie's weak bat: "If only he could steal first base!" their chorus rang at the end of Sunday's rookie season.
Fred Reed is former News Editor of Coin World and Vice President of Beckett Publications. A collector for 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. He is currently at work on six more books. Reed is a long time member of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Dallas Press Club and the Society for American Baseball Research.