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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 98

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This is the grave of Billy Sunday.

Born in 1862 in Iowa, Billy Sunday (his actual name) grew up poor. His father was in the Union army and died four months after his son’s birth of pneumonia, a pretty normal way to go in a war that killed far more soldiers by disease than bullets. His mother had no money and he and his brother were sent to an orphans’ home at the age of 10. He was a very good local baseball player. Discovered by Cap Anson, he played in the major leagues from 1883 to 1890. He was pretty mediocre at that level and by most accounts a truly terrible defender who made the occasional splashy play, although he stole 84 bases in 1890, making him exciting and popular with fans.

Far more important was his conversion to evangelical Christianity, which happened during his playing days. He quit playing baseball after the 1890 season and went to work for the YMCA in Chicago. He became the top assistant to the famous preacher J. Wilbur Chapman and set out on his own in 1896. He was very good at it. Between 1896 and 1908, he traveled around the Midwest, usually preaching to small farm town audiences and using his relative fame as a baseball player to gin up his attendance numbers. In 1908, sick of working the backwater, his wife Nell took over the day to day operations of his career. At this point, he took off. Billy worked on his sermons and his delivery method, Nell handled all the business. He was soon making big money and like preachers after him, he didn’t turn it down. By his Pittsburgh revival in 1914, he was making $870 a day, more than the average laborer made per year. He rose into the political and social elite, hobnobbing with Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and John D. Rockefeller.

His preaching challenged none of the inequalities of the era; although he did speak against child labor, writers from Carl Sandburg to Sinclair Lewis held his pro-capitalist message in contempt. During World War I, Sunday used his skills to raise money for the war, which he saw as good vs. evil. He was a huge fan of Prohibition, to the extent of denouncing the 21st Amendment in 1933. He hated the theory of evolution and loved eugenics. He denounced such sins as dancing and card-playing. He died in 1935, his crowds dwindling and his family and fortune falling apart.

Billy Sunday (as well as Nell) is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

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