Posts Tagged ‘Cap Anson’

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Cap Anson

March 1, 2012

Here’s a Wikipedia shot of Cap Anson throwing the first pitch in 1908 in Chicago

Time to leave both February and black baseball for a return to the Major Leagues. Here’s a transition (see numbers 8 and 9 below) to start:

1. Adrian Anson was born in Iowa in 1852.

2. He was neither a good student nor a well-behaved child. He was tossed out of both boarding school and the University of Iowa (after a single semester at Iowa).

3. He could play a little baseball. At age 19 he was playing for the Rockford Forest City of the National Association (1871). The team wasn’t very good, but Anson was a competent third baseman and hitter.

4. By 1875 he was a star and one of the first players to join William Hulbert’s new National League.

5. His team, the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs), won the first NL pennant with Anson holding down third base.

6. The team fell off the next two seasons resulting in two changes for Anson. He moved to first base which became his primary position for the remainder of his career, and he was made manager (hence “Cap”, short for “captain”) of the team.

7. During the 1880s he was, arguably, the best player in baseball. He won two batting titles, seven RBI titles (and another in 1891), led the NL in hits and doubles once each, and won two OBP and OPS titles in the decade. His team also won five pennants and participated in the 1885 and 1886 versions of the World Series, splitting the title with St. Louis.

8. Anson was in the forefront of opposition to allowing black players to join the NL. When Moses Fleetwood Walker joined the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, Anson announced the Colt’s (the White Stockings had changed names) would not play the team in any case, exhibition, real, or otherwise. He further announced the team would boycott any team that played a team with a black player. He backed down on the threat a couple of times (the team needed the gate receipts), but seems never to have changed his mind about the issue.

9. Anson’s actions were in part, and I emphasize only “in part”, responsible for the banning of black players from Major League baseball by a “gentlemen’s agreement” (I guess people who do that are “gentlemen”). There were obviously a lot of people who agreed with Anson or the ban could not have occurred.

10. He played his last game in 1897. He also managed his last game with the Colts the same year. In 1898 he managed a handful of games for the Giants, then retired.

11. He  became the first player with 3000 hits (and the only 19th Century player to do so), although his exact hit total is disputed. That, along with his other numbers, got him a ticket to Cooperstown in 1939.

12. Cap Anson died in Chicago in 1922.

13. In 1882, Anson had a son. He named him Adrian (after himself) Hulbert (after William Hulbert, founder of the National League). The child died four days later.

The Original Big Mac

September 21, 2011

Cal McVey

Most fans know about the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. It’s claimed they were the first all professional team, which may or may not be true (the records are pretty scant on some of the teams of the era). They were a pretty typical team for the era. You had ten players and most guys were asked to play multiple positions. For the Red Stockings the most famous are Harry Wright (who played center and managed) and his brother George (who played shortstop and did some work at second). Both are in the Hall of Fame: Harry as a manager, George as a player. But easily the most versatile was Cal McVey, who was probably never really called “Big Mac”.

McVey was born in 1849 in Iowa. That alone makes him fairly unusual for the era. Most of the better players were from the East Coast (Cap Anson was another exception) but there was a growing contingent of Midwestern players that was making their mark in the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players. McVey, by now relocated to Indianapolis, was one of them. By 1868 he had spent time with both the Actives and the Westerns (local teams that were NABBP members) as a pitcher and a better than average hitter. He was 18 during the bulk of the 1868 season. He came to the attention of Harry Wright who watched him pitch in a losing effort to the current Cincinnati team (not the Red Stockings). When the Red Stockings were formed the next year, Wright brought him on as the right fielder at a salary of $500 to $700 dollars (the sources vary).

McVey was recognized immediately as one of the Stockings’ finest players. He fielded well for the day (no gloves yet), could pitch a little, and hit well enough to frequently take the cleanup spot. The Red Stockings went 65-0 and showed just exactly how good an all professional team could be. The next season they were 24-0 before they lost to the Atlantic (and Lip Pike, the subject of the post on 14 September). The streak broken, the team began losing fans (and five other games) and folded at the end of the 1870 season.

McVey joined the Wrights as the cornerstones of the new Boston franchise of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. They finished second in 1871 on a disputed claim about how many games were considered “championship contests” and thus counted for pennant purposes. McVey was terrific in the five years of the National Association, all but 1873 with Boston. In 1871 he led the league in hits (with 66), In 1874 he led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. In 1875 he had a career year leading the league in doubles, RBIs, total bases, slugging, and OPS. His OPS+ was 195. When the NA folded after the 1875 season, McVey held the record for RBIs with 277. During his tenure in the NA McVey played catcher, right field, and first base for most of his games, but saw time at second, third, short, and pitched three games (going 1-0). It was common for players to slide from position to position, but few could play three well. 

With the founding of the National League in 1876, McVey joined the team in Chicago (now the Cubs) and helped lead them to the first National League pennant. He hit .347 and was easily one of the ten best players in the league. He put together the first 30 game hit streak in the NL that season (1 June through 8 August) and set the record for hits (12) in consecutive games.  He stayed in Chicago in 1877, then moved to Cincinnati for his final two seasons. He retired after the 1879 season. He was thirty. The reserve rule was adopted after the ’79 season and speculation is that McVey wanted nothing to do with it and left the Majors.

McVey moved to California, did a lot of local baseball work in the San Francisco area (Pacific Coast League), both playing for and managing local Minor League clubs through the 1880s. The numbers here get pretty obscure, so it’s tough to tell how good he was in California. In other words, it’s difficult to assess how quickly his skills eroded. After retirement he worked as a night watchman at a lumber yard, which considering he how well wielded baseball “lumber” is kind of appropriate. He died in 1926.

Because of the way McVey’s career breaks out, he has three sets of numbers: his National Association numbers, his National League numbers, and his combined numbers. Because Major League Baseball does not consider the Association a Major League, McVey’s “official” numbers only include his NL stats. I’m going to give you all three here. McVey plays nine years (5 in the NA, four in the NL). He plays 530 games (265 in each league–bet that took some doing), had 869 hits (476 NA, 393 NL), 1123 total bases (635 NA, 488 NL), 133 doubles (81 NA, 52 NL), and 449 RBIs (277 NA, 172 NL). He hit .346 (.362 NA, .328 NL), slugged .447 (483 NA, 407 NL), with an OBP of 354 (366 NA, 340 NL) for an OPS of .800 (849 NA, 747 NL) and an OPS+ of 152 (162 NA, 141 NL). As a fielder he wasn’t  bad for the era. There are some better, but a lot are much worse. As a pitcher he made a heck of a hitter. He wents 9-12 (1-0 in the NA) with 16 walks and 37 strikeouts (1 of each in the NA),, and gave up 75 earned runs (6 in NA) in 176 innings (11 in the NA).

For my money, McVey is either the best or second best player on the Red Stockings. George Wright is his only competition. McVey is also younger by two years than Wright. In the Association they’re pretty much a wash, but by the time the NL is formed, McVey is much better.

Because he plays the same number of games in both leagues over approximately the same number of years (5 to 4) one can compare McVey in the two leagues. He’s clearly better in the Association than in the League. That may reflect his aging (although he’s only 30 when he retires) or it may reflect that the NL was a tougher league than the NA. It would take more time to research this than I’m willing to devote, so I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which is true and just how much better one league was than the other.

Is McVey a Hall of Famer? Well, there’s the little issue of the 10 year rule that keeps him out no matter what you think of his stats. And if you recall that MLB doesn’t recognize the Association as a Major League, then he only has four years in the Majors. But I also think that the Hall should consider waiving the ten-year rule in the case of players who spent significant time in the National Association and time in the pre-Association leagues. Other than that he still faces the two problems players of his era face: the number of games in a season and the nature of the rules differences between the era and the modern game. So I don’t think he’ll ever make it, but I would be willing to vote for him. Having said that, he wouldn’t be my first choice among 19th Century players for enshrinement in Cooperstown (Deacon White would be).

The Player-Manager

September 15, 2010

 

Solly Hemus

Baseball changes all the time. Some of the changes are immediate and noticable, like changing the pitching distance in 1893. Some are more subtle. No one seems to have realized what changing the strike zone in the 1960s would do to offense. Other things just seem to drop out of use without much fanfare. Player-Managers are like that. Once upon a time there were lots of them. Now there hasn’t been one since Pete Rose hung up his glove in 1986.

It actually makes since that there should be a lot of Player-Manager’s in the early days of baseball. Small rosters, limited talent pools, poor conditions make for having one man responsible for running the team and holding down a position. Harry Wright played center field for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. He also managed the team. So the tradition goes back a ways and carries on through players like Cap Anson and Charles Comiskey who both held down first base and managed in the 1880s.

Further, the expansion of Major League baseball from eight to 16 teams in 1901 meant that more managers were needed and the talent pool was small. So what better way to pick up a manager than to assign one of the players the managerial job (and toss in a couple hundred bucks for his troubles)? In 1901, four of the eight American League managers were player-managers. In the more established National Leage three of eight managers were player-managers. This trend continued for most of the Deadball Era (although not in those proportions). If you look at just the World Series, player-managers rule for much of the Deadball Era, especially early. Between 1901 and 1912 at least one team was managed by an active player in each Series except two. In both of those, 1905 and 1911, John McGraw faced off against Connie Mack. But in 1903 player-manager Jimmie Collins won. In ’06 it was Fielder Jones; in ’07 and ’08 it’s Frank Chance. In 1909 Fred Clarke played left field and managed Pittsburgh, in 1912 it was Jake Stahl as both first baseman and manager for Boston.

The rest of the Deadball Era saw a continued use of player-managers, but they were being less successful. Between 1913 and 1920, only Bill Carrigan at Boston in both 1915 and 1916 (44 games played in ’15, 33 in ’16), and Tris Speaker in 1920 were player-managers who led their team to the World Series (each happened to win). In the 1920s Rogers Hornsby in 1926 and Bucky Harris in 1924 were successful player-managers. In the 1930s you get something  of a rebirth with Bill Terry, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Grimm, Joe Cronin, and Gabby Hartnett all winning pennants (although Grimm, Cronin, and Hartnett’s teams all lose). The 1940s, a time that, because of a lack of players, should have produced mostly managers who were done with playing in the field gave us only Leo Durocher and Lou Boudreau as successful player-managers. It it should be noted that both had their greatest success on either side of the war. Boudreau became the last player-manager to win the World Series. The trend away from player-managers continued into the 1950s. Solly Hemus was at St. Louis in 1959 (he got into around 30 games), and appears (I may have missed one or two) to have ended the tradition until Pete Rose shows up in the 1980s.

So why did the tradition end? I’ll be honest, I’m not certain. I have some guesses, and that’s all they are.

1. As teams got more professional, a full-time manager was necessary.

2. Expanding rosters made it difficult for part-time managers to spend the time necessary to address the needs of individual players, especially bench players.

3. Once you get beyond 1910, full-time “professional” managers are almost always more successful than player-managers.

4. It’s easier for a full-time manager to act as a buffer between players and press than it is for a player-manager.

5. Full-time managers don’t have to worry about their individual stats, other than win/loss record.

I’m sure there are others. Feel free to add your own to the list.

Knocking Yourself In

May 27, 2010

I’ve just invented a new stat, actually two. OK, I just heard that “Oh, God, not another one” groan. Bear with me here. I have high hopes for this one. Other people have gotten a lot of Benjamins off their stats. I hope to gain at least a couple of Abes off mine.

There’s been a lot of talk among baseball nuts about the RBI as an overrated stat, and I’ll admit that it can be such. But it also has value. So I started looking at the stat and remembered a lot of consternation back in the early 2000s when opposing teams would walk Barry Bonds with a man on base, thus cutting down on his chance to pick up an RBI (or two or more it he parked one). That led me to ask myself  “Self, I wonder how many of Bonds’ RBIs are himself (a homer) and how many are somebody else.” Self didn’t know, so I decided to look it up and in doing so came up with the following stats (drum roll,please). The first is RBI’s-not self (RBI-NS–catchy, right). Basically you take the player’s home runs and subtract them from his RBI’s giving you RBI-NS (remember, when the lawsuit comes, you heard this here first). For Bonds, as our example, you get 1996 minus 762 for a total of 1234 (honest to God) total men Bonds drove in who were already on base when he came to bat. 

The second stat is, and you knew this was coming,  percentage of RBI’s that are not self (%RBI-NS–equally catchy, right?). This is figured by dividing the RBI-NS number by the total number of RBIs. In Bonds’ case that’s 1234 divided by 1996 for a 62% total (rounded). That means 62% of Bonds’ RBIs are men already on base.

I think these stats have some value because they do let you know how much the team contributed to a player’s RBI total. They also give you some new ways to compare players directly (of course they don’t account for things like high scoring eras or park effects). And finally, I think they are fun to note.

So here’s a look at some of the totals as of 25 May 2010 (for active players). I took every player with 500 home runs and the next four down (Lou Gehrig, Fred McGriff, Stan Musial, Willie Stargell) because I was curious about Gehrig and Musial. What I found was an almost numbing consistency. Of the 25 players with 500 or more homers, Mark McGwire has only 59% of his RBIs being someone other than himself (that’s the low). Of the same group, Eddie Murray has the highest percentage (74%) of his RBIs being someone other than himself. Everyone else is in the 15 point range between them. That’s not much of a swing. Pick a player, pick an era, pick a team, and you get pretty much the same numbers. Ruth? 68%. Aaron? 67%. Mantle? 64%. Ted Williams 72%. All darned close to each other. Of all the guys I tried, Musial had the highest percentage at 76%, with Gehrig next at 75%. Those kind of figure because each had a ton of RBIs and less home runs than the guys above them on the homer list, which should be expected. After all, the 500 home run guy with the highest percentage is Murray, the guy with the lowest home run total.

Now that I did all this (“You have to get out more,” I hear you say) I decided to look at a couple of Deadball Era players, Cobb and Wagner. Of course each has a ton of RBIs and almost no home runs. Cobb’s %RBI-NS is 94%. So is Wagner’s. Then I did Cap Anson and got 95%. So this stat is skewed in the Deadball Era, but is still fun to look at.

Feel free to use it, (if you’re silly enough) to check on any player you want. Just send the $5.00 to me care of wordpress.

1884

March 30, 2010

Most baseball seasons go along pretty much the same. Very few of them end up being particularly memorable except for a few diehard fans, bloggers like me, and antiquarians whose job it is to study them. Case in point: who won the World Series in 1933? OK, if you looked it up you know the Giants beat the Senators in five games. If you went further, you found the MVPs, the stat leaders, and maybe a bit of info like it was the first All Star Game. But almost everybody had to look it up. But 1884 is different and memorable. It is arguably the most interesting year of  19th Century baseball for five reasons.

1. There are three leagues. It’s the first time the country tried to deal with three major leagues. As with the other two attempts (1890 and 1914-15) it was a failure. Henry Lucas was a son of wealth in St. Louis. A fan, he decided to form a new league to compete with the existing leagues (National League and American Association). There’s some dispute about his motivation. Some works cite his anger with the reserve rule (which bound a player to a team) and others favor something akin to an ego trip. Whichever you pick (and I tend to agree with ego trip) Lucas founded the Union Association in 1884. It lasted one season, was a disaster, and floundered almost immediately. The team in St. Louis ran away with the pennant going 94-19. If you add that up, it equals 113 games. The original schedule called for 112 games (got me, coach). Other teams managed records of 69-36, 58-47, but still others were 8-4, 2-6, 6-19, and 2-16. The team in St. Paul was the 2-6 team. It was in such bad shape it folded before ever playing a home game, the only major league team to never play before a home crowd. The competition was utterly uneven, and some teams never played each other (Winner St. Louis never played Milwaukee, the 8-4 team).  St. Paul obviously played almost no one. There were teams in Wilmington, NC and Altoona, PA., both nice enough towns, but not big enough in 1884 to support a big league franchise. Atloona managed to survive 25 games and Wilmington only 18. At the end of the season, the league was gone. You could argue it gave the major leagues one very good player (Tommy McCarthy) and that’s all. Bill James in his Historical Abstract  argues that the Union Association is not really a major league. I tend to agree with him. Major League Baseball doesn’t.

2. Charles Radbourn had the greatest season ever by any pitcher in the majors. Radbourn pitched for the Providence Grays. Early in the season the team’s other pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, bolted to the Union Association. Radbourn at that point agreed, for contractual and monetary considerations, to pitch every inning of every game for the remainder of the season. Well, it didn’t work out that way, but it came close. Read the following numbers closely. For the year Radbourn was 59 (or 60)-12 with 73 complete games, 441 strikeouts, 98 walks, 11 shutouts, and an ERA of 1.38 in 679 innings (not a record. The record is 680 by Will White in 1879). In fairness to modern pitchers, Radbourn wasn’t on a mound, and wasn’t 60’6″ away. His delivery was sidearm, and he could take a short run before releasing the pitch. Still, it’s a heck of a year. About the 59 (60) business. There are differences in the way wins were determined in 1884 and the modern method. Under the old way Radboun gets 60 wins, under our contemporary method he gets 59. So the modern Major Leagues recognize 59 wins, while his colleagues saw 60. I leave it to you to determine which you prefer. Me? Well, 60 is a nice round number.   

3. The first postseason playoffs were held in 1884. Radbourn led his Grays to the NL pennant by 10.5 games. Meanwhile, the New York Metropolitans (not the modern Mets) won the American Association title by 6.5. They challenged the Grays to a three game set, all to be played in New York, to determine a champion for the year. The Grays accepted and Radbourn continued to pitch as he’d done in the regular season and Providence won all three games with Radbourn pitching complete game (what else?) victories giving up no earned runs. The first “World Series” ended with a National League victory.

4. There was a home run explosion at Chicago. The park in Chicago was a little odd. The fences were short, less than 200 feet to right field. Previous seasons balls going over the fences were ruled doubles. In 1884, the team changed the rule to make them home runs. The White Stockings put up astronomical numbers by 19th Century standards, coming up with 149 homers in 112 games. That’s a team record that lasts until 1927 and the Murder’s Row Yankees. The big winner was Ned Williamson, the third baseman, who set a 19th Century record with 27 home runs, all but two at home. Three of his teammates, second baseman Fred Pfeffer, first baseman Cap Anson, and outfielder Abner Dalrymple also posted 20 or more home runs. Dan Brouthers of Buffalo hit 14 for the most of any player outside Chicago. The next year the White Stockings moved to a new park and Dalrmyple’s league leading 11 homers were the most by any of the Chicago four. It took until Babe Ruth in 1919 to best Williamson’s record.

5. Integration first occurred in 1884. The American Association Toledo Blue Stockings hired Moses Fleetwood Walker to be their catcher. Fleet Walker was a black American and the first to play in the Major Leagues. I’ve done a previous post on him, so will simply say here that he wasn’t well received (maybe the understatement of this blog ever) and was gone after the season ended. His brother Welday also got into five games (all in the outfield) and was gone at the end of the season. It took until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to reintegrate the big leagues.

So there’s 1884, it’s not so famous today. It is, after all, a long time ago. But it’s still one of the most important and interesting seasons in Major League history.

BTW there’s a new book out on the season that is supposed to center around Radbourn and his accomplishments. I haven’t read it, but if anyone has, I’d appreciate a quick review if possible.

John K. Tener: Pitcher, Governor and League President

March 28, 2010

John Kinley Tener's baseball card

Horatio Alger has come under fire in the last century or so. His stories of ragamuffin boys rising to greatness were never really true. Oh, it did happen, but not as frequently as Alger’s strories implied. One of the men it happened to was John Kinley Tener.

Tener was born in Ireland in 1863. His widowed mother brought the family to the US. She died the same year leaving Tener an orphan. He managed to complete his schooling and started work in a steel factory in Pittsburgh, where he played for the local ball team. He spent the years 1885-1888 pitching for semi-pro and local teams. He was good enough to come to the attention of Chicago manager Cap Anson. He played for the second place White Stockings, going 11-7 with more strikeouts than walks and an ERA of 2.74 in 12 games. The season ended with a world tour to promote baseball. Tener went along, was chosen the team treasurer, and came to the attention of John Montgomery Ward. Ward made him Secretary of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and he followed the union to the Player’s League in 1890. He left baseball following the collapse of the Brotherhood’s league with a record of 25-31 and 174 strikeouts in 506 innings.

Governor John Kenley Tener

He tried banking and was successful. He became a major civic leader, serving on the board of a bridging company and a railway line. In 1908 he ran for election as a Republican to the US House of Representatives from the 24th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He ousted seven term congressman Ernest F. Acheson. In Washington his chief claim to fame was the creation of the Congressional baseball game which is still held. In 1911 he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania with 42% of the vote (there were three candidates), becoming the first Governor of Pennsylvania born outside the US since the 18th Century.

As Governor, Tener was a mild Progressive, supporting road improvement, regulation of public utilities, and public school reform. He set up an old age pension program for widows, one of the first in the nation. This made him popular and somewhat polarizing. In 1913, baseball came calling again.

The National League was having severe problems in the middle of the decade. The American League was outstripping them in both attendance and in playing skill. Much of the problem was supposed to be a lack of firm leadership at the top. In 1913 the league moguls decided not to renew the term of league President (Thomas Lynch). They offered the job to Tener. He accepted, but refused to take salary ($25,000 per year) while also receiving his salary as Governor of Pennsylvania. He held both jobs until April, 1915.

As NL President, Tener had to face the growing clout of the AL and the 1914 challenge of the newly formed Federal League. He did better against the Feds than against the AL. He attacked the Feds at every opportunity, and was instrumental in pushing through the settlement that led to the collapse of the new league in 1915. He vigorously opposed gambling and issued stringent rules againt umpire-baiting by players and managers. This led inevitably to a confrontation with Giants manager John J. McGraw. In June 1917 he suspended McGraw for striking an umpire. McGraw drew a 16 day suspension and a $500 fine. McGraw, being McGraw, told anyone who would listen, including the newspapers, what he thought of Tener and where Tener and all his relations could go. Tener responded by upping the fine to $1500 (this is more or less equivalent to Judge Landis suspending Babe Ruth in the 1920s).  That helped him get a one year contract extension as NL President. He served the year and retired in 1918, one year before the Black Sox scandal occurred and two years before it exploded into the headlines. His worries about gambling seemed to be true.

In retirement he returned to his business interests, ran again for Governor of Pennsylvania (he lost, coming in third), and ultimately becoming a director of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1930s. He died in 1946, aged 82.

Tener led an interesting and involved life. He moves from baseball to banking to politics and back to baseball with ease. His Horatio Alger story is true. But more importantly,  as far as I can tell he’s the only state Governor to have a baseball card (an 1880s cigarette card). Now that’s worth celebrating.

“And I Have Put My Words in Thy Mouth…

March 22, 2010

Billy Sunday

…and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand.” Isaiah 51:16 (KJV)

In an earlier post I mentioned that my family always used to say there were three things you didn’t debate, you argued: sports, politics, and religion. And that you never, ever combined any two. I combined sports and politics earlier, now I’d like to combine sports and religion and introduce you to Billy Sunday.

William Ashley Sunday was born in Iowa in November 1862. His father died shortly afterward of illness while on campaign in the American Civil War. When his mother went broke in 1872 and couldn’t care for Sunday and his older brother, she sent both to an orphan’s home. The home provided Sunday with an education and began honing his baseball skills. After a sojourn in Nevada, he was playing with the Middletown, Iowa fire department team by 1880. In 1882, he caught the attention of Cap Anson, native of Middletown and leader of the Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs). Sunday joined the Cubs in 1883 playing 14 games, all in the outfield. He hit .241 with four doubles. By 1884 he was up to 43 games in the outfield hitting .222.  The 1885 season brought the White Stockings a pennant and Sunday became the primary man off the bench. He hit .256 in the season and .273 in six games in the postseason, all in center field. He was on the bench again in 1886 and missed the postseason altogether. His speed was beginning to make him a more valuable player to Anson and in 1887 he took over as the regular right fielder and leadoff man. He hit .291 in 1887, but the Cubs lost and Sunday was sent to Pittsburgh in 1888. He spent three years with the Alleghenys hitting .236, .240, and .257. Late in the 1890 season he was traded to Philadelphia where he played 31 games hitting .261. It was the end of this period of his life.

For his career, Billy Sunday hit .248 over 499 games with 339 runs scored, 246 stolen bases (the number is incomplete for 1883-85), 170 RBIs and 12 home runs. He pitched to one batter in 1890, gave up a hit, and left the mound. The man didn’t score so he had no ERA. Not a great career. He found himself a substitute most of it. Somewhere along the line he also found God.

There are a number of stories relating to Sunday’s religious conversion. According to Sunday’s own account, which I’ll accept as genuine, he had been something of a carouser (a word you don’t hear much anymore) while playing ball, but never one of the worst offenders. In 1886, he attended a service at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. The mission was a combination church, homeless shelter, drunk tank, and rescue mission in Chicago which claims, with its founding in 1877, to be the oldest continuously operating main street mission in the US. I remember my hometown had an organization like this when I was growing up. It specialized in getting drunks off the streets, feeding them, giving them a place to sleep and adding on a good dose of fundamentalist Christianity. I knew one fellow who claimed to have been “saved” six times, and that every one was worth the good meal and the warm bed that followed. This experience led to Sunday’s conversion and ultimately to the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church where he met and married one of congregation.

Between 1891 and 1896 Sunday spent time in Chicago working for the YMCA and other religious and charitable organizations. By 1896 he was ready to strike out on his own and became a more or less fulltime evangelist. It would consume the rest of his life.

Now let me take a minute and clear up a couple of points here. Sunday was neither a Pentecostal nor a faith healer. He professed a fundamentalist Christianity that was extremely common in his day, but is less so today. He is more akin in his theology to William Jennings Bryan than he is to Oral Roberts, or Jim Bakker, or any other modern television preacher. If forced to compare him to a modern American evangelist, I’d reluctantly pick Billy Graham, and put the emphasis heavily on reluctantly.

What Sunday was, apparently, was a heck of a preacher. His sermons were called spellbinding and uplifting and God-sent. He went from tent to tabernacle to church and back to tent and never missed a beat. His message was a simple version of sin and conversion and he would frequently throw in one of his baseball stories for emphasis. Without trying to compare the men, take a look at Bert Lancaster’s sermons in the movie Elmer Gantry. He’s supposed to have patterned his style on Sunday.

His message suffered in the aftermath of World War I. The Great War destroyed much in Western Civilization, including a belief in a benevolent God who cared about the average individual (And by that statement I take no stand on whether I agree or not. I merely state a reality). His audiences waned, but he continued preaching his message until his death in 1935.

When I first mentioned to some people I was going to do this post, I was asked a fairly obvious question, “You think Sunday would have seen ‘the light’ if he’d been hitting .348 instead of .248?” To be absolutely truthful, I have no idea. I’d like to think that Billy Sunday was an honest man and saw some need in his life that brought him to God via a Christian conversion experience, but I don’t know for sure. I am willing to take him at his word that he didn’t find God so much as God found him.