At the height of Billy Sunday’s popularity as America’s most influential evangelist, his “gentlemanliness,” and ability, on the baseball field became more legend than fact.
John Brinsley Sheridan of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch attempted to dispel some of the legends in 1917:
“Sunday tells young men now ‘to play the game’ uprightly. This is how Sunday played it in 1885:
“The Browns and Chicago were playing for the world’s championship before 10,000 persons, who paid from 25 to 75 cents to see the game…The Browns kicked on the decisions of Umpire (David F. “Dave”) Sullivan and refused to play unless he retired from the game. They could not do that sort of thing on the lots nowadays. When Sullivan retired, (Cap) Anson and (Charles) Comiskey, the leaders of the teams, agreed that William Medart, a pulley manufacturer of St. Louis, should umpire. Medart was a spectator at the games. He put on a mask and a protector and proceeded to umpire. “
In the ninth inning of game four, with Chicago trailing 3 to 2, White Stockings pitcher Jim McCormick reached first on an error by Comiskey. A contemporary account in The Chicago Tribune said:
“(McCormick) was standing with one foot on the bag when Comiskey made a motion to throw the ball. He never moved, but by force of habit Comiskey touched him and laughed. The umpire, who was not appealed to at all, electrified the spectators and players by calling McCormick out.”
Sheridan said, “This is how a baseball reporter of the day (from The Post-Dispatch) described what happened next:
“Sunday, fists clenched, eyes blazing, ran at Medart and cried, ‘Robber, robber. That man is not out.’ Medart advanced to meet Sunday with firm step and beetling brow and aid, ‘If you say that man was not out you are a liar.’ ‘Who says that I am liar?’ Cried Sunday. ‘I do,’ said Medart, assuming a posture of defense. ‘I’ll make you pay for that,’ cried Sunday, advancing on Medart. ‘You can collect now,’ replied Medart, boldly.”
McCormick also attempted to attack Medart, but Mike “King” Kelly “(S)topped McCormick and then forced Sunday to sit down.”
But the future evangelist could not be calmed down:
“Sunday’s eyes were blazing and his teeth were set. When he sat down he continued to abuse Medart, who said, “Shut up your mouth, there Sunday, or I’ll put you off the field.’ Sunday shut up his mouth, but continued to glare at Medart.”
Medart, before his death in 1913, described the scene to Sheridan:
“Billy was a cocky guy in those days and was not disposed to back down for any man. Rather fancied himself. I was somewhat of an athlete, gymnast and boxer. I fancied myself, too. I am sure that Sunday and I would have collided had it not been for Mike Kelly.
“Sunday was livid with rage. I was mad myself. I did not seek the job of umpiring. I only took it to ensure the progress of the game. I was there as a mere spectator. Probably I was the only responsible man in the stand that was known to the managers of both teams, and, therefore, acceptable to them. I did the best I could, but I have no doubt my work was bad. I had not umpired ten games in my life. I was just an amateur with a taste for ball games(Medart had umpired National League games in 1876-77 and worked at least one more St. Louis game in 1887).”
Sheridan said the man responsible for keeping Sunday and Medart from coming to blows, was also the first, and a somewhat unlikely, supporter when Sunday was “saved.”.
“Most of the baseball players of the day were men who lived lightly. Among the gayest and lightest of the lot was Mike Kelly, the famous $10,000 beauty, by many said to have been the greatest of all baseball players. Kelly had been reared in the Roman Catholic faith, but the “king” of the ballplayers was not overburdened with religion. Ballplayers all speak well of Kelly. He is their idol. He was wild and wooly, he lived life and died at 35 [sic, 36], but he was sweet to all men. Most of the ballplayers of Sunday’s day were wont to ridicule him for his conversion at first. All but Kelly, the wildest of the wild.”
According to Sunday:
“Kelly was the first man to meet me after the news of the conversion became public. He shook me by the hand and said, ‘Bill, I am not much on religion myself, but I am strong for a man who honestly believes.
“After that, the boys all were for me. Whatever Kelly said was law with them.”
As for Sunday’s ability as a player, Sheridan said:
“Many people say Sunday is a great evangelist. He was not a great baseball player. One of his many biographers says that Sunday always tried to hit the baseball where it would hurt his opponents most and help his friends most. The fact of the matter is that Sunday was lucky to hit the ball at all…(I)t is certain that, not at any time, was Sunday’s bat feared by opposing pitchers or players.
“Nor was the evangelist-to-be a great fielder or runner. He was very fast on his feet. That helped him a lot (and) in fact was his best asset as a ballplayer…He could outrun such men as Curt Welch and Dickey Johnston 3 yards to 2 yards, but Welch and Johnston could outfield Sunday, for they got quicker starts on batted balls than Sunday. When it came to baserunning much slower men could beat Sunday because they knew when to run and how to get a good start on the pitcher. Sunday never learned these little niceties of baseball. As a matter of fact, hey are not really learned. They are like Sunday’s gift for preaching, something given a man, his genius.”