Tag Archives: Billy Sunday

“He was Greater than Ty Cobb ever dared to be.”

15 Aug

Hall of Famer Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley still holds the all-time record for putouts and total chances for first baseman, more than 100 years after his career ended.  He also hit .308 for his career and his 244 triples rank fourth on the all-time list.

However, it appears he wasn’t a great source on who was the greatest player ever.

Jake "Eagle Eye" Beckley

Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley

In 1915 Beckley told a Kansas City reporter that he had played with the greatest player ever.  Over the next year the quotes appeared in many newspapers including The Washington Post and The Pittsburgh Press:

“You can have your Ty Cobbs and your Benny Kauffs, I’ll take Billy Sunday for my ball club right now, and I said the same thing back in the nineties.”

Beckley said the ballplayer turned evangelist was as good as any player he’d seen:

“He’s fifty-two years old today, but he’s running bases and sliding every day in that pulpit just as he did back in the old days.  If he’d stayed in the game Cobb never would have been famous.

“He was greater than Ty Cobb ever dared to be in three departments of the game.

“Everybody thinks Cobb can run bases.  I’d spot him a second against Billy Sunday and then watch Bill score first.”

Sunday was the first player to circle the bases in 14 seconds.

“They think Cobb covers outfield territory.  They should have seen Sunday in his prime.

“And throw—say he could throw from center field just as easily as Tris Speaker.”

Beckley had several excuses for Sunday’s weaknesses as a hitter:

“Batting was where Sunday was weak, but in another year or so he would have overcome that weakness.  E was just that kind.

“He had more fight in his heart than any man I ever saw.  He was learning more about the art and science of batting every day.

“You see, Billy Sunday broke in under a handicap.  Pop Anson picked him up because of his speed and not because of his baseball ability.  He was fast, but when he started in a bat was strange to him.

“He fanned so many times his first year (18 in 55 plate appearances) he must have been busy when the season ended.  But when he came to our ball club (Pittsburgh Alleghenys 1888) he was improving and improving fast.”

Sunday’s “fast” improvement resulted in .236, .240 and .258 batting averages from 1888-1890.

Beckley concluded that Sunday’s “calling” was the real reason he never became a good hitter:

“But he didn’t give enough attention to his batting.  He used to spend a lot of time before the game in the clubhouse always reading the bible or studying.”

Sunday walked away from baseball after the 1890 season to accept the position of assistant secretary with the YMCA in Chicago; he became one of the nation’s most popular evangelists and died in 1935.

Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday

Beckley played until 1907, collecting 2934 hits during his 20-year career.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, more than 50 years after he died in Kansas City at age 50.

The League That Billy Sunday Helped Shut Down

12 Nov

The Eastern Illinois League began with great promise in the spring of 1907 to fill the void created by the collapse of the first incarnation of the Kitty League.  Joe “Wagon Tongue” Adams, an Illinois native who appeared in one game for the 1902 St. Louis Cardinals, was said to be the guiding force behind  the league, he was also manager on the Pana Coal Miners.  Adams had helped create the Central Illinois League two years earlier with teams from many of the same cities—unlike the 1905 effort, the Eastern Illinois League was granted membership in the National Association.

The six-team league had franchises in Centralia, Charleston, Mattoon, Pana, Shelbyville and Taylorville, and elected Charles Welvert, a Pana businessman  league president.  Midway through the 1907 season the Centralia team relocated to nearby Paris, Illinois, and replaced Welvert as league president by Louis A. Godey Shoaff (often incorrectly spelled “Schoaff”), editor and publisher of The Paris Gazette.

The teams in Charleston, Mattoon, Pana and Paris were supported, as The Associated Press said, “In great part from saloon interests.”

The league made news in August, when during a heated series between the Mattoon Giants and the Pana Coal Miners, The Sporting Life reported that Mattoon second baseman Fred Wilson during a dispute with  Pana manager Adams:

“Wilson put Adams down with a straight jab on the jaw. The manager came up, but another blow in the same place fractured his chewing apparatus.”

The Mattoon Giants won the 1907 championship, led by the pitching of future Major Leaguer Grover Lowdermilk, who posted a 33-10 record with a 0.93 ERA.  Although records for the league are nearly nonexistent, contemporary newspaper accounts mention other past and future Major Leaguers who appeared in the league including Harry Patton, Joe Yeager (after his release from the St. Louis Browns in 1908), Cecil Coombs, and Hosea Siner.

The league appeared to be in good shape heading into 1908, adding teams in Danville, Illinois and Vincennes, Indiana.  But as it prepared for the beginning of its second season other forces were ensuring it would be its last.

William Ashley “Billy” Sunday, the former outfielder for the Chicago White Stockings, Pittsburgh Alleghenys and Philadelphia Phillies, turned evangelist and temperance supporter was spending the early months of 1908 holding a five-week long  revival in Decatur, Illinois and advocating for citizens throughout Illinois to vote their towns dry during local option elections in April.

Sunday’s revival was a huge success, according to The Associated Press “there were 5,843 conversions;” and the service “on ‘booze’ was attended by 8,000 enthusiastic local optionists.”

When the polls closed on April 7, six of the league’s eight towns were voted dry.  The Associated Press said:

“With the saloons out of business, subscriptions of new stock (in the teams) will be cancelled in many instances.”

The league was in trouble.  It got worse worse when Sunday moved his revival to Charleston in April and began a new crusade against playing games on Sunday.

The 1908 season was chaotic.  New investors were scarce.  Some Sunday games were played, but attendance was down.  In July the Danville Speakers relocated to Staunton and the Pana Coal Miners moved to Linton, Indiana (incorrectly listed on Baseball Reference as Linton, Illinois).  Early in August the Mattoon Giants were on the verge of collapse.  The league finally disbanded on August 20, 1908, the Speakers were declared 1908 champions.

Professional baseball never returned to Charleston, Pana, Linton, Staunton, and Shelbyville.  Taylorville had a team in the Illinois-Missouri League in 1911.  Vincennes was part of the reformed Kitty League in 1910-11 and 1913.  Beginning in 1910 Danville was in and out of the Three-I League for the next forty years.  Mattoon did not have a professional team again until 1947, Paris until 1950.