From Stealing Bases to Saving Souls
Billy Sunday, the best-known evangelist in America during the first half of the twentieth-century, used blunt language and a simple gospel message to call people to Jesus. He beseeched people to "hit the sawdust trail" (respond to an altar call), "stay on the wagon" (abstain from alcohol), and remain faithful Christians until "the great Umpire of the Universe" said, "You're safe at home." From 1896 until his death in 1935, between eighty and one hundred million people heard Sunday's straight-talking message. Revered by some and reviled by others, Sunday left an indelible mark on American evangelicalism. For good or ill, he became what many Americans thought of when they heard the word "evangelist."
Two recent books offer introductions to Sunday. The Sawdust Trail, Sunday's only autobiography, originally appeared in The Ladies Home Journal in 1932 and 1933; the University of Iowa Press has now published a new edition. TheSawdust Trail is both a testament to God's work in Sunday's life and an American rags-to-riches success story. Sunday begins his story with his father's death in the Civil War and continues through a tough childhood (including stints in orphanages owing to his mother's financial and marital hardships) and his career as a baseball player for the Chicago Whitestockings ("I am not tooting my horn to sell you any clams, but I could steal the bases and play the outfield as well as any of 'em in my day"). During his time as a ballplayer, Sunday made two momentous decisions: He became a Christian and he married Helen "Ma" Sunday. He eventually left baseball in order to become an evangelist—a career in which he owed much of his success to the support of his wife.
Sunday's autobiography is not a smooth, well-organized ...