Every book has two stories: The one told in words printed on its pages and the tale the author tells of how it came to be.
In the case of Hutchinson author Craig Bishop, his book, “Billy Sunday: The Baseball Evangelist,” can trace its genesis to a photo.
Bishop came across a picture of Sunday speaking in 1917 at the New York City Tabernacle. It piqued his interest to learn more about the Iowa native, so much so he spent the next 18 years on the project.
“That’s what started it all,” he said about the photo.
It’s Sunday’s story and the story of his book project that Bishop will share at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, at the McLeod County Historical Museum. Admission is free. Following his presentation, Bishop will have books for sale and will sign them.
Bishop’s research into the life of Billy Sunday originally started out as a film project. When that didn’t work out, he opted to take all his research and turn it into a book.
He self-published “Billy Sunday: The Baseball Evangelist” in 2016. Since then, Bishop has been promoting it through personal appearances.
“I’ve had pretty good turnouts,” he said. “I’m thinking about promoting it in Illinois.”
Sunday’s story is truly an American tale, a Horatio Alger story of rags to riches.
“His story is quite remarkable considering his circumstances,” Bishop said.
MEET BILLY SUNDAY
Sunday was born Nov. 19, 1862, in Ames, Iowa. Family tragedy and poverty drove his mother to send her sons Billy and his older brother, Ed, to live at the Soldiers’ Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa. Later they moved to the Soldiers’ Orphans Home in Davenport, Iowa.
When his brother aged out of the orphanage system at 16, Billy left with him. Sunday took a job at a hotel where he chopped wood, milked cows, mopped floors and carried luggage.
His next job was with Col. John Scott, where he tended Scott’s Shetland ponies and did farm chores. While living with the Scotts, he attended high school, where he worked as a janitor filling the furnaces during the winter, sweeping the floor and dusting the seats in the rooms. When a teacher threatened his job, he went the extra mile to surprise her. It worked. It was a lesson he remembered throughout his life. She taught him to do a common job in an uncommon way.
Sunday’s next stop was Marshalltown, Iowa, where he worked odd jobs. Because of his athletic prowess, he was recruited for the town baseball team. Sunday made his mark in 1882 when his team beat the state champion 13-4.
The following year, he was signed to the Chicago White Stockings (the forerunner of the Chicago White Sox), defending National League champions. He played professional baseball from 1883 to 1890. He was noted for his speed, making him a fan favorite as an exciting base runner and fielder.
“He was very honest and a popular player,” Bishop said.
Things changed for Sunday when he became a Christian. He was drawn to a street corner where the Pacific Garden Mission preaching team sang hymns and shared the gospel. He credited Mrs. Sarah Clarke, one of the founders of the mission, for leading him to Christ. After his conversion, Sunday gave up drinking, swearing and gambling. He was a changed man.
Sunday left his baseball career for a job as assistant secretary at the Chicago YMCA. It was good training for his future career as an evangelist. During his tenure at the YMCA, he managed the office, raised money, distributed literature, booked speakers, visited saloons and followed up with people who expressed interest in evangelistic meetings.
From there, Sunday went on to become an assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, a leading evangelist of the day. He was Chapman’s advance man, taking care of all the details in preparation for the evangelist’s appearances.
In 1886, Chapman opted to return to his church in Philadelphia, so Sunday was out of a job. Uncertain what to do, he and his wife, Nell, prayed for guidance.
Six days later he received a telegram inviting him to preach at Garner, Iowa. It launched his career as an evangelist. For the next 12 years, he preached on what he called the “kerosene circuit,” because the towns didn’t have electricity.
By 1917, Sunday had a paid staff of 26, which were managed by his capable wife. He had left the kerosene circuit behind and was preaching in major cities including Philadelphia, Syracuse, Kansas City, Detroit, Boston and New York City.
It is estimated during his career, Sunday preached more than 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935, and reached millions of people.
SHARING THE GOSPEL
One of the reasons Sunday’s story resonated with Bishop is because they both are believers.
“Billy Sunday spoke directly and honestly to people,” Bishop said. “He helped a lot of people and was a big influence in our country.”
Bishop knows what a difference a person can make. For the past 25 years, he’s been involved with the Pilot Outreach jail ministry program.
The team conducts anger management sessions on Monday night and a Bible study on Tuesday night at McLeod County Jail in Glencoe.
“I enjoy helping people,” Bishop said. “Christ is the best way to help people who are forgotten in jail. (It’s a way) to say you’re not alone.”
Although Bishop has called Hutchinson home since 1993, he was born and raised in Salinas, Kansas. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in Soviet and East European studies from the University of Kansas.
The author said what amazed him most about Billy Sunday is all the years he spent speaking to people, and how many people he talked to.
“He honestly cared about people,” he said.
Next up for Bishop? He’s considering a new project about aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
“I’ve been thinking about that lately,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”