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"Fastest Man in Baseball" (c. 1890)

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  • "Fastest Man in Baseball" (c. 1890)

    I had some time on my hands, so I thought I would share a little about one of my favorite players, a mostly forgotten 19th century player - Billy Sunday.

    Born William Ashley Sunday, on November 19th, 1962 in a small log Cabin in Ames, Iowa. He never met his father, who died shortly after his birth of pneumonia while fighting in the Civil War. His early childhood was spent on his grandfathers farm, but at age twelve, due to financial difficulties, his mother sent him and his brother to Soldier’s Orphan’s Home in Glenwood, Iowa. It was there that he started to get into baseball.

    At first, he would sit and watch the older kids, until he had a chance to play, and play he did. From the first time he connected with the ball, he was hooked. He also took up side jobs, to help pay his way (once helped drive hearses), and began playing for the local team.

    Young Sunday actually became well known in his small town for his baseball prowess, most notably his speed, and in 1883, it was that which caught the eye of an aunt of the manager of the Chicago White Stockings a not so unknown Mr. Cap Anson.

    Anson immediately sent Sunday a telegram (it was the first Billy had ever received), asking him to come meet him in Chicago. So Billy spent his $6 from his savings on a new suit, and borrowed $4.50 from a friend, and used $3.50 to get to Chicago, getting there with only a dollar in his pocket.

    Team met him at Spaldings Sporting Goods store (Spalding was also the owner of the team). Anson came up and told him that he'd heard he was fast - Billy concurred, so Anson challenged him to race the teams fastest player and one of the fastest in the league, Fred Pfeffer. As they prepared, Pfeffer put on his running shoes, while Sunday had nothing like that, so he ran barefoot - and won! He won by such a large margin, that Anson signed the 20 year old on the spot.

    In 1883, Sunday did not see much playing time, only appearing in 14 games over the course of the season, I'll have to check on it, but I've read that he struck out in each of his first 13 at-bats (ouch!), yet he still managed to hit a decent .241 (.317 other than the first 13 tries). His biggest problem coming up to this level for him was that he didn't have the bat speed to get to the fastballs, so he taught himself to become a good bunter. He had a good season in 1887, hitting a career high .291 in 50 games, with 34 stolen bases. Just as he was starting to get better, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Allegheney's in 1888, where he under performed with the bat in his first full season, although he was good on the bases (as he always was).

    Word about Sunday's speed got around fast (no pun intended), until it reached the ears of Arlie Latham, the fastest player in the American League - in baseball at that time in fact (or so they thought). This time, the playing field was even as Sunday actually had shoes to wear. Latham (as always) continued to boast of his speed, but when it came down to it, Sunday smoked him! The kid who'd been called "greased lightning", from Ames, Iowa, was now officially the fastest player in baseball, and people loved him for it, and he quickly became a fan favorite. He also became the first player to round the bases in 14 seconds, a record that stood for several years.

    One famous anecdote about Sunday's playing days involves a championship (?) game in the bottom of the 9th, with two outs. A long, high fly was sent over his head in right field, where because there were no fences then, he kept chasing it down. He said he was running his fastest, and was heading toward a row of spectators (many on horses). He yelled at them to move, and as he neared them, they split apart to give him room. He stuck his bare hand out, and caught it! The crowd went wild over it, and started cheering and yelling. The mayor of Cleveland stuck $100 in his hand right then and there and told him to buy the best suit in town, because he'd just won $1500 from that catch! And he did just that.

    In his short 8 year career, he had lots of fanfare from his speed and his base stealing. In fact, if you take out his first three seasons where stolen bases were not counted, he had a 162 game average of 100!!! But for all of that, his life after baseball is how most people remember him.

    For much of his early life and baseball career, while being a nice person and all, he drank and swore up the yin yang! Then one day, while out drinking with some of his teammates, they came upon some traveling preachers. They got to him, and he decided to turn his life around. His conversion, actually made news in the town, and he wasn't sure how he'd be accepted for it, as most of the players then were a bit...uncouth you could say. But he was so well liked, that it had no bearing on them. He continued to play, but at the end of 8 years of playing, at the young age of 28(!!!), he felt he had a calling outside of baseball, so he turned down an increase in pay of $400 a month, to take a job at a YMCA for $84 a month!

    In 1988, shortly after his conversion, he married a young woman named Helen. During their marriage, they had four kids (3 boys, 1 girl). Only two of his sons survived him, but only by three and nine years respectively.

    Over the next several years, he became a traveling evangelist, and he eventually got national attention, for his effectiveness, but also for his style. He was loud, he was in your face, and he talked about baseball, football, and golf in church! Some hated him for his ways, but many more loved him. He was still remembered for his days playing baseball, and he remembered them fondly too.

    Billy Sunday eventually died on November 6th, 1935, at the age of 72. He was truly a national hero of that time, he had a storied life on and off the field, and I just thought I should share a little of it.

    I just thought I would throw in a couple quotes of his that I like:
    “Don’t take away from teachers the right to punish kids. I wore 4 pairs of pants when I went to school.”
    “You say you have a bad temper, but it’s over in a minute; so is a shotgun, but it blows everything to pieces.”

  • #2
    sunday was rushed to the majors by anson who saw/heard about his speed during a fireman's skill tournament - he had no minor league experience and as such was handicapped from the get go - and in the end proved to be no more than a spray hitter - but he did shine on the base paths at times

    his epiphany came to him while drinking on a street corner with King Kelly, Ned Williamson and Silver Splint and listening to a gospel service in 1887.

    his flamboyant sermons led the prohibitionist movement and decried science and liberalism


    • #3
      Edit: Posted in wrong forum
      Last edited by Sabo-metrics; 04-24-2019, 04:27 PM.


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