Preaching and baseball in 1910

The baseball evangelist made a stop in Jamestown in 1910.

JSSP Keith Norman Column Sig

Jamestown residents got a dose of baseball and religion on a Wednesday afternoon in April 1910.

Billy Sunday, billed as the “baseball evangelist,” came to town for a matinee performance at the Jamestown Opera House.

Sunday’s first career was as a major league baseball player. He broke into the big leagues in 1883 with the Chicago White Stockings and wrapped up his career with the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of 1890 season.

He was known for his speed and defense but probably batted toward the bottom of the order. In his seven-season career, he had a dozen home runs but 246 stolen bases and a career .248 batting average.

At one point, he won a 100-yard dash exhibition race for American Association players.


According to baseball historians, Sunday turned down a $3,500 contract, worth about $100,000 today, to play baseball. Instead, he turned to evangelism.

Through the 1890s, he preached on what he called the “kerosene circuit” because his stops included the smaller towns that often did not have electric service.

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In most of the stops, including his 1910 Jamestown's stop, his past as a baseball player was used to promote his evangelical events.

Sunday was characterized as a conservative evangelist who occasionally preached a “fire and brimstone” type sermon. One newspaper account of the era wrote that he would occasionally smash chairs during the sermon and even run across the stage to slide into an imaginary home plate.

He also had a more progressive side and preached in favor of government regulations of child labor and giving women the right to vote.


The best estimates are that Sunday presented his sermons to about 100 million people with virtually all hearing his message without loud speakers or amplification. To reduce background noises at the services, infants were prohibited and some of the opening acts included instructions on how to muffle a cough.

In later years, Sunday changed his schedule and presented his message in larger cities often in campaigns that included multiple sermons over weeks and even months to give everyone an opportunity to hear his message.

Sunday made a one-day stop in Jamestown. A Wednesday afternoon is hardly prime time for a church service but that didn’t seem to make a difference. If you wanted to attend, you had to get a reserved ticket at a local drug store.

His sermon in Jamestown promoted Christian education and his program was given “for the benefit of Jamestown College,” now the University of Jamestown.

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