Billy Sunday – As Presented at Forest Home Cemetery

October 19, 2003 | Ray Pritchard


I. Greeting

Hello, folks. My name is Billy Sunday. Welcome to the Sawdust Trail. Most of you know me as a great evangelist. But before I was an evangelist, I was a pretty fair baseball player. And that’s where the story of my life really begins.

II. Childhood

I was born in 1862 in a little two-room log cabin near Ames, Iowa. I never knew my father because he died in the Civil War. My mom did the best she could for me and my brothers and sisters but those years were tough in Iowa, so when I was about 8 or 9, my mom sent my brother and me to the Soldier’s Orphanage in Southwestern Iowa. I didn’t much like the place—the rules were strict, the food wasn’t so good, but I’m grateful for one thing. I learned how to play baseball at the orphanage.

When I was about 16 years old, my brother and I moved to Marshalltown, Iowa where we got a reputation as pretty good ball players. One day a man named Cap Anson came to see me play. He was a player with the famous Chicago White Stockings. I think you know them today as the Chicago Cubs.

Well, his aunt lived in Marshalltown and told him, “Cap, there’s a pretty fair ball player named Billy Sunday you need to meet.” So Cap Anson came to watch me play. He said, “Sunday, you’re a pretty fair country ball player but I don’t know how you’d do in the big city. Why don’t you come to Chicago for a tryout?” That was all I needed to hear. So I packed all my clothes in a suitcase and hopped on the train for Chicago. When I got there, I had my suitcase and one dollar in my pocket. That same day I went out to the ballpark. Wow! It was bigger than anything I had ever seen in Iowa.

Cap Anson decided to see how good I was so he had me run a race with Fred Pfeffer, the fastest man on the White Stockings and reputedly the fastest man in the National League. So we lined up—me and old Fred Pfeffer. He had on his running shoes but I was barefooted. Someone yelled out, “Hey, Sunday, where’s your running shoes?” “Ain’t got no running shoes. Never heard of anything like that.”

Off we went … and when the race was over, I had beat Fred Pfeffer by 15 feet. Cap Anson said, “Billy, I don’t know whether you can play baseball or not but I want you on my team.”

III. Baseball Years

I played with the White Stockings for five years. Never could hit much but I was a speed demon on the bases. One year I stole 94 bases. I was also the first man to run the bases in 14 seconds flat from a standing start. My greatest game came the day that I stole four bases off Connie Mack, who pitched for the Philadelphia team.

IV. Conversion

The turning point of my life came in June of 1886 when me and King Kelly, our right fielder, and some of the boys were going out drinking in the saloons on State Street. We were just having a big time, carousing and carrying on when we came to the corner of State and Van Buren Streets. There I saw something I had never seen before. It was a Gospel Wagon coming straight toward us. On the wagon was a group of men and women playing trombones, cornets, drums and flutes. They were playing and singing the old gospel songs my mother used to sing to me back in that old two-room log cabin in Ames, Iowa. As I listened, the words to those songs came to my mind. The one that tore my heart out was a gospel song called, Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight? When I heard it, I remembered what my mother had taught me and how far I had gone from my Christian upbringing.

Right then and there I said, “Boys, I’ve come to the end of the line. I’m through with the old life and I’m heading in a new direction.” That night I went to the Pacific Garden Mission and heard Harry Monroe preach the gospel. I went back the next night and the next and the next. Finally, on about the fourth night, I was under such conviction of sin that I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Clark, wife of the founder of the mission, came and put her arm around my shoulders. “Billy, don’t you think it’s time you gave your heart to Jesus?”

I jumped up and ran down front, knocking over some chairs in the process. Then I knelt at the altar and prayed a prayer that went something like this: “Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. I believe you died for my sins. I do believe you rose from the dead. Jesus, if you can do anything with an old country boy from Iowa, I’ll give you my heart.” When I stood up after that prayer, I was new man. I had been saved and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

V. Call to the Ministry

I played ball for about five more years. Then in 1891 I faced a big decision. The Philadelphia club offered me $500 a month—an enormous sum of money. But the YMCA offered me $83 a month to become their religious director. I didn’t know what to do. $500 … 83 … 500 … 83. Finally I prayed all night and at 5:00 in the morning I said, “Lord, if you’ll take care of my family, I’ll be glad to give you my life.” So I decided to take the YMCA job.

That ended my baseball career.

Five years later I preached my first crusade in Garner, Iowa. I only had eight sermons (most of them borrowed from a man named J. Wilbur Chapman). When I preached those eight sermons, I preached them all over again. I was embarrassed to preach them a third time, so I closed the meetings. But I had seen 300 people walk the sawdust trail.

VI. Evangelistic Career

And so began a 40-year evangelistic career that took me to every part of America. By the time I died in 1935, I had preached in 300 crusades to over 100 million people. And that was before the days of radio, TV, VCRs, tape recorders, or this new-fangled Internet. I saw over one million people hit the sawdust trail and claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Late in my life, I held a crusade in Charlotte, North Carolina. A little six-year-old boy heard me preach and went home scared to death. After the crusade was over some folks in Charlotte organized a Billy Sunday Club to continue the work of evangelism. Ten years later they invited a man named Mordecai Ham to come to Charlotte for a great tent revival. That young boy—now 16 years old—went forward at the invitation and gave his heart to Christ. His name was Billy Graham. Between us we preached to more people than anyone in the history of Christianity.

VII. Closing

I’m about done now. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to walk the sawdust trail and shake my hand and said, “Billy, I’m ready to follow Jesus Christ.” Who will be the first? Just shake my hand and say, “I’m going to follow Jesus wherever he leads me.”

I’d like to leave you with one final word to ponder:

When the Great Umpire of the Universe makes the Final Call, will he find you “Safe at Home” or “Out for all eternity?”

Thanks for coming by and spending a few moments with me. The children have a gift they’d like to give you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?