The Revealer thanks Daniel Okrent for this exclusive excerpt from his latest book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
By Daniel Okrent
William Ashley Sunday of the Philadelphia Phillies, who became world-famous for loving Christ and hating alcohol, put away his glove, his bat, and his spikes in 1890. He had just completed a season in which he had stolen 84 bases and earned $3500, roughly nine times the wages of the average American industrial worker. But at last he had decided to turn away from the sporting life and toward Jesus, an inclination that had already set him apart from many of his teammates. Like Sunday himself, most ballplayers of the day were largely itinerant and marginally educated; unlike Sunday, who indulged in an occasional glass of beer or wine, many drank like champions. Countless careers were ended by booze, numerous lives lost (notable among these was the great Philadelphia outfielder Ed Delahanty, who attempted a drunken walk one night across a railroad bridge over Niagara Falls). An alcoholic aroma wafted over the stands as well. The original American Association, half of whose founding owners were brewers, was so drink-sodden it became known as the “Beer and Whiskey League.” The top row of the grandstand in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis was an open bar, and in San Francisco’s Recreation Park, where the Seals of the Pacific Coast League played, eight rows of seats stretching from first base, behind home plate, and over to third base comprised the “Booze Cage.” This was where a 75-cent admission ticket got the fan a choice of two beers or a shot of whiskey, with a ham sandwich and a ballgame thrown in.
Billy Sunday had always been religious. But in 1888, while he sat on a Chicago curbstone with some other players, the hymns from a nearby mission caught his ear and his heart. Turning to his teammates, he said he really didn’t want another drink, and then went across the street and found shelter in the stainless calm of the mission. Two years later, when he gave up baseball for the life of an evangelist, his verbal facility, italicized by his hyperphysical platform style, put him on his way to becoming the most successful American preacher of his era, perhaps the most successful one ever. The essay on Sunday in the authoritative American National Biography does not equivocate: “Incredible as it may seem, reliable statistics indicate that Sunday preached to more than 100 million people” in his 40-years in the pulpit. By his own account, early in his career he had used “sentences so long they’d make a Greek professor’s jaw squeak.” Only after “I loaded my Gospel gun with rough-on-rats, ipecac, dynamite, and barbed wire” did he achieve his extraordinary success. “What do I care if some puff-eyed little dibbly-dibbly preacher goes tibbly-tibbling around because I use plain Anglo-Saxon words?” Sunday asked. “I want people to know what I mean and that’s why I try to get down where they live.”
Sunday’s speeches were devoted first to his fundamentalist view of Jesus (a contemporary observer said he “flings out the name of Christ as if he were sending a spitball right into your teeth”). His fanatic opposition to the beer and liquor interests came a close second. To Sunday, liquor was “God’s worst enemy” and “hell’s best friend,” and he considered those who profited from the alcohol trade earthly Satans. “I will fight them till hell freezes over,” he told a rally at the University of Michigan, where he persuaded 1,000 students to join the campaign for a statewide Prohibition law. “Then I’ll buy a pair of skates and fight ‘em on the ice.”
“The liquor interests hate Billy Sunday as they hate no other man,” an Anti-Saloon League publication said in 1913. This wasn’t strictly because of the size of his following (which was enormous), or its intense devotion (in 1914, a magazine poll attempting to determine who was “the greatest man in the United States” placed Sunday eighth, tied with Andrew Carnegie). In as many as 250 speeches a year, addressing the enormous audiences he could command in the late 1910s, Sunday gave shape to the new attitude – increasingly ferocious, even vengeful — that characterized the Prohibition forces as they stood at the edge of victory. No more tibbly-tibbling for Billy Sunday. “I have no interest,” he said, “in a God who does not smite.”
And when Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920, he was convinced that the God who had struck down the brewers and distillers would guarantee a new age of wonder. “The reign of tears is over,” Sunday told a crowd of 10,000 at his tabernacle in Norfolk, Virginia. “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh.
“Hell,” he concluded, “will be forever for rent.”
Daniel Okrent is author most recently of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. His Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history. He was the first public editor of the New York Times, and was also managing editor of Life, editor-at-large of Time Inc., and editor-in-chief of Harcourt Brace. He lives in New York and on Cape Cod with his wife, poet Rebecca Okrent.
To find book tour dates and watch a video of Okrent discussing Last Call, visit his site at www.danielokrent.com.