Annals of Iowa
It is hard to imagine how anyone could write a boring book about the colorful evangelist Billy Sunday. Robert Martin does not disappoint. The University of Northern Iowa historian tells a lively and well-researched story about Sunday's Iowa childhood—his father's untimely death, his family's grinding poverty, his mother abandoning him to an orphanage—as well as his career as a major league baseball player, his conversion at a Chicago mission and his marriage to Helen (Nell), his remarkable success as an entrepreneurial evangelist, and his failures as a father. In all this Martin convincingly depicts Sunday as the quintessential Midwesterner and American who, "in his sincerity and unique embodiment of so much that was a part of his nation's past and present ... represented for millions of Americans a figure of heroic proportions" (140).
Hero of the Heartland is a short book, but Martin fills it with interpretive insights. He convincingly argues that Sunday's "childhood separations" left him with a "profound sense of insecurity and inadequacy" (23) that dogged him his entire life, a point that helps explain his utter dependence on Nell, Martin also nicely explains how Sunday's baseball career provided him with both a connection to the public and a wealth of stories that fit his message of individual responsibility and achievement. And although Martin may overstate the case, he makes a good argument that there is much about Sunday the moral reformer that fit the era of Progressive reform.
Copyright © 2003, State Historical Society of Iowa.
State Historical Society of Iowa
Trollinger, William Vance, "Review: 'Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society, 1862-1935'" (2003). History Faculty Publications. 14.