History Faculty Publications

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Date

Spring 2003

Publication Source

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.

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Citation information for the reviewed book:

  • Martin, Robert F. Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society, 1862-1935. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002.


State Historical Society of Iowa