Babe Ruth was emerging as a baseball superstar when the Boston Red Sox began spring training in 1919. Already a formidable left-handed pitcher, Ruth also captivated and excited crowds with his long, arching home run clouts.
Meanwhile, Billy Sunday was established as America’s most famous evangelist. His revivals drew thousands of people as he traveled the country.
Sunday was also a former major-leaguer, playing from 1883 to 1890 with the Chicago White Stockings, Pittsburgh Alleghenys and Philadelphia Phillies. A left-handed hitter like Ruth, Sunday’s career batting average was only .248, but he did steal 246 bases and had 84 thefts in 1890 when he split time between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. After his career ended, Sunday found that he was much better at stealing souls from the devil, and an evangelical legend was born.
The RMY Auctions Photo of the Day is a rare original image of Ruth, Sunday and Red Sox manager Ed Barrow around the batting cage. According to Getty Images, the photo was taken during before a spring training game against the Brooklyn Robins (now Dodgers) in Jacksonville, Florida, sometime during March or April 1919. Sunday was in the middle of a long evangelical tour in Tampa — he conducted tent revivals from March 20 through April 13 at the Florida Fairgrounds on a site that is now occupied by the University of Tampa — but he also had meetings in Jacksonville and St. Augustine during that period.
Sunday could never resist putting on a baseball uniform and is mugging with Ruth around the batting cage. Barrow, always stern, is also in the photograph but does not seem particularly amused. Barrow had managed the Red Sox to a World Series title in 1918, his first season as Boston’s manager, but 1919 would prove to be a trying year. Ruth had only 20 career home runs heading into 1919, but had hit a league-leading 11 in 1918 while also going 13-7 on the mound. Ruth played 95 games during 1918 and would play 135 in 1919, hitting what was then an astounding 29 homers to break the all-time season mark of 27 set by Ned Williamson of the National League’s Chicago White Stockings in 1884.
Sunday would become the recipient of a wonderful piece of memorabilia, thanks to Ruth. On April 4, 1919, Ruth hit a home run at Tampa’s Plant Field against the New York Giants in a spring training game that was measured at 587 feet — the longest home run of his career. Sunday had thrown out the ceremonial first pitch for the game, and when the ball was retrieved Ruth gave it to Sunday. Plant Field was torn down years ago and is now the site of the John Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
The photo on the auction block once belonged to Ruth’s teammate, outfielder Amos Strunk. It is a silver gelatin original, and RMY Auctions claims it is the only type to exist. The photograph was professionally removed from Strunk’s personal scrapbook, according to the auction house.
Strunk, nicknamed Lightning, played in five World Series during his 17-year career. On this day in 1919, you might say that Strunk caught lightning in a bottle, as he snapped a photo of Ruth during the spring in which the Bambino would begin to change the way baseball was played.