Who Is Billy Sunday In The Popular Sinatra Song, ‘Chicago?’
“Chicago (That Toddling Town),” the song made famous by Frank Sinatra, pays homage to the partying and excess of the roaring ’20s during Prohibition, when the U.S. banned the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcohol.
In the song, Sinatra describes Chicago as “that toddlin’ town,” and at the end of that chorus, there’s another line:
“The town that Billy Sunday couldn't shut down … ”
These lyrics are what interested Aaron Vigil. He grew up Christian fundamentalist and would occasionally hear about Sunday at revival meetings, but he says he never really got a clear idea of who the man was.
So he asked Curious City:
Who was Billy Sunday, and how did he end up in Sinatra’s “Chicago?”
Billy Sunday was one of the most influential preachers within the American evangelical movement. He preached in Chicago and across the country beginning in the 1890s through the end of Prohibition, a time when the country was divided over whether or not you could regulate morality and the consumption of alcohol. The song lyrics Aaron’s wondering about capture this moment in history when Chicago found itself at the center of this great debate.
Sunday’s Rise To Fame
In the 1880s, after moving from Iowa to play baseball with the Chicago White Stockings — the team that later became the Cubs — Sunday began attending services at the Pacific Garden Mission, Chicago’s famous evangelical church and social services center, says Robert Martin, author of the Sunday biography, Hero of the Heartland.
At this time, there was a growing Protestant evangelical movement developing within the United States that was accompanied by a push to regulate alcohol, which was seen as a destructive moral force.
It was during this period that Sunday says he underwent a religious conversion and felt increasingly called to religious work, says Martin. In the early 1890s, he quit baseball to work at the YMCA in Chicago. From there, Sunday began assisting with revival meetings across the Midwest — meetings that in a few years, Martin says, he’d be leading.
“He doesn’t have a meteoric rise to fame, it’s a slow gradual process from what he called a kerosene circuit — small towns with no electricity — to larger and larger towns and cities until by the early teens he’s beginning to preach in big cities,” Martin says.
Sunday preached about a lot of social and political issues, like the dangers of communism and teaching evolution in schools. His beliefs were in line with the values of a lot midwesterners at the time, Martin says.
But there was one cause he championed more than the rest: Prohibition. He spoke about the “degrading” influence of alcohol and the saloon as an “appalling source of misery and crime” and a place that “promises happiness and sends misery.”
“Prohibition is a theme he can pick up and it helps to accelerate his rise to popularity, because again, his message is resonating with the concerns and fears of a lot of Americans,” Martin says. “And so that helps him have a broader appeal than maybe he might otherwise would have had.”
In the 1910s, more and more Americans — especially Protestants like Sunday — were drawn to the moral arguments of the temperance movement, a reform movement which advocated against the consumption of alcohol.
As Sunday’s crowds grew larger, Martin says Sunday’s onstage antics became increasingly physical and even vitriolic and just as important to drawing crowds as the message he was preaching.
“He used to say he walked a mile in every sermon, he was constantly in motion,” Martin says. “He would slide home, he would catch imaginary baseballs sometimes, he would box with the devil — all sorts of things that especially played on the sports imagery.”
The 1918 Chicago Crusade
Sunday’s popularity grew in the years leading up to Prohibition, especially in major cities. And in the spring of 1918, more than 30 years since he first came to the city to play baseball, Sunday returned to Chicago for an extended revival — what he called a “crusade”.
Sunday’s tabernacle in Chicago was built along the eastern end of Chicago Avenue by Lake Michigan, near the current site of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
It reportedly held up to 16,000 people, which Sunday would often fill several times a day, encouraged by nonstop daily coverage in the Chicago Tribune. Martin says many urban Americans — including people in Chicago — were attracted not only to his message but also to Sunday’s rags-to-riches story as he rose from relative poverty in Iowa to widespread fame and considerable wealth.
"A good bit of it was probably just being able to go and see Billy Sunday and say, ‘I’ve seen Billy Sunday,’ and learning about what all the fuss was about."
Many of Sunday’s sermons during his crusade in Chicago railed against the liquor dealers and the “wets” — people who were pro-alcohol. But although Prohibition would go into effect less than two years later, Sunday’s moral stand didn’t have the kind of reach or influence he hoped it would.
The popular narrative of the city in the 1920s would quickly come to be dominated by mobsters, bootleggers, and vice — everything Sunday stood against.
In 1922, a songwriter named Fred Fisher decided to capture this period in a song titled “Chicago,” a song which would later be popularized by Frank Sinatra.
How does Sunday end up in the Sinatra song?
Billy Sunday wasn’t ultimately able to “shut down” the Chicago that Fisher captured in his song. Support for Prohibition waned, and in 1933, came to an end when Congress passed the 21st Amendment. Sunday died a couple years later in 1935.
Fisher’s song was performed by various artists over the years but didn’t get much play — until Frank Sinatra got ahold of it in the late 1950s when he starred in the film The Joker is Wild.
Chuck Granata, who has written extensively about Sinatra and co-hosts a radio show on the singer with Frank’s daughter, Nancy, says although Sinatra recorded the song for the movie, the full version didn’t actually end up in the film. Sinatra released it as a single in 1957.
Granata says Sinatra was attracted to Fisher’s song and the lyrics about Billy Sunday because they captured the the kind of cosmopolitan values Sinatra espoused — and Sunday despised.
“‘The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down’ … despite Prohibition and despite trying to rid the town of excess and vices, [Sunday] wasn’t able to do that. And I think that’s something Sinatra certainly would have admired, ” Granata says.
More about our questioner
Aaron Vigil is a veterinarian from Wheaton who often makes house calls around Chicago’s western suburbs — mostly dogs and cats, he says, with the occasional goat and snake in the mix.
As a kid, Aaron would hear about Billy Sunday at tent revival meetings. He even met someone once who had heard Sunday preach.
“He had heard him 30, 40 years ago, and he talked about [Sunday] and going to the revival services and how great they were at the time, and how much the people were just flocking to him.”
Aaron says he understands why Sunday is included in a song celebrating the hard partying times of Chicago’s past. But he says it feels a little bittersweet.
“Someone like Billy Sunday was famous for a generation and now he seems to be gone. And he’ll probably be more famous for the Frank Sinatra song, than anything else.”
Quinn Myers is a freelance reporter in Chicago. You can follow him @rquinnmyers.