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Sam Bender: Pro-Ball Prayer Warrior

Sam Bender has spent 50 years praying with professional ball players. He said rubbing elbows with some of the greats was a dream come true for a kid with a lifelong love of the game.

“People said, ‘whenever you saw Sammy smiling, you knew he had a baseball glove,’” Sam said. “My whole year revolved around sports. That’s kind of been true my whole life.”
Growing up in the ‘40s, Sam spent most of his time on a ball field or in church. But he said he didn’t have a relationship with God until he was 25 and attended a Youth for Christ meeting.

“The man was speaking about sin. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And I said to myself, ‘that can’t mean me, because I’ve got all these ribbons; I went to Sunday school and didn’t miss a Sunday for 12 years. I lived in the church,” Sam said.
“It was haunting me because it said ‘all.’ That meant Sam too. And that was a struggle for me. They gave the invitation at the end to receive Christ and I thought, ‘Sam, the fight’s over with.’ And I literally ran up the aisle - 1950, I made my profession of faith and received Jesus as my Savior in that meeting. That was the beginning of an exciting, fabulous journey.”

Sam started teaching a Sunday school class. That soon led to running a street ministry in downtown Toledo. Then, at a Billy Graham conference, Sam met the man who would change his life forever, sportswriter Watson Spoelstra.

“And we hit it off (snaps fingers) just like this. And so, everything that was going on in Detroit, he’d let me know,” Sam said.  

Spoelstra’s influence and Sam’s love of sports led to friendships with top athletes of the day. Many were Christians, including Bobby Richardson and Bill Glass. Sam learned from Glass that for an athlete on the road, faith was sometimes a challenge.

“He was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t go to church on Sunday morning a little bit,” Sam said. “He said, ‘You know, Bender, I got an idea. Why don’t we have our own church? Why don’t we have our own chapel?’”

So Watson pitched an idea for a national chapel system to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Within three years, all 26 major league teams had baseball chapel programs.

“And I jumped on it,” Sam said.

As a full time baseball chaplain, Sam traveled the country, recruiting speakers and player representatives for the teams. One player who stepped up to the role of chapel team leader was Reggie Jackson.

“I got to the park early. I walked in the Yankee clubhouse and the only person in there is Reggie Jackson. They just had acquired him; and he’s a lightning rod. Reggie’s a lightning rod,” Sam said. “Well, the bus comes and all the guys are coming in, including Billy Martin, who’s the manager. I’m excited and I’ve got 15 minutes and I’m cranking. And when I finished, I said, ‘guys, we got two minutes.  Do you have any prayer requests?’ Reggie said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a prayer request.  Pray for this miserable, unhappy ball club.’” 

“And I said, ‘I’m going to take 60 seconds of our two minutes and have absolute quiet.  And I want each one of you to examine your hearts and if you’ve got problems with somebody, I want you to ask God to forgive you and in your heart have some reconciliation,’” Sam said. “That was the longest minute in my life; just sat there quiet and the ballplayers were all sitting there. And I said, ‘all right, I sense that God’s speaking to some hearts. Let’s pray.’ And I prayed for the team, that there’d be reconciliation and that they could go out and have a great year.”

They did have a good year. In fact, at the end of that season, in 1977, the Yankees won the World Series! Sam doesn’t know exactly how they went from rock bottom to the top, but he believes that unity in prayer was part of the process.

“I’ve been around people, kings and princes and ball players and all kinds of people who’ve bent their knee and said, ‘Lord Jesus, come into my heart. Forgive me of my sin and be my savior.’ And whose lives have been changed,” Sam said. “When you think about it, God, a loving God, regardless of who you are, what you’ve done, he loves us. There’s a battle out there all the time. But Jesus is there, lovingly, wanting to give us a joy-filled, happy, fulfilled life. Don’t be afraid; don’t be afraid to give your heart to Jesus.”

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