Henry Berthrong lived an amazing and varied life – some small part of it as a baseball player. At the time of his retirement, he was likely the longest serving US civil servant (certainly among the oldest); at the time of his death, he was the oldest living major-league baseball player.
Henry Washburn Berthrong arrived January 1, 1844, the first of five children born to Linus Percival and Mary (McPherson) Berthrong in Mumford, New York, a town not too far from Rochester. Linus was a partner in a mercantile store and worked as a blacksmith. Mary was tasked with family management. Linus died before Henry hit his teens, the victim of his gun accidentally going off while on a duck hunt and shooting himself in the arm in 1856. Linus was brought home, where doctors thought his best chance to survive was amputating his arm – and the amputation process killed him.1
Henry could trace his ancestry back a long way. Abisha Washburn, his great-great-grandfather, helped mold cannon during the Revolutionary War and may have served in the Continental Army. Go back a few more generations in that Washburn line and you can find a John Washborne, who made his way from England to the Plymouth settlement in 1635, bringing his family along a few years later. Berthrong was also a Mayflower descendant, both through Abisha Washburn’s wife, Hannah Morton (who was a great-great-granddaughter of Stephen Hopkins), and through John Washburn, Jr.’s marriage to Elizabeth Mitchell, a granddaughter of Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke.2
As a child, Henry proved quite skilled at drawing and studied art with the owner of the Fraunberger studio in Rochester. He also learned how to make wood cuts for printing.3 His studies would have to wait, however. In 1861, the Civil War began, and in 1862 Henry Berthrong joined the 140th New York Volunteers, went to the front in September of that year, and joined the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac – also serving as a musician. Over time, he performed other roles, especially when his regiment guarded occupied areas around the District.
While with the 140th, he drew constantly, focusing on portraits of generals – Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, and others. He and another soldier would take shoe pegs and nail his penciled portraits to the top log of his tent. On the side, Henry was also a bit of a prankster – all in good fun. Another soldier, B. S. Blake, said, “Almost from the start his genial disposition, full of youthful spirit, and his humorous pranks made him well known throughout the regiment.”4
One time, he was furloughed and stopped in Washington, DC prior to catching a train to Rochester. Then, a fan of artwork appeared – as Berthrong told a writer for the Boston Globe on the 100th anniversary of his fan’s birthday.
“… I was on a furlough and passing through Washington on my way to my home, Rochester, N. Y., and while I was wandering around I finally pulled up and sat down on one of those iron settees between the White House and the war department. Taking a pad and pencil I began to make a sketch of the White House and just about the time I had it nearly completed someone came and stood directly in front of me. I looked up from my work, and there stood the great form of President Lincoln. I confess I was somewhat startled. I wore a zouave uniform, and, of course, the President knew I was a soldier.”5
Abraham Lincoln took the sketch from Berthrong’s hands and started asking questions of the soldier. When Lincoln asked Berthrong where he was headed, Berthrong admitted he was between trains on a two-week furlough. Lincoln took Berthrong to the offices of the adjutant general and extended his furlough another two weeks.
When the paperwork was completed, Lincoln asked to keep the drawing, saying, “It interests me.” They shook hands and wished each other pleasant voyages and good health.
According to the Globe article, Berthrong met the president years later at a White House reception a few days before Lincoln’s assassination. Berthrong asked if Lincoln remembered him and reminded the president about the drawing of the White House. Lincoln recalled their first meeting and had a short chat before moving along to other greeters.6
Berthrong painted a large painting of Lincoln which stayed in the family, despite large offers from Lincoln’s son. He later painted Grant’s portrait in the days just before the former general and president passed away in 1885, something the subject’s children claimed was the best painting of Grant ever done.7
Returning from the war meant getting a job; Henry took a clerk position in the War Department. Soon after, he got married – the first time was to Anne Thompson, who was perhaps 14 years old when they first discussed getting married (a marriage license record exists from December 1864), and 15 years old when a marriage license was granted in October 1865. They had one child, a daughter named May, but as Berthrong’s career in civil service changed, Anne stayed in DC while Berthrong moved on.8
Wait! This is a biography about a baseball player…
Berthrong was a speedy and graceful athlete. He was a member of a Potomac River rowing team that won a national championship.9 And, he took up baseball, a sport he played while a young adult in Rochester and may have played while in the army. Almost immediately upon settling in Washington, Berthrong became a shortstop, catcher, and outfielder with the two best clubs in the capital city – the Nationals and the Olympics. In fact, Berthrong appeared in a game for the Nationals within weeks of his Army discharge in August 1865.10 Soon after, he would invite players he knew in Rochester to come to Washington, where they could get a clerk position with a government office and still have time to play ball.11
He was likely the fastest professional baseball player of the post-Civil War years, by the 1896 account of an unnamed baseball “crank.”
“Berthrong was a wonderful outfielder in his day, and I once saw him when both the right and left fielders had been disabled by injury cover all three fields and never miss a fly, moving from side to side, according to his judgement of the batter, and sizing things up right every time.”12
Lots of players claim to be fast – Berthrong could prove it and did so in a letter to Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe.
“I have received so many inquiries by mail and individually as to my exact time in running the bases that I take the liberty of writing you the facts.
“The time was made in Washington, July 9, 1868, and was taken by five stop watches, where several men contested. From home plate to home plate in 14-1/4 seconds.
“One incident of this trial has never been spoken of. John Morrissey, the great sporting man of that time, wagered a wine supper with a friend that I could not run the bases inside of 15 seconds, and he was one of the parties who held the watch.
“He paid the debt, and 12 of us sat down to supper one week afterward. I ran 100 yards on the white lot at Washington without special training in 10 seconds flat. John Morrissey then offered to back me to run any man in the world 100 yards for $10,000. I ran 26 races at that distance and was never defeated.”13
In 1867, the Nationals took a nearly three-week tour of western cities. This team featured Asa Brainard, George Wright, Berthrong, Seymour Studley, and other players who joined the Nationals from a few different baseball clubs for this season. Hitting the road in July, the Nationals lost just one of ten games (a 29-23 loss to the Forest City club from Rockford) including a 53-10 clubbing of Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings. During the western tour, the Nationals won six games by scoring at least 78 runs, including a 113-25 drubbing of the Union club of St. Louis.14 The tour established the National club as arguably the top team in baseball and certainly inspired Harry Wright’s creation of a fully professional club in Cincinnati that went undefeated during a large national tour in 1869. In fact, Wright signed Brainard to pitch for Cincinnati beginning in 1868.
When the Washington Olympics joined the National Association in 1871, Berthrong was an outfielder and backup catcher to Doug Allison. He appeared in 17 games, getting the same number of hits. That was his only season as a major leaguer, though. His job sent him west. Henry went to Carson City, Nevada, where he helped the government set up a new branch of the United States Mint. While there, he and a few friends started one of the first baseball clubs in Nevada, if not the first – the Silver Stars.15
Berthrong moved to Boston after returning from Carson City. He soon married a well-connected lady a bit closer to his own age named Hannah Boutwell, the niece of Secretary of the Treasury George S. Boutwell – who was also a former governor of Massachusetts. By this time, Berthrong was the appraiser of merchandise at the Boston Customhouse. He held that position into the mid-1880s, but something else was calling him.
As one may imagine, it was his painting skills: as a portrait artist, he was in demand. So, in 1883, he decided to open a studio – and his wife, Hannah, took over his job in the Customhouse.16 Berthrong became nationally famous for his portraits of presidential candidates of both parties. In fact, Berthrong claimed to be the only man in America who worked both sides of the aisle.17 One order came from Mark Hanna, who managed William McKinley’s successful campaigns in 1896 and 1900. In that effort, Hanna asked for 600 portraits of McKinley – each one being about eight feet by six feet in size. Check out this painting Berthrong did in 1892 of Benjamin Harrison.
In time, as Henry and Hannah procreated (they’d have five children, but one died as a toddler18), they needed more dependable income. Henry returned to the Customhouse. He took a brief break from Boston when he was dispatched to Cuba to set up a U.S. Customhouse there.19 Then he returned – and while he worked at the Customhouse, Hannah became a translator and linguist.
For a while, the Boston Customhouse was that city’s tallest building. On the 25th floor there was an observation balcony where people could look out over the Hub. In 1915, John M. Durick committed suicide by jumping from the observation balcony, falling more than 300 feet to his death.
“To none was the shock greater than to Henry W. Berthrong, a Customhouse employee, who stood on the edge of the steps leading to State St. and was within two or three feet of the man’s body when it struck beside him on the pavement. The fright with which the event struck into Berthrong’s heart and the sight of the suicide’s body almost caused him to collapse in his tracks. Had Berthrong been struck by Durick’s body, he would undoubtedly have been killed, it is thought…”
“…Henry W. Berthrong, an aged clerk, 30 years ago a famous ball player and artist, who had come to the door to get the air for a moment, jumped as if a bomb had been set off beside him. The shock attending the sudden drop of the man, apparently from nowhere, was severe, and for some minutes afterward Mr. Berthrong found it almost impossible to recover his composure and speak about the accident.
“When he was able to talk of it, he declared that the man had fallen less than three feet from him, so near, indeed, that the body almost grazed him in passing. For a moment he was dazed with surprise until he realized the meaning of the sight before him, when he was very nearly overcome with emotion.”20
Berthrong continued at the Customhouse until he turned 80 years old, retiring in 1924 after more than 50 years in the military or civil service.21 And, Hannah and Henry celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in style. On the side, he participated in Grand Army of the Republic benefits, performing the violin in an orchestra and occasionally performing dance routines. He was a lifelong Mason and an honorary member of the Elks.22
In 1927, Hannah passed on, and Berthrong would soon follow. When he fell ill for the last time, he was moved from his home to a veteran’s home in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Newspapers reported that the oldest living major-league ballplayer was near death.23 Al Reach previously held that spot but had died in January. Three months later, on April 24, 1928, Berthrong passed to the next league. He was buried next to his wife, Hannah, in Woodbrook Cemetery in Woburn, Massachusetts.
This biography was reviewed by William Lamb and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Sam Cowan.
The following were accessed using Ancestry.com:
1865 New York Census
1850, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 US Census
Rochester City Directory, 1851
District of Columbia Marriage Records
Massachusetts Marriage Records
US Civil War Soldier Records
The following were accessed using FindaGrave.com:
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Olympics of Washington, D.C., A. J. Leonald, l. f., G. W. Hall, c. f., H. W. Berthrong, r. f., F. A. Waterman, 3b., C. J. Sweasy, 2b., E. Mill, 1b., D. W. Force, s. s., Asa Brainard, p., H. F. Borroughs, D. L. Allison, c., J. W.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 19, 2020. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c2c4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
1 “A Mournful Event,” Buffalo Daily Republic, April 14, 1856: 2.
2 Conversation with Sheila McCreven on July 18, 2021. Berthrong is Ms. McCreven’s great-great grandfather.
3 “Rochester Boy Made Portraits of Famed Men,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 20, 1922: 23.
5 “Made Sketch for Him – H. W. Berthrong, Arlington.” Boston Globe, February 12, 1909: 13.
6 “Made Sketch for Him.
7 “Rochester Boy Made Portraits of Famed Men,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 20, 1922: 23.
8 May Day Thompson (she used her mother’s maiden name) was born January 30, 1871. Berthrong married Hannah Boutwell in 1873, so the divorce happened some time between those two dates
9 “Funeral Friday of Henry W. Berthrong,” Boston Globe, April 25, 1928: 32.
10 “Base Ball – The Grand Matches in Washington,” New York Times, August 30, 1865: 5.
11 Seymour Studley appears in games with Berthrong on the National club in 1866. Like Berthrong, Studley hailed from Rochester and played on the amateur teams of that city. See “Death of Seymour L. Studley,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 13, 1901: 14.
12 “They Die Hard,” Buffalo Enquirer, August 17, 1896: 8.
13 “That Curved Ball,” Boston Globe, April 21, 1895: 29.
14 For an excellent summary of the Nationals’ western tour, please read Eric Miklich’s essay here: “1867 Washington Nationals Tour,” accessed July 17, 2022, http://www.19cbaseball.com/tours-1867-washington-nationals-tour.html.
15 “Brevities.”, Reno Weekly Gazette and Stockman, June 20, 1895: 1. Also, “Off on A Tangent,” Carson Daily Appeal, June 10, 1876: 2.
16 “Funeral Friday of Henry W. Berthrong,” Boston Globe, April 25, 1928: 32.
17 “Rochester Boy Made Portraits of Famed Men,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 20, 1922: 23.
18 His children with Hannah included Louis, Chester, Linus, Mabel (Madge) and Henry, Jr.
19 “Diamond Dust,” Wilmington Sun, November 18, 1898: 3.
20 “Man Leaps From 25th Story of Customhouse,” Boston Globe, September 10, 1915: 1.
21 “Two Retire from Customs Service,” Boston Globe, August 21, 1924: 7. Also, “Ends 50 Years’ Work with Government,” Brattleboro Reformer, August 21, 1924: 1.
22 “Funeral Friday of Henry W. Berthrong,” Boston Globe, April 25, 1928: 32.
23 “Baseball Star of ’65 Sinking,” New York Daily News, April 15, 1928: 10.