This article was written by Richard Hershberger
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)
Baseball is among the most heavily mythologized elements of American culture; Abraham Lincoln is among the most heavily mythologized Americans. Inevitably, their mythologies have become intertwined.
The most reliable place to look for baseball mythology is Spalding’s Americas National Game, and it doesn’t disappoint. This story from the book is accompanied by a drawing of Lincoln holding a bat and ball:
It is recorded that in the year 1860, when the Committee of the Chicago Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency visited his home at Springfield, Illinois, to notify him formally of the event, the messenger sent to apprise him of the coming of the visitors found the great leader out on the commons, engaged in a game of Base Ball. Information of the arrival of the party was imparted to Mr. Lincoln on the ball field.
“Tell the gentlemen,” he said, “that I am glad to know of their coming; but they’ll have to wait a few minutes till I make another base hit.”1
Another example of Lincoln baseball mythology comes from a newspaper article, found on a webpage entitled “President Abraham Lincoln Baseball Related Quotes”:
At about six oclock, the President, who was prevented from appearing earlier on account of the semiweekly Cabinet meeting, came on the ground and remained until the close of the game (Washington Nationals 28 vs. Brooklyn Excelsiors 33), an apparently interested spectator of the exciting contest.2
These are the most substantive claims of Lincoln playing—or at least watching—baseball. Neither stands up to scrutiny. The newspaper article is genuine, from the Washington National Republican. Unfortunately, the game reported was played September 18, 1866, and the president attending was the distinctly non- mythologized Andrew Johnson.
The story about Lincoln receiving word of his nomination is more interesting, as it is an improved version of a contemporaneous newspaper account:
How Lincoln Received the Nomination—When the news of Lincolns nomination reached Springfield, his friends were greatly excited, and hastened to inform “Old Abe” of it. He could not be found at his office or at home, but after some minutes the messenger discovered him out in a field with a parcel of boys, having a pleasant game of townball.
All his comrades immediately threw up their hats and commenced to hurrah. Abe grinned considerably, scratched his head and said, “Go on boys; dont let such nonsense spoil a good game.” The boys did go on with their bawling, but not with the game of ball.3
This varies from Spalding’s version in various minor details and in the major detail—which game it was that Lincoln was playing: base ball, according to Spalding, meaning the New York game, or town ball, meaning the local version of the baseball family.
The New York game was spreading to the West as early as 1857 and, while there is no record of its antebellum play in Springfield, Illinois, its presence is not impossible. But the contemporaneous newspaper account makes the much-more-plausible claim of Lincoln playing the local version. Spalding improved the story to fit the needs of his mythology. (It doesn’t actually make sense in the context of his history, as it does not include the game spreading widely before the Civil War, but Spalding was not one to be deterred by a foolish consistency.)
The contemporaneous story is, however, almost certainly untrue. Soon after his assassination, Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, set to writing a biography, his Life of Lincoln. His research 4 included interviews and correspondence with persons who knew Lincoln, including several accounts of what Lincoln was doing the day of his nomination: anxiously awaiting word from the party convention. The most likely interpretation of the story is that it was pure political propaganda: a tale showing Lincoln to be a man of the people, unconcerned with personal ambition. From the perspective of baseball history this story is interesting, as it shows town ball’s status in American culture. “Town ball” required no further explanation, and claiming that a man in his fifties was playing it was taken to be plausible and a political asset.
The other contemporaneous association is a Currier and Ives cartoon, published soon after Lincoln’s election, showing Lincoln and his three rivals holding baseball bats and Lincoln holding a ball, with the four discussing the recent election using baseball metaphors. The suggestion for this choice of metaphor is shown in the caption: “THE NATIONAL GAME. THREE ‘OUTS’ AND ONE ‘RUN’. ABRAHAM WINNING THE BALL.” The unusual circumstance of four presidential candidates lent itself to this, and baseball was attaining the national prominence to make the cartoon intelligible.
Of course, this says nothing about Lincoln having any personal connection to the game, but some connection can be salvaged if the search is broadened to the entire baseball family and not merely the New York game. Several of Herndon’s informants mentioned town ball. Most reports seem to be background material about what games were played generally, but James Gourley, a Springfield boot maker, reported (probably in the late 1830s or early 1840s) that “Lincoln played townball . . . could catch a ball.” A biography of Lincoln from 1900 included a report by Frank P. Blair, whose grandfather owned an estate seven miles north of Washington. He recalled that when he was seven or eight years old Lincoln would come to visit quite frequently:
We boys, for hours at a time, played “town ball” on the vast lawn, and Mr. Lincoln would join ardently in the sport. I remember vividly how he ran with the children; how long were his strides, and how far his coat-tails stuck out behind, and how we tried to hit him with the ball, as he ran the bases. He entered into the spirit of the play as completely as any of us, and we invariably hailed his coming with delight.5
None of this is extraordinary for a man of Lincoln’s background. There are ample accounts of men playing ball, particularly in the less-settled regions of the West, and while Lincoln might seem a bit old for such activity, there are also ample accounts of men older than he playing the game.
The claims that seem extraordinary are of some unique relationship with the New York game. There is no evidence that Lincoln had any connection with the New York version of baseball. But once we strip away the layer of mythology, we do find that Lincoln was a man of his time and place, at least as far as baseball is concerned, enjoying the town-ball version popular in Springfield, Illinois, in the late 1850s.
1 Albert Spalding, America’s National Game (1911; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992),
3 This account was printed in several newspapers, including the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin (16 June 1860).
4 Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
5 Ida Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Lincoln Memorial Association, 1900), 2:88.