Friday, July 16, 2010
Abraham Lincoln is lying near death following the shooing at Ford's Theatre. With his closest advisers gathered around him, he calls over Major General Abner Doubleday. "Abner," whispers Lincoln, "don't...let...baseball...die." And with those final words, Lincoln goes down swinging.
To their credit, Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf, the authors of Baseball Anecdotes, don't let the above story pass without noting that it has no basis in fact. Do I even need to debunk it for you?
Just for the record, Lincoln never spoke after being shot at Ford's Theatre. Doubleday was not at the Peterson House when Lincoln died. Case closed.
Interestingly, I believe that Doubleday was stationed in Washington at the time of the assassination and, while I read somewhere that Lincoln and Doubleday never met, Doubleday travelled with Lincoln to Gettysburg in November of 1863 and was at social events with Lincoln during the war years. Did they meet? Did they know each other? Maybe. Probably. But that's not exactly relevant. While there is some facts to support the possibility that the Lincoln/Doubleday deathbed legend could have occurred, there's more than enough evidence to show that it unquestionably did not happen.
The story, as far as I can tell, is attributed to Bill Stern, the sportscaster, and probably dates back to the late 1930s or 1940s. Stern was, to say the least, a fanciful storyteller with a vivid imagination and these traits made him a successful radio personality. Whether Stern made the story up himself or had heard it from someone else is unknown.
Another version of the story exists where Lincoln's last words are "Don't let them kill the great game, Abner."
Regardless of how the story came about or what version we're talking about, this is just extraordinary myth-making. It furthers both the image of Lincoln as man of the people as well as the image of baseball as America's game. Lincoln, who was despised by a large percentage of the country for most of the 19th century, loved the game that so many of us love. He was one of us. Baseball, a game whose purely American origins were questioned, was blessed by the Greatest of All Americans. It's our game, an American game. Lincoln loved the game so much, loved his country so much, that his last thoughts were of baseball. Baseball is so American, so wholesome and good, that St. Abraham was thinking of the game in his final moments. There simply is not a better example of the Lincoln baseball legend than the deathbed story. It encapsulates just about everything there is to know about both the Lincoln legend and the baseball origins legend. It's perfect and beautiful.
I could prattle on and on about Lincoln and baseball, fact and legend. But I want to get back to St. Louis baseball so I'll just recommend a few books. I've already mentioned David Herbert Donald's biography of Lincoln. It's an excellent book and if you're looking for a Lincoln biography, this is the one you should read. Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory by Barry Schwartz and Lincoln in American Memory by Merrill Peterson are probably the two best books on the Lincoln legend, how and why it was created, and what it all means. I'd also recommend a little book called Land of Lincoln by Andrew Ferguson. Not as heavy or serious as the Schwartz and Peterson books, it takes a look at how Lincoln is portrayed and thought of in modern America. It's actually kind of funny, as well as illuminating.