Friday, July 16, 2010

The Lincoln Baseball Legend: Apotheosis

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'" And with those final words, Lincoln goes down swinging.
-Baseball Anecdotes

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.


Richard Hershberger said...

OK, I get it now. You are more interested in the process of myth formation than in the pedestrian facts. I understand the appeal. I have been working on a piece on how and why the Alexander Cartwright myth was created, and why it is going strong to this day despite the nearly total absence of evidence supporting it and the much greater body of evidence against it. With such myths, the historiography is often the most interesting feature.

David Ball said...

Please, by all means don't debunk this particular myth. It's my favorite story in all of baseball history, and its utterly preposterous nature is exactly what makes it so good.

My favorite version, although it may have no other source than my own disordered imagination, is, "Take care of the game, Abner. The country's going to need it in the trying times ahead."

I can't say anything specific about this story, but Bill Stern was notorious for retailing stuff of this kind. For example, he is the one responsible that William Howard Taft would have signed a contract with the Cincinnati Red Stockings had his father not forbidden it ("but it's MAJOR LEAGUE baseball, Dad"). Stern himself didn't pretend he had much concern with factual reality; he just said his show was for entertainment.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm always interested in the pedestrian facts. One has to get at the facts, at what actually happened, before you can get to the heart of the myth. The facts illuminate the myth. You can't begin to deconstruct myth and legend without knowing the truth of the matter. But, yeah, I'm much more interested in how and why the Lincoln baseball legend developed and what it says about Lincoln, baseball and us that it continues to be disseminated today. Whether or not Lincoln actually attended a game while President is not nearly as interesting as the fact that people believe he said he did.

Sorry but this one is much too easy to debunk. And I completely agree that the absurdity of the story is what makes it good.

The version that you quote sounds familiar but I couldn't begin to tell you where I've heard it before or even if I have. The Lincoln myth is so pervasive (especially here in Illinois) that it's just something you breathe in or learn through osmosis.

I think the Lincoln/Doubleday deathbed story is the crowning jewel of the Lincoln baseball legend. While obviously untrue, it tells us everything we need to know about the legend and why it exists.