Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Lincoln Baseball Legend: The Great Ball Player

Sometimes on sunny afternoons, such as those in early June [1856,] Ben McQueston, a clerk at J.W. Matheny's store, would call up the stairway to the law office, "Mr. Lincoln, we are going to play ball." Unless something very pressing was on the table, Lincoln gladly trotted down to a field with the others and played whatever game was on, often a version of "town ball" or rudimentary baseball. "Everybody played ball," McQuestion said. "There was nothing incongruous about a leading lawyer like Lincoln joining in with tradesmen, clerks, and professional men for an afternoon's amusement. Everyone had time for recreation and business did not suffer."
-The Case of Abraham Lincoln

The source for this story, which appears in a book about one of Lincoln's more interesting legal cases, was a newspaper article in the February 18, 1920 Weekly Kansas City Star that was entitled "Fought Fires with Lincoln Sixty-Five Years Ago." McQueston, a resident of Springfield, was a member of a volunteer fire company, serving with Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln Great Ball Player

Decatur, Ills., February 16.-That Abraham Lincoln was a great ball player as the game was played in those days, is the statement of Mrs. Rachel Billington, who on February 12 celebrated her ninetieth birthday. Mrs. Billington lived only a few doors away from the Lincoln family at Springfield and also knew the statesmen later as a lawyer in Decatur. "In those days," says Mrs. Billington, "the batter stood with his back to a wall and Lincoln could hit the ball every time it was pitched to him."
-Sporting Life, February 21, 1914

The most interesting thing to me here is that the game that Mrs. Billington saw played had the batter standing against the wall. When I was a kid, many of the versions of ball that we played, most notably corkball, was played with the batter hitting in front of a wall. You didn't need a catcher that way and you could also chalk out the strike zone on the wall. In fact, the old Illinois Bell building in downtown Granite City, Illinois (in whose parking lot many a games of corkball were played) for a long time had a spray-painted strike zone on the wall (the work, I imagine, of some baseball-playing vandal; and, no, it wasn't me).

As I've mentioned before, Lincoln, when he moved to Illinois, arrived in a community that had a vibrant ballplaying culture. A baseball variant, that the locals specifically remembered as being called town ball, was played in central Illinois in the 1820s and 1830s. Other ball games that were played during the antebellum era included bullpen, cross out and long town. I mentioned in a previous post that Lincoln had a reputation as a being a good fives player. Ball playing was a large part of the culture of central Illinois and it would have been atypical of Lincoln not to take part in these games.

Lincoln was a large man, standing six foot four, and was uncommonly tall for his time. While thin, he was a solidly built man, having spent his youth as a farmer and laborer, and was known for having great strength. Andrew Kirk, who was interviewed by Herndon in 1887, remembered Lincoln picking up and throwing a cannon ball. There's a famous story about the young Lincoln arriving in New Salem and engaging in and winning a wrestling match with the strongest and toughest young man in the area. There are also plenty of stories about Lincoln winning foot races. What one has to take away from all the evidence is that Lincoln was a very good, natural athlete.

A good athlete and living in a community of ball players, it's almost unthinkable that Lincoln would not have played baseball and, as I've shown above, there is plenty of evidence that he did. Lincoln's friends and neighbors were unambiguous on that point:

I knew Lincoln as early as 1834...We played old fashioned town ball...Lincoln played town ball...Lincoln was a good player-could catch a ball...
-James Gourly, interviewed by William Herndon in 1865 and 1866

Did Lincoln play the New York version of baseball that became all the rage in the late 1850s? There is no evidence to suggest that he did and it's highly unlikely. It's possible that he saw the game played in Illinois in the late 1850s and likely that he saw the game when he lived in Washington but there is no evidence that he ever played the New York game. However, Lincoln did play a local version of baseball that the people of central Illinois called town ball. There is plenty of evidence that Lincoln was a ballplayer and that he was a rather good one.

One more thing I should mention: There's a great deal of evidence of ballplaying in Illinois before Lincoln arrived and while he was living there. Having looked at a lot of the sources, it's easy to speak intelligently about that. There is much less evidence of ballplaying in Indiana and Kentucky during Lincoln's youth. I've looked at some of the local histories and haven't found much and what little I did find was about southwestern Indiana. However, in 1866, Herndon interviewed Burnbry B. Lloyd, who appears to have known the Lincolns while they lived in Kentucky. Lloyd mentioned that people in Kentucky, during that time, played ball and specifically mentioned "corner ball, called bullpen, cat & town ball."

This is significant for two reasons. First, this is evidence that Lincoln was exposed to ball games from a very young age and may have participated in these games while a child in Kentucky. More importantly, if Lloyd is speaking about Kentucky during the time when Lincoln lived there, as he appears to be doing, then this is evidence of ballplaying in western Kentucky prior to 1816. This would be the earliest reference to baseball in the West that I've seen and, combined with the Gratiot reference, presents a portrait of a ballplaying culture in the West that goes back to the 18th century. I'll have to put up a specific post on this once I do some more digging. But I'm very intrigued by the Lloyd reference.


Richard Hershberger said...

If you are searching for evidence of Lincoln playing town ball, you should also look up Ida Tarbell's biography of him. P. 88 of the second volume has an account reported by Frank Blair (of the same family as the "Blair House", which is now the president's official guest house). He was a boy during the war. His grandfather had an estate in Silver Spring, just north of Washington. He reports spending summers there, that the boys would play "town ball" on the lawn, and that Lincoln often visited and would join the boys in their game.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I've read some of Tarbell's stuff on Lincoln. I think that she's more interesting than the work itself. How she got involved in writing about Lincoln and the extent that she went to while researching her work is an fascinating story.

As far as the Blair story, I didn't plan on doing a comprehensive overveiw of the Lincoln baseball legend here at the blog. I thought I'd just pass along some of the stuff that I found interesting. There are a few other things I found but nothing earth-shattering. A lot of the stuff was just confirmation from people who knew Lincoln that town ball was being played in the Springfield area at the time he lived there or general statements about his athletic abilities.

But since you mention it, I don't think it would be all that difficult to date Blair's reference. We know a great deal about the family and there coming in goings during the war. We also know pretty much everything Lincoln did on a day to day basis (I think there's a book out there that chronicles his time in office day to day). With the Blairs being so prominent in StL, it might be something I should try to run down.

But the general bottom line as far as the legend is concerned is that Lincoln was a reasonable good athlete who enjoyed athletic contests, including various games of ball. How you get from that to Lincoln having a deathbed conversation with Abner Doubleday is a far more interesting question than questions about town ball in Postville, Illinois or at the Blair House.

Anonymous said...

Wow, very interesting! I actually found this post by following a link from the Corkball account on Twitter! Check it out: