Monday, July 12, 2010

The Lincoln Baseball Legend: The Notification Story

How Lincoln Received The Nomination.-When the news of Lincoln's nominations 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 town-ball. All his comrades immediately threw up their hats and commenced to hurrah. Abe grinned considerably, scratched his head and said, "Go on boys; don't let such nonsense spoil a good game." The boys did go on with their bawling, but not with the game of ball. They got out an old rusty cannon and made it ring, while the tall Sucker went home to think of his chances.
-Daily Evening Bulletin, June 16, 1860

During the sitting of the convention Lincoln had been trying, in one way and another, to keep down the excitement which was pent up within him, playing billiards a little, town ball a little, and story-telling a little.
-Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 1

A while back I picked up a copy of David Herbert Donald's biography of Abraham Lincoln. It was recommended to me as the best modern biography of our sixteenth president and I agree that it's a fine work. With my interest in 19th century baseball, I read the book with one eye on anything baseball related and while there is nothing specifically baseball related mentioned, there were a few things that I thought were of interest.

One of the more interesting things was Donald's description of the process by which Lincoln gained the 1860 Republican presidential nomination and what Lincoln was doing while the convention was in session:

While the Republican National Convention was in session, Lincoln went quietly about his business in Springfield, but he eagerly sought to learn what was going on in Chicago. Up early on Friday, May 18, the day when nominations were to be made, he passed some time playing "fives"-a variety of handball-with some other men in a vacant lot next to the Illinois State Journal office. Learning that James C. Conkling had unexpectedly returned from Chicago, he went over to his law office to hear the latest news from the convention. Stretched out on an old settee, so short that his feet stuck out over the end, he listened to Conkling's prediction that Seward could not be nominated and that the convention would choose Lincoln. Lincoln demurred, unwilling to tempt fate by being overoptimistic, and said that either Bates or Chase would probably be the choice. Getting up, he announced: "Well, Conkling, I believe I will go back to by office and practice law.
At the Lincoln & Herndon office Baker, of the Illinois State Journal, came in with telegrams announcing that the names of the candidates had been placed in nomination and that Lincoln's was received with great enthusiasm. Shortly afterward, a new telegram announced the result of the first ballot...Giving no indication of his feelings, Lincoln went over to the telegraph office, where a report on the second ballot was just coming in...Lincoln then awaited the results of the third ballot in the Journal office. As he had anticipated this was the last ballot. Seward retained most of his strength, but nearly all the other delegates flocked to Lincoln...

"I knew this would come when I saw the second ballot," Lincoln remarked as he accepted the congratulations of his fellow townsmen. Emerging from the Journal office, he said jokingly to the ball players who broke off their game to congratulate him: "Gentlemen, you had better come up and shake my hand while you can-honors elevate some men." Then he headed for home, explaining: "Well Gentlemen there is a little woman at our house who is probably more interested in this dispatch than I am."

Donald's source for this information comes from Jess Weik's The Real Lincoln. Weik's was also the co-writer of Herndon's Lincoln or, as it's officially titled, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner at the time of the nomination, did an extraordinary amount of research into Lincoln's life, beginning shortly after the assassination in 1865. Over a twenty year period, he conducted interviews with the people who knew Lincoln (including family, friends, neighbors, enemies, etc.) and it's this collection of primary source material that Weik's transformed into what is probably the most important biography of Lincoln ever written. So Donald, for his story of the Lincoln notification, went, in Weik, to probably the best source he could. While I haven't been able to ascertain whether or not Herndon was an eyewitness to any of this (he and Lincoln had had a bit of a falling out during the campaign), Herndon did know all the people who were with Lincoln on the day of the nomination and interviewed many of them. And Weik was working off of Herndon's notes as well as his own research.

I happen to have a copy of Weik's Lincoln biography. He described Lincoln, on May 18, as being, naturally enough, nervous and restless. He then gives E.L. Baker's account of that day. Baker was the editor of the "Springfield Journal" and was with Lincoln for a great deal of the day:

Met Lincoln and we went to ball alley to play at fives-alley was full-said it was pre-engaged; then went to excellent beer saloon near by to play game of billiards; table was full and we each drank a glass of beer; then went to Journal office expecting to hear result of ballot...

I can go on and on with accounts from people who were with Lincoln on May 18, 1860 and not one person mentions town ball. The Lincoln notification town ball story is simply not true. Lincoln was not playing town ball when he was notified that he had won the Republican nomination for president.

How and why that story developed and spread is rather interesting but is the subject for another time. I am absolutely fascinated by the legend that developed around Lincoln and how that merged with the legends about the origins of baseball. You have apotheosis and myth-making and nationalism and the bloody flag and economic interests all coming together at the same time to create a Lincoln baseball myth. One of the interesting things about it is that there is some reality behind the legend. It wasn't made up out of whole cloth. I'm finding it interesting to separate the facts from the legend and trace the development of the legend. But, again, that's a post another day.

As far as the notification story is concerned, the fact is that Lincoln was not playing town ball that day. He did appear to want to play fives, which he was rather good at, but was unable to because the court was already in use and did play some billiards. So Lincoln did play "ball" on the day of his nomination but it was billiards rather than baseball. Also, there was a delegation that came to Springfield to inform him officially of his nomination (a fact that plays a part in another version of the notification story). They arrived in Springfield on May 19 at seven o'clock in the evening and found Lincoln at his home, where he was officially notified that he was the Republican nominee for president. Again, he was not playing town ball when this happened.

The Lincoln notification story is a legend and did not happen. It appears that there are some facts surrounding the events of May 18, 1860 that were misconstrued and misinterpreted, leading to the creation of the legend. But we have more than sufficient primary source material to reconstruct what Lincoln was doing on the day he was nominated and the bottom line is that he was not playing town ball.

Note: The image at the top of the post comes from the Albert Spalding collection and shows Lincoln being notified of his nomination while playing town ball. Spalding, of course, had a large roll in the creation of the both the Lincoln baseball legend and the baseball origin legend.


Richard Hershberger said...

I'll be having several comments on your Lincoln series. A couple of points regarding the notification story, which is certainly a fabrication. Herndon's notes for his biography were preserved and have been published as "Herndon's Informants". There is no need to rely on intermediary writers. These are the best source I know on the subject.

My interpretation of the notification story is that it was campaign propaganda. We should not read too much into this regarding baseball. The mythologizing of baseball had barely begun, and I doubt that the Lincoln campaign was trying to hitch its wagon to that newborn colt. I think the point was simply to show Lincoln as being unconcerned with the nomination, while at the same time a man of the people. This ties in with the old idea that wanting the office is itself a disqualification (as was bandied about, for example, in the last presidential campaign).

Finally, it is worth noting that by the time the story worked its way to Spalding it had been yet further improved. Spalding reports that Lincoln was playing "Base Ball" rather than "town ball".

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I thought this subject would bring you out of the woodwork, Richard, and I agree with you about Herndon's Informants. I don't have a copy but I've looked through it a few times and have some good stuff from it in my notes.

Not only had was the baseball legend in its infancy, so was the Lincoln legend. Lincoln throughout his time in office and the last part of the century was, to say the least, a divisive figure and he was openly hated by a large percentage of the population. The grand Lincoln myth doesn't really gain traction until around the turn of the century, at about the same time the baseball origin legend is being developed. I think that's when you see the two merge and Doubleday certainly played a part in that.

Even if the notification story wasn't a blatent fabrication, one can see how it might have developed. Lincoln went out to play fives, that gets passed along as "playing ball," which gets interpretted as town ball or baseball.

I am absolutely fascinated by how these legends developed, were brought together and mutually benefited each other. In the Lincoln legend, baseball establishes the Great Martyr as a man of the people while in the baseball legend, Lincoln the secular saint bestows his blessing upon the game and Lincoln the
Great American establishes the game as truly and completely American.

Anonymous said...
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Jeffrey Kittel said...

I feel kind of bad deleting the last comment. While I hate spam, this was really an original piece of spam and credit should be given for at least trying something different. The jist was that the person posting the comment was being held hostage by the Russian mafia and forced to post spam on websites. They were going to be killed if they didn't follow orders. Good, original stuff. But, sorry, I have zero tolerance for spam, even if it is original and kind of funny.