We boys hailed his coming with delight because he would always join us on the lawn. I remember vividly how he ran, how long were his strides, how far his coattails stuck out behind.
~Written about Abraham Lincoln in an early childhood letter
The author of the letter unknown, but Lincoln was known to play baseball on the front lawn of the White House. Lincoln even had a field, called the White Lot, constructed on White House property for ballgames. This field hosted a number of games between the Potomac Club and the earliest incarnation of the Washington Nationals (both teams formed in 1859). One more reason to love our 16th President!
When one thinks of the American Civil War, a number of key themes come to mind: North vs. South; the Union and the Confederacy; slavery; race; Gettysburg; Appomattox; and so on… One rarely thinks of baseball, and yet the game provided entertainment and escape during this tumultuous period in our nation’s history.
Contrary to what the Abner Doubleday myth would have us believe, baseball was already well-established by the time the “War Between the States” broke out, and it is believed that President Abraham Lincoln may have been one of the game’s first fans. At the very least, many historians agree that Lincoln most likely watched, and possibly even played, the sport. There is no doubt, however, that the game was already making its way into the national consciousness. The political cartoon below show Lincoln with the other three Presidential candidates, John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge, in the fall of 1860. The men are depicted as ballplayers, and Lincoln, of course, has his foot on home plate, representing victory. He smugly tells his opponents, “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have ‘a good bat’ and strike a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ & a ‘home run.’”
Baseball was a pastime shared by both North and South, and officers on both sides touted the sport as a distraction from the horrors of war, as well as a means through which soldiers could exercise. Interestingly, the outbreak of war encouraged the growth of the sport, as large concentrations of young men gathered together in encampments often found themselves in need of a way to pass the time. To solve the problem of boredom, men from New York took to teaching their fellow soldiers, who came from areas throughout the country, the rules and play of baseball. What was once advocated as a “gentleman’s game” now spread amongst men from a wide variety of backgrounds.
One of the most famous games that took place during the war was between the 165th New York Infantry and the New York Regiment All-Star nine. Played in 1862, approximately forty thousand soldiers showed up to watch the matchup in Hilton Head, South Carolina. That’s a crowd that surpasses attendance at most Major League Baseball games today! As the war raged on and nationalism grew stronger, baseball became increasingly viewed as patriotic. Competitions were sometimes viewed as representative of the conflict between North and South.
Playing ball in the middle of the war wasn’t always fun and worry-free, of course. Some soldiers learned to play the game in one of the many Civil War prisons. The teams of active regiments experienced constant changes in their rosters, as men were killed on the battlefield. Sometimes, the ballgames themselves were interrupted, such as one George Putnam wrote home about:
“Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack…was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but…the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.”
When the war ended and soldiers returned home, many of them shared the game they had learned with their communities. A game that was once mostly confined to the New York area exploded throughout the country. Baseball became a force that helped to heal the rift in the country as many fans began to refer to it as “the national pastime.” Many new leagues formed throughout the nation. Referred to as the “Textile Leagues,” they resembled the minor league system of today. As baseball’s popularity became widespread, the foundation was laid for the establishment of organized and professional play.
Aubrecht, Michael. “Baseball and the Blue and Gray.” Baseball Almanac. Baseball-Almanac, July 2004. Web. Accessed 17 May 2013. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/aubrecht2004b.shtml
Bluett, Terry. “Baseball and the Civil War.” Pennsylvania Civil War Trails. PA Tourism Office. Web. Accessed 18 May 2013. http://www.pacivilwartrails.com/stories/tales/baseball-and-the-civil-war
“Cartoon Corner: The National Game, Three Outs and One Run.” Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom. The Lincoln Institute, 2003-2013. Web. Accessed 18 May 2013. http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/Cartoon_Corner/index3.asp?ID=97&TypeID=1
Kirsch, George B. Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton U P, 2003.
Rothschild, Richard. “Lincoln was game for baseball.” Chicago Tribune. ChicagoTribune.com, 11 February 2003. Web. Accessed 18 May 2013. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-02-11/sports/0302110160_1_16th-president-historian-jules-tygiel-abner-doubleday