By Glen Sparks
We know that many presidents have enjoyed sports. Eisenhower liked to golf. Nixon delivered some play suggestions to Washington Redskins Coach George Allen, and Bush No. 41 played baseball at Yale, while Bush No. 43 was part-owner of the Texas Rangers for a while.
But, did you know that President Lincoln liked baseball? Supposedly, Honest Abe would skip cabinet meetings and play some ball on the White House lawn. (With the Civil War going on, he probably needed a little relaxation.) Back then, people called the game “barn ball” or “town ball.”
Was Lincoln our nation’s first chief executive who could count himself as a fan? That’s hard to say. Baseball is probably based on the English game of rounders. Who knows if Washington or Jefferson played. (Stick-and-ball games have been popular for centuries, of course. The Russians were playing a game called lapta in the 1300s. To this day, some Russian media claim that baseball is a direct take-off of lapta.)
References to baseball–or “base-ball” as it was spelled then, or “base ball” as two words–being played in North America go back to the mid-1700s. The game became popular here by the 1830s; Alexander Cartwright, the father of modern baseball and a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, codified the rules in 1845. New Yorkers and New Jerseyites embraced the game first. Interestingly, as long as we’re talking about Lincoln, the game’s popularity grew during the Civil War years, especially as Confederate soldiers watched Northerners play ball while being held in Southern P.O.W. camps.
MLB.com has a short piece on Lincoln’s infatuation with the game that would soon become known as our national pastime. One can imagine the lanky, 6-foot-4-inch president as quite the athlete. He spent much of his youth splitting logs, after all, probably building some good arm and back strength. He could probably hit with some decent power, although batters did not swing for the fences in the early days.
With those long arms and legs, the 16th president of the United States probably could have been quite the pitcher. Of course, the rules didn’t allow for pitchers to throw overhand until 1884. One can imagine that Lincoln, had he grown up a few decades later, may have gotten into baseball and skipped that whole political business altogether.
Anyway, on his Feb. 12, Happy Birthday to Abraham Lincoln