February 26th, 2014

Our Baseball Presidents

Lincoln learns of his nomination, 1860,  by Homer Davenport

Lincoln learns of his nomination, 1860, by Homer Davenport

The other day I posted an article about Woodrow Wilson that attracted rather a lot of attention. While preparing that story I inevitably came upon a number of odd bits about our other Presidents and their ballplaying days and ways. The subject has been well covered by others, particularly in terms of first pitches and World Series victors’ visits to the White House. My friends Bill Mead and Paul Dickson wrote a fine book on the subject twenty years ago, Baseball: The Presidents’ Game. Because there’s no point to my doing indifferently what they have done well, I’ll provide here a racehorse run through Presidential baseball bits that may yet be unfamiliar; not every POTUS will get a nod. Some of these notes reflect recent research.

George Washington: First in war, first in peace, and first prez to play ball. General Washington was documented as playing wicket, a rival game to baseball, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1778. [For more about wicket, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/07/17/the-old-time-game-of-wicket/ .] Revolutionary War soldier George Ewing wrote in a letter: “This day His Excellency [i.e., Washington] dined with G[eneral] Nox [Knox] and after dinner did us the honor to play at Wicket with us.” One year later, as scholar Thomas Altherr notes:

Commenting on George Washington’s character while observing him at camp at Fishkill in September, 1779, the newly-arrived secretary to the French legation, François, Comte de Barbé-Marbois, wrote, “To-day he sometimes throws and catches a ball for whole hours with his aides-de-camp.”

Washington the ball club came to be described by sportswriter Charlie Dryden in 1909 as “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” But we can’t blame that on Old George. 

Washington's Prayer at Valley Forge

George Washington’s Prayer at Valley Forge

John Adams: At about the age of 10, as Adams wrote later in his diary, he was enamored “of making and sailing boats . . swimming, skating, flying kites and shooting marbles, bat and ball, football, . . . wrestling and sometimes boxing.” Was “bat and ball” the mysterious game known as batball, prohibited—along with wicket, cricket, baseball, football, cats, fives, and other games unnamedin the famous 1791 ordinance of Pittsfield, Massachusetts? Or was it the distinct other game of “bat and ball,” as described by Brian Turner? [http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/11/27/the-bat-and-ball/] We cannot know.

Thomas Jefferson: We have no record of his having played ball, but he may have played enough to know he didn’t like it. From a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, on 19 August 1785:

Give about two [hours] every day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance [sic] to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks. 

1857 James Buchanan / Abrahman Lincoln Indian Peace Medal (reverse common to both Presidents)

1857 James Buchanan / Abraham Lincoln Indian Peace Medal (reverse common to both Presidents)

James Buchanan: In 1857, the first year of Buchanan’s term as President, the “Indian Peace Medal” received a new design that has become a monument of baseball history. These medals changed design many times. Early ones depicted George Washington shaking hands with a Native American against the backdrop of a tranquil farmstead on the obverse, and the heraldic eagle from the Great Seal of the United States on the reverse. After Jefferson, each administration’s medal had for its obverse a bust of the new president (except for William Henry Harrison, who died after barely three weeks in office) and a common reverse, a pair of hands shaking each other with crossed tomahawk and peace pipe above and the legend peace and prosperity in surround.

For President Buchanan in 1857, a new reverse to the medal was commissioned from engraver Joseph Willson, who created an emblematic design featuring an Indian chief in full headdress manning a plow, a farm and a church in the distance, a simple home with a woman standing in the doorway—and a baseball game being played in the foreground. This domesticated vignette was ringed by a bow, arrows in a quiver, a squaw, a peace pipe, and a grisly depiction of one brave scalping another. The message of the medal’s border was one of primitive violence without the calming hand of civilization; that of the vignette, the possible taming of the wild through American ways in religion, tilling the soil . . . and adoption of its favorite game. All that was lacking was a steaming apple pie. Although Willson died in the year that this medal was issued, his design for the reverse was reused for the Indian Peace Medal issued in the Lincoln years. No matter what some gentlemen were saying in New York at the “national” conventions of area clubs, the frontier game of baseball, in all its variety, was already perceived as the national game. 

Lincoln Peace Medal

Lincoln Peace Medal, obverse.

Abraham Lincoln: There are many stories about Lincoln and baseball, and some of them may even be true. (Not true is the deathbed scene invented by radio’s Bill Stern, in which Lincoln, with his last gasp, says to Abner Doubleday–who was in fact not there– “Keep baseball going. The country needs it.”) Lincoln is said to have played town ball in Springfield, Illinois in the 1830s. His friend James Gourley, who had known him since 1834, in later years recalled:

We played the old-fashioned game of town ball – jumped – ran – fought and danced. Lincoln played town ball – he hopped well – in 3 hops he would go 40.2 [feet?] on a dead level…. He was a good player – could catch a ball…. 

In America’s National Game, Albert Spalding included a tale of Lincoln being caught unawares in midgame when he learned of his nomination for President:

The national game. Three

The national game. Three “outs” and one “run,” Currier & Ives, 1860.

It is recorded that in the year 1860, when the Committee of the Chicago Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency, visited his home at Springfield, Illinois, to notify him formally of the event, the messenger sent to apprise him of the coming of the visitors found the great leader out on the commons, engaged in a game of Base Ball. Information of the arrival of the party was imparted to Mr. Lincoln on the ball field.

“Tell the gentlemen,” he said, “that I am glad to know of their coming; but they’ll have to wait a few minutes ’till I make another base hit.”

This tale seems to be too good to be true, but it is time to wink, nod, and move along.

Andrew Johnson: Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Young Johnson “spent many hours at games with boys of the neighborhood, his favorite being ‘Cat and Bass Ball and Bandy,’ the last the ‘choyst’ game of all.” On September 17, 1866, President Johnson is said to have watched, briefly from a carriage parked behind right field, a game between the Brooklyn Excelsiors and the Washington Nationals. In the following year, on August 26, Johnson arrived two hours late to a game between the Nationals and the visiting New York Mutuals, but he and his entourage stayed to the end as the Mutes won, 40-16.

Polo Grounds, Opening Day 1886--same appearance as for Grant in 1883.

Polo Grounds, Opening Day 1886–same appearance as for Grant in 1883.

Ulysses S. Grant: On May 1, 1883, the New York Gothams, later known as the Giants, played their first game in the National League. Among the 15,000 fans who came that day was former President Grant. At the Polo Grounds (at that time located just north of Central Park, at 110th Street; today the site is within the park), New York defeated the Boston Reds, 7-5, behind pitcher Mickey Welch.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Hayes had played ball while a student at Kenyon College in Ohio. On May 13, 1839 he had written to his brother, “Playing ball is all the fashion here now and it is presumed that I can beat you at that if not at chess.” The future President and his son kept a scrapbook of their favorite team as it toured the country in 1869—the famous unbeaten Cincinnati Red Stockings. In 1870 Hayes wrote his son:

MY DEAR BOY:–I see by the Journal you are playing base-ball and that you play well. I am pleased with this. I like to have my boys enjoy and practice all athletic sports and games, especially riding, rowing, hunting, and ball playing. But I am a little afraid, from [what] Uncle says, that overexertion and excitement in playing baseball will injure your hearing. Now, you are old enough to judge of this and to regulate your conduct accordingly. If you find there is any injury you ought to resolve to play only for a limited time—say an hour or an hour and a half on the same day. Uncle and Sarah [Jane Grant, visiting Columbus]  with our whole family are well. We had General Sherman at our house Wednesday evening with a pleasant party.

James A. Garfield: As a professor at Ohio’s Hiram College in 1856-59, Garfield played wicket, a game which the Connecticut pioneers had brought to the Western Reserve at the turn of the 19th century. “In the street,” wrote F.M. Green in 1901, “in front of [Hiram College] President Hinsdale’s (which was then Mr. Garfield’s house), is the ground where we played wicket ball; Mr. Garfield was one of our best players.”

Chester Arthur: On April 4, 1883, Arthur became the first President to invite big-league ballplayers into the White House. Greeting the Cleveland Blues and their manager Frank Bancroft in the Cabinet Room, he remarked with his typical fatuity that “they looked like good base ball players and that good ball players were good citizens.”

Cap Anson Meets Grover Cleveland

Cap Anson Meets Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland: The only President elected to two non-consecutive terms was not much of a fan, although he declared that when he had been sheriff and mayor of Buffalo, the Bisons’ star pitcher Pud Galvin had been his friend. In 1888 he had said to Cap Anson, visiting the White House, “What do you imagine the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to the ball game?” King Kelly wrote of Cleveland: “The president’s hand was fat and soft. I squeezed it so hard he winced. Then George Gore did the same and [Oyster] Burns and [Abner] Dalrymple did likewise. The president’s right hand was almost double in size and he was glad when it was all over. He would rather shake hands with 1,000 people than a ball nine after that day. He impressed me as being a charming, courteous gentleman who has considerable backbone, and democratic enough to be a Democratic president of our glorious country.”

Benjamin Harrison: Harrison was the first seated President (unlike Grant above) to attend a major-league game. On June 6, 1892 he watched the Washington Senators lose to Cincinnati 7-4 in 11 innings. Harrison, however, had offered up his baseball bona fides not long after taking office. On April 5, 1889, the national news divulged that President Harrison was exhibiting conspicuously, on a mantelpiece in the White House, a large baseball scorecard. To a visitor this demonstrated conclusively that “the Administration was all right, for it endorsed the game of baseball.”

William McKinley: On April 16, 1897, shortly after taking office as the last of the 19th century’s Presidents, McKinley greeted the members of the Washington National League club at the White House. Manger Gus Schmelz recalled that five years earlier to the day, while governor of Ohio, McKinley had thrown the first ball into the diamond of the Columbus club, of which he [Schmelz] had been manager, and that the club had won the championship that season of the Western League (1892). McKinley was reported to have smiled and replied that he remembered the incident very well, indeed, and that if he saw his way clear he would repeat the performance at National Park on Thursday the 22nd for its NL opener against Brooklyn. He did not, however, so the Presidential honor of throwing out the first ball of the season would have to await the onset of William Howard Taft.

Part II to follow, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt.