During Abraham Lincoln’s final year in Springfield, Illinois, in 1860, before being elected 16and president, people sometimes watched him in shirt sleeves, engaged in a quick game of “Fives” with other young men in a vacant lot just off the public square.
The brick wall of the building next door provided the perfect place to play this 19and century-old version of handball. Here, the prominent local lawyer and rising politician, soon to become one of America’s greatest presidents, could put aside the rigors of the job, let off steam and trade a few volleys at athletic competitions.
Using their hands, the players hit the ball against the wall, alternating shots until one missed the rebound. During the three-day Republican National Convention in Chicago from May 16–18, 1860, there are credible accounts of Lincoln playing “Fives” every day in Springfield since the candidates at the time did not attend the conventions.
Contrary to some accounts, however, he was not playing along when news of his appointment arrived. And how good he was at “Fives” is a point of contention.
“Lincoln’s long arms and long legs served to reach and return the ball from any angle his opponent could send it toward the wall,” said family physician Dr. Preston H. Bailhache. of Lincoln.
But William Donnelly, a Springfield resident who was known as the Fives’ unofficial home ground keeper, said Lincoln “wasn’t a good player.” He learned the game when he was too old. But he liked to play and did quite well.
Lincoln was 51 in 1860 and the fact that he played handball at that age is testament to his athleticism, which was of course even more evident in his youth.
“There’s no question he was athletic — the result of years on the prairie plowing fields, felling trees and splitting rails,” says Lincoln scholar and author Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Lincoln Forum. “Quite unique among adult male wannabes of his day, Lincoln stayed ‘in shape.'”
As a young man, “Lincoln ran, wrestled and heavy-lifted with the best of them — and usually served as the final man in tug of war,” says Holzer, author, co-author or editor. head over 50 pounds on Lincoln.
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Abraham Lincoln: a wrestler as a young man
Most notable among Lincoln’s sporting endeavors as a young man was wrestling. He competed in wrestling matches for over a decade of his youth and rarely lost. His abilities were officially recognized by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, which inducted him as an “Outstanding American” in the sport in 1992. A mural of Lincoln engaged in a wrestling match adorns the wall just inside the Hall of Fame entrance gates. museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Lincoln, “an impressive physical specimen at 6-foot-4, was widely known for his wrestling skills and had only one recorded defeat in a dozen years,” the Hall of Fame tribute reads.
The best-known story about Lincoln and the struggle dates back to 1830, shortly after he moved to New Salem, Illinois. A group of tough, hardy young men, the Clary’s Grove gang, tested the 22-year-old newcomer, who, unlike them, didn’t drink and loved to read books. Lincoln soon found himself agreeing to fight against Jack Armstrong, leader of the gang and the toughest of this rowdy group from the nearby settlement of Clary’s Grove.
Some accounts have Lincoln “throwing” Armstrong and winning the match; others say Lincoln lost; still others say they struggled to a stalemate. Either way, he acquitted himself well, earning the respect of Armstrong and his followers and establishing himself high in the male hierarchy of the community.
“After that wrestling match, Jack Armstrong and his crowd became Mr. Lincoln’s warmest friends and staunchest supporters,” New Salem resident Robert B. Rutledge recalled.
Abraham Lincoln: Bowler and pool player
Professional sports other than horse racing were non-existent during the Civil War era. But hobbies back then included baseball and other games that flourish today with professional leagues, including bowling and billiards.
Lincoln was known to have spent time bowling “ten pin” bowling. The sport began to take root in the United States in the early 19and century and was gaining popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, with the earliest surviving indoor bowling alleys dating back to 1846.
He was also known to have played billiards. In the best-known match, it is said that the stories Lincoln told while playing entertained his spectators more than his skill with the cue.
READ MORE: Oval Office Athletes: The Presidents and the Sports They Played
Did Abraham Lincoln Really Play Baseball?
Lincoln’s connection to baseball, however, is indirect. And a hallmark of American mythology is the notion that Lincoln was a patriarch of “America’s pastime.”
After all, even before he became president, Lincoln was depicted in an 1860 Currier and Ives political cartoon depicting him with three opponents with baseball bats. The title reads: “The National Game. Three “Outs” and one “Run”. Abraham winning the ball.
Lincoln stands on “Home Base”, holding a bat almost twice the size of a regular bat that bears the words “Equal Rights and Free Territory”. Lincoln is shown reminding the other men that “you must have ‘a good bat’ and hit a ‘good ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ and a ‘home run’.”
Lincoln, however, never wrote or spoke about baseball and there is no documented record of him ever playing the game. But the wackiest of mythological tales about Lincoln and the sport has him playing baseball, not “Fives,” in that vacant lot in Springfield when news of his appointment broke. As the myth goes, Lincoln was literally at bat when word arrived and told the news runner to wait while he finished his turn at the plate.
Regardless, Lincoln was physically strong throughout his life, Holzer said.
“My favorite story of Lincoln’s athleticism dates back to his last trip back to Washington after a visit to the military front in the spring of 1865,” says Holzer. “Sitting on the deck of his steamer for the return trip with a group of friends and observers, the President saw an ax lying nearby, which was there for emergency use in the event of a fire. , grabbed it and extended his right arm parallel to the bridge while holding the ax by its butt with two fingers.
“Knocking it down with a thud, he asked if anyone else could match the feat. Even the young men on board couldn’t do it. It was a trick that Lincoln performed repeatedly as president when, if you believe the rumors and myths, he was fading or even dying from an assortment of alleged illnesses.
In fact, says Holzer, Lincoln was “what today we would call ‘ripped'” – even though he didn’t excel in several sports.