Lincoln and Baseball

By the time of the Civil War, baseball, in a recognizable form, had been played, for at least twenty years. The most common rules at the time were known as the ‘Knickerbocker’ rules, published in 1845 by an early New York team of that name. Here are some of the rules, showing similarities to today’s game (numbers are from the original rule book):

Rule 4 - The bases shall be from "home" to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third base, forty-two paces, equidistant.


This rule created the basic diamond shape of the ball field. 42 paces is somewhere between 75 and 90 feet. The current 90 feet dimension was adopted a few years later in 1857.

Rule 9 - The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.

At that time, pitching was underhanded. Overhand pitching was officially adopted later in the 1800’s.

Rule 10 - A ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of the first and third base, is foul.

This rule is still in force today. Counting a foul ball as a strike was implemented in the early 1900’s.

Rule 11 - Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand-out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.

For its one, two, three strikes you’re out, is a long standing rule. And if the catcher drops the third strike, the batter can run to first, same as today.

Rule 12 - If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.

Catching the ball on the fly or after one bounce constitutes an out. Later in the 1800’s, rules were changed so that only catching the ball on the fly was an out.

Rule 13 - A player running the bases shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes his base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him.

This rule establishes that you have to tag the runner or the base for an out. It prohibited an earlier practice where you could throw the ball at the runner and hit them for an out.

Rule 15 - Three hands out, all out

This rule defines an inning as 3 outs.

In those days Presidential candidates did not attend their party’s nominating convention. After receiving the Presidential nomination at the Republican convention, Lincoln’s supporters went to inform him. Supposedly Lincoln said, “I am glad to hear of their coming, but they will have to wait a few minutes until I get my turn at bat.”


I imagine Lincoln could have been a quite good ballplayer. He was tall, still the tallest man ever to be President. All those years he used an ax to split rails would have built up strength and eye-hand coordination. In the small town of Postville, Illinois, there is a historical marker referring to Lincoln playing a version of baseball. Some historians have claimed that Lincoln played baseball near the White House while President. Baseball grew in popularity during the Civil War. The White House history website  reports that “The president and son Tad watched a baseball game between the Quartermaster’s Department and the Commissary Department” in the summer of 1862 “from a spot along the first base line, cheering with their fellow fans and also receiving an ovation from the crowd.”

After winning the Presidential election in 1860 in a four-way contest,  a magazine published this cartoon picturing the candidates in baseball uniforms of the day. Lincoln is standing at home plate.

lincoln baseball cartoon.jpg

From the left:

·       John Bell, Constitutional Party It appears to me very singular that we three should strike “foul” and be “put out” while old Abe made such a “good lick”.

·       Stephen Douglas, Northern Democrat That’s because he had that confounded rail, to strike with. I thought our fusion would be a “short stop” to his career.

·       John Breckinridge, Southern Democrat I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think that we are completely “skunked.” His bat says ‘slavery extension.’

·       Abraham Lincoln, Republican 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.” Lincoln’s bat says ‘equal rights and free territory.”

So there you have it. Another reason to rank Lincoln as our nation’s best President: he was the first Presidential baseball player and fan!


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