During Abraham Lincoln’s senior year in Springfield, Illinois, in 1860, before being elected to America’s 16e President, people sometimes observed him in shirtsleeves, playing a quick game of “five” with other young men in a vacant lot near the public square.
The brick wall of the adjacent building was the perfect place to view this 19. to playe century version of handball. Here, the prominent local lawyer and up-and-coming politician, soon to become one of America’s greatest presidents, could put aside the rigors of work, let off some steam, and trade some volleys in athletic competition.
Using their hands, players hit the ball against the wall, alternating shots until one missed the rebound. During the three days of the Republican National Convention in Chicago from May 16-18, 1860, there are credible accounts of Lincoln playing “Fives” on each of the days in Springfield, as candidates did not attend the conventions at the time.
Contrary to some stories, however, he did not play the game when news of his nomination came in. And how good he was at “Fives” is a matter of contention.
Lincoln’s “long arms and long legs served a good purpose in reaching and returning the ball from any angle his opponent could send toward the wall,” said Dr. Preston H. Bailhache, Lincoln’s family physician.
But William Donnelly, a Springfield resident known as the unofficial custodian of the “Fives” court, 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 was playing handball at that age is testament to his athleticism, which was, of course, even more evident in his younger years.
“There’s no question that he was athletic — the result of years on the prairie tilling fields, cutting down trees and splitting rails,” said Lincoln scientist and author Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Lincoln Forum. “Quite unique among the ambitious grown men of his day, Lincoln stayed ‘in shape’.”
As a young man, “Lincoln ran, wrestled, and lifted heavy objects with the best of them — and usually served as a tug-of-war,” says Holzer, the author, co-author, or editor of more than 50 books about Lincoln.
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Abraham Lincoln: A Wrestler as a Young Man
Most notable among Lincoln’s athletic endeavors as a young man was wrestling. He took part in wrestling matches for more than a decade of his youth and rarely lost. His abilities were formally recognized by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, which introduced him to the sport as an “Outstanding American” in 1992. A mural of Lincoln involved in a wrestling match graces the wall just inside the front doors of the Hall of Fame museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Lincoln, “an amazing physique at six feet tall, was widely known for his wrestling skills and had only one defeat in 12 years,” says the Hall of Fame tribute.
The best-known story about Lincoln and wrestling dates back to 1830, shortly after he moved to New Salem, Illinois. A group of tough and rugged young men, the Clary’s Grove gang, tested the 22-year-old newcomer, who, unlike them, did not drink and loved to read books. Lincoln soon found himself agreeing to wrestle Jack Armstrong, leader of the gang and the toughest of that rowdy gang, from the nearby settlement of Clary’s Grove.
Some accounts have Lincoln “throwing” Armstrong and winning the match; others say Lincoln is lost; still others say they struggled to a stalemate. Regardless, he exonerated himself well, earned the respect of Armstrong and his followers, and established himself high in the male hierarchy of the community.
“After this wrestling match, Jack Armstrong and his audience became Mr. Lincoln’s warmest friends and staunchest supporters,” recalls New Salem resident Robert B. Rutledge.
Abraham Lincoln: Bowler and billiard player
Professional sports other than horse racing did not exist in the Civil War era. But recreation back then did include baseball and other games that are thriving today with professional leagues including bowling and billiards.
Lincoln was known to spend some recreational time bowling “ten pins.” The sport began to take root in America in the early 19th century.e century and grew in popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, with the earliest indoor bowling alleys still in existence dating back to 1846.
He was also known to have played billiards. In the most famous game, 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: Presidents and the Sports They Played
Did Abraham Lincoln really play baseball?
Lincoln’s connection to baseball, however, is circumstantial. And a feature of American mythology is the idea 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 and three opponents with baseball bats. The title is: “The National Game. Three ‘Outs’ and one ‘Run’. Abraham wins the ball.”
Lincoln stands on “Home Base” holding a bat almost twice the size of a regular bat with the words “Equal Rights and Free Territory.” Lincoln reminds the other men that “you have to have a ‘good bat’ and strike a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ and a ‘home run’.”
However, Lincoln never wrote or talked about baseball and there is no documented record that he ever played the game. But the most bizarre of Lincoln’s mythological tales and sports let him play basketball, not “Fives,” on that vacant lot in Springfield when word of his nomination came in. As the myth goes, Lincoln was literally on the job when the message came in, telling the news bearer to wait while finishing his turn on the record.
In any case, Lincoln was physically strong all his life, Holzer said.
“My favorite story about Lincoln’s athletics dates from his last trip back to Washington after a visit to the military front in the spring of 1865,” Holzer says. “Sitting on the deck of his steamer for the return journey with a group of friends and observers, the President saw an ax lying nearby, which was there for emergency use in case of fire, grabbed it and stretched his right arm parallel to the deck while you hold the ax by the tip with two fingers.
He brought it down with a thud and asked if anyone else could match the feat. Even the young men on board couldn’t. This was a trick Lincoln performed as president on several occasions when, if you believe rumors and myths, he faded or even died of a series of alleged illnesses.
In fact, Holzer says, Lincoln was “what we would describe today as ‘ripped'” — even if he didn’t excel at multiple sports.