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Base Balls and Ballots: The National Pastime and Illinois Politics during Abraham Lincoln's Time

By Stacy Pratt McDermott, November 19, 2012
The National Game, Library of Congress

On July 25, 1860, members of the Excelsior Base Ball Club met on their grounds in Chicago to settle a political argument. The purpose of the meeting was a base ball game between players who supported the presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln and those who supported Stephen A. Douglas. The club had been playing base ball in the city since at least 1858. The players, mostly in their 20s, represented an upwardly mobile group of young men who hoped to channel their energy and enthusiasm for the coming presidential election through their prowess on the ball field.

Lincoln vs. Douglas 
Chicago Press & Tribune, July 23, 1860

Lincoln and Douglas had very recently earned the nominations of their respective political parties, and the political atmosphere in Chicago, which had hosted the Republican Party’s raucous convention just weeks before, was charged with excitement as people took sides over which would be president. The newspaper headline announcing the game read, “Lincoln vs. Douglas—Nine Against Nine,” and the editors noted that they had “no authority for saying that the event of this match will decide the Presidential contest, but it will be a spirited affair on both sides.”

Today people frequently employ the language of sport in political contexts, and modern baseball has become synonymous with American ideals. But is it possible that these now comfortable connections between baseball and American identity were rooted in the political environment of the late 1850s and could have emerged directly from Lincoln’s Illinois?

On July 24, a warm summer afternoon, 18 base ball players took the field on the Excelsior Club’s grounds at the corner of Lake and Ann (now Racine) streets in Chicago. The field was in a bustling urban environment just four blocks south of the Galena & Chicago Union railroad line and just east of the newly established Union Park. Billed as a “political match between the nine Lincoln and the nine Douglas men,” the game attracted 1,200 spectators, perhaps the biggest base ball crowd assembled in Chicago up to that time. The Douglas players won 16–14, and Chicago’s Republican newspaper reported the next day, “Never mind, Lincoln boys, there’s victory in store where Douglas will make no ‘runs.’ He is a lame ‘short stop,’ and has been ‘caught out.’” The base ball language in this newspaper report is familiar today, and fans at the time would have recognized it, too. The writer assumed his readers would understand that it meant Douglas would make no runs in the coming presidential election, that he was a lame short stop, and that he would be “caught out” in the end. By the summer of 1860, base ball had established itself in Chicago. 


Political Base Ball Match 
Chicago Press & Tribune, July 25, 1860
The first recorded game in Illinois was played in August 1851 between teams from Lockport and Joliet, south of Chicago. The Union Club Base Ball Team, founded in 1856, was probably the earliest organized club in Chicago. City newspapers began reporting on base ball games as early as the summer of 1858. 

Early Baseball is from Preston D. Orem, Baseball, 1845-1881 
Newspaper Accounts (Altadena, CA: Preston D. Orem, 1961), p. 24

Base ball games during the late 1850s were festive public events that hundreds of spectators attended. The games were organized, well publicized, and well attended, with some 500 spectators watching a contest in June 1859. Spectators enjoyed their time at games, especially those billed as championship matches between the city’s best teams, and they also appreciated the athletic abilities of the “first-class players.” The ball clubs lured spectators by providing accommodations like tents erected “for the benefit of the ladies,” who often were among the spectators, and on at least one occasion a club provided that the Madison Street omnibus ran to and from the field every half hour. 

The advance organization, the publication of game notices, the assembly of tents at games, and the establishment of public transportation are evidence of base ball’s importance in the burgeoning city. Base ball clubs went to some expense to host games, and spectators were willing to travel from home to watch. Base ball had established itself as an identifiable part of the city’s emerging identity. When a group of distinguished visitors from Cincinnati came to Chicago on a trade mission in June 1859, the committee in charge of arranging activities and outings for the group scheduled a boat excursion on Lake Michigan, a fireworks display, a train ride on one of the city’s busy railroads, visits to some of the city’s grandest buildings, a trip to an art exhibit, and a base ball game, Chicagoans wanted to reveal the identity of the city, and base ball was part of that effort.

The proliferation of printed reports of games is also indicative of Chicago’s enthusiasm for the sport. As early as September 14, 1858, the Chicago Press & Tribune was printing box scores. These included names of the players, the runs each scored, and a tally of the final score. Accompanying them were lively details about the games played and activities that followed them. Such reports shared space in the newspapers with political reporting, world news, and coverage of the legal system. As people were keeping track of local and national events, they were reading the ball scores as well.

During the late 1850s, more and more young men began playing the game. More base ball clubs formed. More and more spectators attended. Historians have long been aware of the obsession of base ball by players and enthusiasts in New York and Massachusetts during this time period, but none has acknowledged the establishment of the game in the Midwest in the late 1850s. During the 1858 and 1859 seasons, there were at least six established base ball clubs playing regularly in Chicago. By the end of 1860, there were at least 14 in the area. There was also an established team downstate in Springfield.

Base ball offered a leisurely outlet for young men in an urban environment who lacked athletic opportunities. It was promoted in the context of a rising interest in physical education and the importance of physical activity in the development of a masculine character and identity. When the Columbia Base Ball Club was formed in May 1859, it announced that it would “serve to increase the stock of muscle in the possession of quiet, respectable citizens.” In June of that season when the Excelsior and Atlantic base ball clubs scheduled a game, the newspaper reported that both clubs were “practicing vigorously.” The paper also said it was “pleased to notice the growing interest in this truly American game; believing that if extensively practiced, it would do much towards the physical improvement of the young men of our city.”

The report illustrates how the game functioned as a social tool for the development of respectable citizens, connecting base ball to citizenship. The language of this early sports reporting revealed a persistently growing enthusiasm for the game. Already being touted in Chicago as “truly American,” base ball was emerging as the nation’s pastime. This early connection was also evidenced by the names of new Chicago clubs in 1860 such as Union, Wide Awake, and Young America. Team names like these also were prevalent in New York, as were the names Eagle, National, and Liberty. Antebellum Americans were drawing direct correlations between base ball and American symbols and ideals; and base ball fields, like the Excelsior Club grounds in Chicago, were becoming sites for the public expression of community spirit and American nationalism.

No event in antebellum America offered more evidence of American identity than a political campaign. Given that base ball was becoming a part of the community’s identity, it is not surprising that the Excelsior Base Ball Club would merge two passions: politics and base ball. At the time that the club made plans for its political base ball game, Chicago was a growing metropolis with more than 112,000 residents. It was a city bursting with physical development, economic growth, and political vitality. The Republican Party’s choice of Chicago for its national convention that year put the city on the political map and infused it with energy.

On May 15, the eve of the convention, 25,000 party supporters crowded into the downtown area of Chicago. Fireworks, cannon fire, and alcohol contributed to the festive atmosphere as the city celebrated the coming of the campaign season. A month later, on June 18 in Baltimore, Stephen A. Douglas won the nomination of his divided Democratic Party, and Chicagoans must have appreciated the unlikely scenario of two Illinois men battling for the nation’s highest office. 

It was in the context of the spirited atmosphere of the campaign season that the Lincoln and Douglas base ball players met on July 24. For the Excelsior players that summer afternoon, the game was an extension of their identities as Democrats and Republicans. The field itself functioned as a common ground on which they exhibited their American identity while confronting their political differences in the spirit of athletic competition. Fortunately for Abraham Lincoln, the loss suffered by the young base ball players who supported his candidacy did not foreshadow the presidential election in November. But base ball, certainly, had arrived on the national stage.

Shortly after Lincoln’s election, Currier and Ives published a political cartoon entitled “The National Game. Three ‘Outs’ and One ‘Run, Abraham Winning the Ball.’” The cartoon depicted a victorious Lincoln and his defeated opponents, John Bell, Stephen Douglas, and John Breckinridge. The cartoon captures base ball terminology of the time, most of which remains with us today. All four men in the cartoon are wearing belts and holding bats that reveal their political identity and campaign positions: “Union Club” and “Fusion” for Bell; “Little Giant” and “Non-intervention” for Douglas; and “Disunion Club” and “Slavery Extension” for Breckinridge. Lincoln’s belt reads “Wide Awake Club,” and his bat, fashioned as a rail, reads “Equal Rights and Free Territory.”

American National Game of Baseball (Currier & Ives)
Library of Congress

This was the first political cartoon to use base ball imagery. The use of the sport in popular print to summarize the results of a presidential election is strong evidence that base ball was established in American culture by 1860. The artist recognized the sport’s status as the national game and drew a direct connection between the nation’s two favorite sports. Both politics and base ball illustrated the competitive spirit of the era and offered players and spectators an outlet for the creative expression of their developing individual and American identities. By extension, base ball fields provided the locale at which those identities were reinforced and expanded. 

So maybe it is possible that the familiar connections we make today between baseball and American identity really are rooted in the exuberant political environment of the late 1850s and did emerge directly from Lincoln’s Illinois.



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