During Abraham Lincoln’s final year in Springfield, Illinois, in 1860, before he was elected America's 16th president, folks would sometimes observe him in shirtsleeves, engaged in a fast-paced 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 19th century version of handball. Here, the prominent local lawyer and rising politician, soon to become one of America’s greatest presidents, could set aside the rigors of work, let off some steam and trade some volleys in athletic competition.
Using their hands, players swatted 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 since candidates back then did not attend the conventions.
Contrary to some accounts, however, he was not playing the game when the news arrived of his nomination. And just 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 adversary could send it to the wall,” said Dr. Preston H. Bailhache, the Lincoln family doctor.
But William Donnelly, a Springfield resident who was known as the unofficial custodian of the “Fives” court, said Lincoln “was not a good player. He learned the game when he was too old. But he liked to play and did tolerably well.”
Lincoln was 51 in 1860 and the fact that he was playing handball at that age is a testament to his athleticism, which of course was even more evident in his younger years.
“There is no question but that he was athletic—the result of years on the prairie tilling fields, cutting down trees and splitting rails,” says Lincoln scholar and author Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Lincoln Forum. “Rather uniquely among aspiring adult males of his era, Lincoln stayed ‘in shape.’”
As a young man, “Lincoln ran, wrestled, and lifted heavy objects with the best of them—and was usually served as end man in tugs-of-war,” says Holzer, the author, co-author or editor of more than 50 books on Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln: A Wrestler As Young Man
Most notable among Lincoln’s athletic endeavors as a young man was wrestling. He competed 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 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 front doors of the Hall of Fame museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Lincoln, “an awesome physical specimen at 6-feet-4, was widely known for his wrestling skills and had only one recorded defeat in a dozen years,” says the Hall of Fame’s tribute.
The best-known story about Lincoln and wrestling dates to 1830, shortly after he had 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, didn’t drink and was fond of reading books. Lincoln soon found himself agreeing to wrestle Jack Armstrong, leader of the gang and the toughest of that rowdy bunch 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 wrestled 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 this wresting match Jack Armstrong and his crowd became the warmest friends and staunchest supporters of Mr. Lincoln,” recalled New Salem resident Robert B. Rutledge.
Abraham Lincoln: Bowler and Billiards Player
Professional sports other than horse racing were non-existent in the Civil War era. But recreation at the time did include baseball and other games that flourish today with professional leagues, including bowling and billiards.
Lincoln was known to have spent some recreation time bowling “ten pins,” The sport began to take root in American in the early 19th century and was growing in popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, with the earliest indoor bowling lanes that still survive today dating to 1846.
He also was known to have played billiards. In the best-known match, it is said that the stories Lincoln told while playing entertained his onlookers more than his skill with the cue.
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 and three adversaries 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 carries the words, “Equal Rights and Free Territory.” Lincoln is shown reminding the other men that “you must have ‘a good bat’ and stroke a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ & 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 most outlandish of the mythological tales about Lincoln and sports has him playing baseball, not “Fives,” in that vacant lot in Springfield when word arrived of his nomination. As the myth goes, Lincoln was literally at bat when word arrived and told the news bearer to wait while he finished his turn at the plate.
In any event, Lincoln was physically strong throughout his life, Holzer said.
“My favorite story of Lincoln’s athleticism dates to his final voyage back to Washington after a visit to the military front in the spring of 1865,” Holzer says. “Sitting on the deck of his steamboat for the return voyage with a group of friends and observers, the president spied an axe lying nearby, which was there for emergency use in case of fire, took hold of it and extended his right arm parallel to the deck while holding the axe at its tip with two fingers.
“Bringing it down with a thud, he asked if anyone else could equal the feat. Not even the young men on board could do it. This was a trick Lincoln performed on several occasions as President when, if you believe rumors and myths, he was fading, or even dying from an assortment of alleged diseases.”
In fact, says Holzer, Lincoln was “what we would describe today as ‘ripped’”—even if he didn't excel at multiple sports.