abraham lincoln, the athlete -- 10/19/18

Today's selection -- from A History of American Sports in 100 Objects by Cait Murphy. Abraham Lincoln, the athlete:

"In his early days in New Salem, Indiana, Abraham Lincoln made his name among the tough Clary Grove gang by wrestling their leader, Jack Armstrong, to a draw.

"That was the first of many matches; Lincoln lost only once in 12 years, as far as the US Wrestling Hall of Fame can determine. Indeed, young Lincoln was known for two things: his character and his strength.

"Like many an accomplished sportsman, Lincoln had attitude. After winning one wrestling match with in­different ease, he is said to have shouted to the crowd, 'Any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!' Lincoln was also an excellent runner and jumper, the latter no doubt helped by his unusual height. His friends were awed by his strength; one contemporary described him as 'a Hercules."'

In the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election,
Abraham Lincoln and his friends used this handball in heated
contests in a Springfield, Illinois, alley.

"As a grown man in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's favorite athletic activity was a handball game known as 'fives,' played against a brick wall in an alley near his law office. One of his opponents described the scene: 'Here is where "Old Abe" was always champion, for his 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.' Another observer was less complimentary, saying that Lincoln's 'suppleness, leaps, and strides to strike the ball were comical in the extreme.'

"Lincoln was not out for style points, however. He liked the competition, and a rousing game of fives was also a good way to relieve the stress of life with his wife, Mary Todd; the law; and politics. So it is not altogether surprising that in May 1860, with the presidential nominating convention going on in Chicago, he went down to the alley for a game. On the first ballot, William Seward of New York took the most votes, with Lincoln second. On the second ballot, Lincoln narrowed the gap. The suspense muse have been excruciating.

"When the messenger came with the results of the third ballot, Lincoln opened the telegram, read the news, and didn't finish the game. Instead, he headed home, saying, 'There is a little woman down on Eighth Street who will be glad to hear this news.' The ball in this picture may not be the exact one Lincoln played with as he waited for word from Chicago, but it certainly could be. It was found in a dresser in his home, and when Lincoln left Springfield after the election, he never returned alive."

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Cait Murphy


A History of American Sports in 100 Objects


Basic Books


Copyright 2016 by Cait Murphy


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