Monday, April 14, 2014

BASE BALL MATCH - White House Lawn

By the time Lincoln took office, a New York volunteer firefighter with the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12 had already drawn up the rules on which our modern game of baseball is based, and more than 50 baseball teams were in existence. That firefighter and bank clerk, Alexander Cartwright, had laid out the field in a diamond-shape, created foul territories, limited defense to nine players and games to nine innings, and prohibited the practice of throwing balls at runners for outs. Imagine Aroldis Chapman or Stephen Strasburg throwing baseballs at runners - they'd kill someone!

Lincoln's passion for baseball is shrouded in mythology. However, there is much credible evidence that he was, in fact, a fan of the game and that not only did he play in his hometown of Springfield, but he continued to play and watch when he arrived to Washington in 1861. Baseball was played on a part of the White House lawn known as the "White Lot," now called the "Ellipse," where baseball, among other games, is still played.
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A grandson of Francis Preston Blair, he of Blair House (the official state guest house) fame, said:
"We boys hailed [Lincoln's] coming with delight because he would always join us on the lawn. I remember vividly how he ran, how long were his strides, how his coattails stuck out behind." 
I marvel at stories of presidents roaming Washington without the army of security that must follow them these days. The White House had no fence around it when Lincoln was in office, so access to the White Lot was easy. Of course, we all know what happened at Ford's Theater and how security measures became necessary, but sometimes when I happen to walk by the White House, I wonder how it would be to see POTUS wandering around the yard instead of being trapped inside.

During his campaign in 1860, a political cartoon showed Lincoln standing on home plate, ball in hand, saying, "You must have a good bat and strike a fair ball to make a clean score and homerun." His bat, which is actually a fence rail, says, "Equal rights and fair territory."

Washington had two baseball teams at the time, the Nationals and the Potomacs, made up of mostly government clerks until the war began. One of the Nationals' founders, Arthur Gorman, was a Senate staffer who later became a Senator from Maryland. The Nationals played at the Capitol grounds while the Potomacs played on the White Lot. The first match between the two teams was played on the White Lot on May 5, 1860, with the Nationals routing the Potomacs 35-15.

We have the Civil War to thank for baseball becoming the national pastime; soldiers arriving from New York, where Cartwright's rules had become standard, played Washington teams, and by most accounts, crushed them. Some say the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry was born on the fields in Washington. An announcement in the National Republican on June 28, 1861, informed:

"BASE BALL MATCH - There will be a match played at Camp Wool on tomorrow afternoon at 4 o'clock, between the first nine of the Baldwin B.B. Club (Co. D) and the first nine of the Steers B.B. Club (Co. E). Those interested in the noble game of base ball are invited to witness the contest. As the above clubs are composed of some of the best players of Brooklyn and New York, it is expected that the game will be very interesting."

Whole baseball teams sometimes enlisted together, ensuring games were competitive. The game was so popular that the owners of the Willard's and Ebbitt's taverns worried they would lose business to baseball. These establishments were the predecessors to today's famous Willard Hotel and Old Ebbitt Grill. Their worries were obviously unfounded.

I imagine Lincoln would have been a White Sox fan had Major League Baseball existed during his time. While it could have been possible to be a Cubs or Cardinals fan given his Springfield locale, I think The Railsplitter would have followed a team associated with the working class. But I'm sure he saw his fair share of Nationals and Potomacs games.

Though supplies were scarce during the war, and fence poles and rolled up rags were often used as bats and balls, baseball sustained the soldiers' morale, doing for them what the game still does for us today - give us momentary respite from the travails of our daily lives.

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