Original publish date: September 20, 2018
Abraham Lincoln is in the National Handball Hall Of Fame. What, you say? There’s a national handball Hall of Fame? Well, I don’t know if such an entity exists or whether the 16th president is enshrined there. But if it does and he ain’t…he should be. I do know that Lincoln is inducted into the wrestling Hall of Fame, but that’s another story.
Serious Lincoln fans have likely heard a reference to the “alley by the journal office” a few times over the years but may not know much about it. Abraham Lincoln was known to be a sportsman for most of his life in an age when organized sports were hard to find. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard about Lincoln’s prowess as a wrestler and extraordinary strength as a young man. He was known to “roll ten pins” (bowling) and play billiards and chess but admitted that he never excelled at any of them. Mr. Lincoln engaged in these games for exercise and amusement, both physically and mentally. During play he routinely regaled those present with jokes, western anecdotes and stories which made him popular with opponents and teammates alike.
Likewise, you may have heard that he was a handball player, as have I, but details have always been hard to find. The game of handball was much better suited to Lincoln. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, his long legs and gangly arms served the rail splitter well. Muscles honed while wielding an axe as a youth were kept tight and toned as an adult. Lincoln milked his own cows and chopped his own wood even though he was a successful, affluent lawyer with little time to spare.
In the years before Lincoln was elected president he was a successful Springfield lawyer and often played handball in an alley by the Illinois state journal newspaper office to ease his stress load. The paper occupied a three-story building at 116 N. Sixth Street. The building next door immediately south was a three-story building that housed a store operated by John Carmody. The next building south was known as the Logan building, owned by Judge Stephen T. Logan.
The large vacant lot between these two buildings was the site of the storied impromptu handball court used by lawyer Lincoln and his friends. The brick walls of the Carmody store and Logan building formed at the front and back walls of the handball court and the other two sides were enclosed by wood fences standing 6 to 8 feet high. The fences also had wooden bench seats for visitors watching the matches or for players waiting their turn to take on the winner.
The term handball really didn’t exist in Lincoln’s day. It was called a “game of fives” by Abe and his contemporaries. When Mr. Lincoln went to town, he frequently joined with the boys in playing handball. In the Springfield version, players choose sides to square off against one another. The game is begun by one of the boys bouncing the ball against the wall of the Logan building. As it bounced back, and opponent strikes it in the same manner, so that the ball is kept going back and forth against the wall until someone misses the rebound. ‘Old Abe’ was often the winner, 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. The game required two, four or six players, spread equally on each side. The three players who lost paid 10 ¢ each, making 30 ¢ a game. So as you can imagine the games got pretty serious.
Court clerk Thomas W.S. Kidd spoke of Mr. Lincoln’s love of the game: “In 1859, Zimri A. Enos, Esq., Hon. Chas. A. Keyes, E. L. Baker, Esq., then editor of the Journal, William A. Turney, Esq., Clerk of the Supreme Court, and a number of others, in connection with Mr. Lincoln, had the lot, then an open one, lying between what was known as the United States Court Building, on the northeast corner of the public square, and the building owned by our old friend, Mr. John Carmody, on the alley north of it, on Sixth street, enclosed with a high board fence, leaving a dead wall at either end. In this ‘alley’ could be found Mr. Lincoln, with the gentlemen named and others, as vigorously engaged in the sport as though life depended upon it. He would play until nearly exhausted and then take a seat on the rough board benches arranged along the sides for the accommodation of friends and the tired players.”
In May of 1860 the most noteworthy game of handball in our country’s history took place on this court. The Republican National Convention, held in a woodframe building specifically designed for use known as the “wigwam”, had kicked off in nearby Chicago on May 16th. The Whig party had imploded, the free soilers were migrating and the anti-Catholic populists from the Know Nothing party were flocking to the Republican Party with its anti-slavery message. Even though this promised to be a raucous convention, the eventual GOP nominee, “Abram Lincoln”, decided to stay home and play handball instead. According to Lincoln he, “was too much of a candidate to go to Chicago and not enough of a candidate to stay away.”
Most Lincoln scholars agree that Abe played handball all three days of the convention (May 16 – 18) to relieve stress while waiting for news to arrive by telegraph at the Illinois state journal newspaper offices. The last day of the GOP convention, Friday, May 18, 1865, Lincoln rose bright and early and headed downtown. Although nervous and anxious, Lincoln greeted neighbors and friends on the streets and on the square around the Illinois Capital Building.
At 8:30 a.m. Lincoln nervously visited the second floor office of lawyer James C Conkling located at 119 S. Fifth Street. Mr. Conkling had just returned from Chicago and Lincoln was anxious to hear any news from the convention. Conkling told Lincoln to relax, assuring him that he was sure to be nominated that day. Lincoln however, was not so confident and told Conkling, “Well, Conkling, I guess I’ll go back to my office and practice law.” But here is where the narrative takes a mysterious turn.
Lincoln did not arrive back to his law office until just before 10 am. We know this from accounts of the many well-wishers, friends and supporters who were waiting the arrival of their candidate on the corner of Sixth and Adams on the square. Shortly after ten, Edward L Baker, one of the editors of the Illinois state journal, appeared at the office of Lincoln and Herndon with two bulletins in his hand. The first one announcing that the delegates were filing back into the wigwam; the second, that the names of the candidates for president had been presented to the chairman of the convention.
The initial news was not good. When voting for the nomination began, William H. Seward led on the first ballot with 173 1/2 votes. Lincoln was a distant second tallying 102 votes. There were 465 delegates at the convention, making 233 votes necessary for the nomination. Simon Cameron received 50; Salmon P. Chase got 49, Edwin Bates had 48. Witnesses claimed that, upon hearing the news, Mr Lincoln threw himself upon a horsehair couch in the office without expressing any opinion on the news. By all accounts, Lincoln was very guarded in all of his statements that morning.
After a few minutes, Lincoln arose from the chair and said: “The dispatches appear to be coming to the Journal office… Let us go over there.” When the Lincoln entourage arrived at the foot of the stairway leading to the telegraph office on the north side of the public square, Lincoln said: “Let’s go up; it must be about time for the second ballot.” The results of the second ballot were coming across the tickertape as Lincoln entered the room. The telegraph operator handed the news to Mr. Lincoln. On the second ballot, most of the Pennsylvania delegation jumped over to Lincoln, putting him in a near-tie with Seward (184 for Seward and 181 for Lincoln). Although silent, witnesses remember a look of satisfaction appearing on Lincoln’s face.
News soon arrived that on the third ballot many additional delegates switched to Lincoln, and he won the party’s nomination. Lincoln was nominated and would be elected the nation’s 16th president. He appointed Seward Secretary of State, Cameron Secretary of War, Chase Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates Attorney General.
But where was Lincoln from 8:30 am to 10 am? His longtime friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon was the first to say that Lincoln was playing handball during that period. Henry Wirt Butler confirmed that he was engaged in a game with the candidate at Mr. Lincoln’s request while awaiting news from the convention. When young Mr. Butler was born, Lincoln was a practicing attorney in Springfield living at the home of Mr. Butler’s parents. He had just finished reading the Life of William Wirt and suggested that the baby be named after the former U.S. Attorney General. When the boy whom Lincoln had named grew to be a young man he became a favorite of the Great Emancipator’s and read law for some time in his office. It should be noted that Wirt was barely 20 years old and Lincoln was 51 at the time of the game.
Lincoln’s friend, Dr. Preston H Bailhache, recalled a handball game played on a court built by Patrick Stanley in an ‘alley’ in the rear of his grocery in the Second Ward, which is still standing. “I have sat and laughed many happy hours away watching a game of ball between Lincoln on one side and Hon. Chas. A. Keyes on the other. Mr. Keyes is quite a short man, but muscular, wiry and active as a cat, while his now more distinguished antagonist, as all now know, was tall and a little awkward, but which with much practice and skill in the movement of the ball, together with his good judgment, gave him the greatest advantage. In a very hotly contested game, when both sides were ‘up a stump’ – a term used by the players to indicate an even game – and while the contestants were vigorously watching every movement, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Turney collided with such force that it came very near preventing his nomination to the Presidency, and giving to Springfield a sensation by his death and burial. Both were badly hurt, but not so badly as to discourage either from being found in the ‘alley’ the next day.”
Another eyewitness was the unofficial gatekeeper of the Handball Court, William Donnelly, a nephew of John Carmody. Years later, Donnelly offered this account to a reporter, “I worked in the Carmody store and usually had charge of the ball court. I smoothed the wall and leveled the ground. I made the balls. Old stockings were rolled out and wound into balls and covered with buckskin. Mr. Lincoln was not a good player. He learned the game when he was too old. But he liked to play and did tolerably well. I remember when he was nominated as though it were yesterday. It was the last day of the convention and he was plainly nervous and restless.”
Donnelly continues: “He played handball a good deal during every day of the convention, evidently to relieve the over-strained mind. I was standing down in front of the Carmody store when Edward L. Baker, Charlie Zane (Judge) and one or two others brought word from the telegraph office that he was nominated. It was the bulletin showing the result of the third and last ballot. I naturally followed the crowd upstairs to the editorial room on the second floor. The stairway was in the alley outside the building. The telegram was read and then handed to Mr. Lincoln who read it out aloud again. After a lot of hand shaking, we returned to the street below. Mr. Lincoln appeared anxious to get away. When he came to the entrance of the ball court, the players gathered round, congratulated him and pledged him their support.”
The account continues: “He thanked them, looked at the telegram he had in his hand and said: there’s a little woman over on eighth Street that will be glad to hear the news; if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and tell her. He then left for home. I can see him now as he went away. He leaned forward and walked mighty fast. The boy that went with him had to run almost to keep up with him. Mr. Lincoln never came back to the court or played handball after the day he was nominated. I did not vote for Mr. Lincoln in 1860. There were only three Irishmen who did. They were called Irish Republicans and were regarded as curiosities.”
John Carmody recalled another handball game: “An incident took place, during one of those games, which I have retained clearly in my memory. I had a nephew named Patrick Johnson who was very expert in the game. He struck the ball in such a manner that it hit Mr. Lincoln in the ear. I ran to sympathize with him and asked if he was hurt. He said he was not, and as he said it he reached both of his hands toward the sky. Straining my neck to look up into his face, for he was several inches taller than I was, I said to him, ‘Lincoln, if you are going to heaven, take us both.’”
For years a myth circulated that Abraham Lincoln was playing handball when he was notified that he had received the nomination for President. Obviously that legend must be filed alongside the myth that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg. Neither story is wholly true but there is a grain of truth in each. Lincoln was playing handball at the time the delegates in Chicago were voting and he edited the Gettysburg address on the train.
Historians confirm that Abraham Lincoln never returned to that handball court after that day. Years later, President Lincoln spoke about his athletic prowess on the night of his reelection as President in 1864: “For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dextrous man to throw me.”
In October of 2004, the Smithsonian Institution displayed Abraham Lincoln’s handball as part of their exhibit “Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers.” It’s small (about the size of a tennis ball), dirty and well worn and really, really old. The ball has “No. 2” stamped on the side but it is unclear if the stamp was on the ball when Lincoln handled it or if it was stamped on the side for reference years later. It came from the Lincoln Home in Springfield, where Lincoln lived with his family from 1844 until 1861.
The ball was found in the 1950s in a dresser drawer when Lincoln’s Springfield home was being restored. Smithsonian officials say the descendants of one of the men who played handball with Lincoln donated it to the Lincoln Home. A contemporary newspaper article verified that the ball was indeed one of those used by Lincoln to play handball in the alley. Personally, I have my doubts about the provenance of the Smithsonian’s Lincoln handball, but, for the purposes of this article, we’ll leave that alone for now.
There is one footnote about that handball you won’t find in the Smithsonian’s official literature. On May 18, 1860, while Lincoln was having a friendly neighborhood game of “fives” to calm his nerves, just a few blocks from the Wigwam, on the second night of the convention, the McVicker’s Theater just a few short blocks away was opening “Our American Cousin” -the play Lincoln would be watching at Ford’s Theater his last night on Earth.
Although Assassin John Wilkes Booth was not in the production, he would appear at the McVicker’s 4 times in different productions between 1862 & 1863 while Mr. Lincoln was in the White House. Ironically, the McVickers Theatre was the very first place where actor Harry Hawk began theater work as a call boy, or stagehand. Hawk was the actor on stage alone at the moment of Lincoln’s assassination and likely uttered the last words Mr. Lincoln ever heard. Who knew a well worn piece of leather sports equipment could have so many connections?