Baseball and Ballots: The Nation's Pastime and Politics Intermingled in 1860

Feb 1, 2012

On July 25, 1860, members of the Excelsior Base Ball Club met on their baseball grounds in Chicago to settle a political argument. The purpose of the meeting was a baseball game between players who supported the presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln and those who supported Stephen A. Douglas. Mostly in their 20s, the club’s players represented an upwardly mobile group of young Chicago residents who hoped to channel their energy and enthusiasm for the coming presidential election through their athletic prowess on the baseball field. 

At the time the club made plans for its political baseball game, Chicago was a growing metropolis with more than 112,000 residents. It was bursting at the seams 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. The April convention had brought 25,000 party supporters into the downtown area. Fireworks, cannon fire and alcohol contributed to the festive atmosphere, and the city celebrated the coming of the campaign season. A month later, 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. 

No event in antebellum America offered more evidence of the nation’s identity than a political campaign. And given that baseball was already becoming a part of Chicago’s identity, it is not surprising that the Excelsior Base Ball Club would merge those two passions. 

For the Excelsior baseball players, that summer afternoon game was an extension of their identities as Democrats and Republicans. The baseball field functioned as a common ground on which they exhibited a connection to their team, their city and their nation while they confronted their political differences in the spirit of athletic competition. A newspaper headline announcing the game read: “Lincoln vs. Douglas — Nine Against Nine.” 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.” For baseball fans in Chicago, the game seemed a natural extension of the national political contest in which their home state was playing such a pivotal role.

Baseball games in Chicago in the late 1850s were festive, well-attended public events. Spectators enjoyed their time at games, especially those games billed as championship matches between the city’s best teams with “first class players.” During the 1858 and 1859 baseball seasons, there were already at least six well-established baseball clubs playing regularly in Chicago. These clubs competed with each other for attention, sometimes incurring great expense to draw crowds. They lured spectators from across the city by providing transportation to games and offering such accommodations as tents erected “for the benefit of the ladies” who were often among the spectators. Baseball was establishing itself as a significant 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 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 Chicago’s grandest buildings, a trip to an art exhibit and a baseball game. 

Therefore, it seemed only natural that a baseball club in Chicago would schedule a public game to serve as a platform for a political debate of sorts. Eighteen baseball players took the field that day on the Excelsior Club’s grounds at the corner of Lake and Ann (now Racine) streets. Twelve hundred spectators attended, probably the biggest baseball crowd ever assembled in Chicago up to that time. While the sport and politics merged on that day, baseballs did not translate directly into ballots. The Douglas players scored 16 runs, edging the Lincoln players by two. Fortunately for Abraham Lincoln, the loss suffered by the young baseball players who supported his candidacy did not foreshadow the presidential election in November. As the Press and Tribune, Chicago’s Republican newspaper, prophetically 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 baseball language in that newspaper article is familiar to us today, and the report demonstrated that readers at the time were familiar with it, too. The writer assumed that his readers would understand what it meant that 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. The proliferation of printed reports of games was also indicative of Chicago’s knowledge about and enthusiasm for baseball. As early as September 14, 1858, the Chicago Press and Tribune was printing box scores, which included the names of the players participating and their individual run tallies. Accompanying the box scores were lively details about the games 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 baseball clubs formed, and more and more people attended games as spectators. Sporting journalism helped facilitate the popularity of the game in Chicago. News coverage of sporting events was not new, as newspapers had covered horse racing, cricket matches, boxing, circus performances and other pastimes since at least the 1830s. Early fans of baseball in Chicago could keep track of their favorite clubs in the Chicago Press and Tribune and the Chicago Democrat. Baseball was a favorite leisure activity for players and for spectators, and by the end of 1860, there were at least 14 baseball clubs in Chicago and established teams in Lockport, Joliet, Downers Grove and Springfield.

Baseball offered a leisurely outlet for young men in an urban environment that lacked athletic opportunities. The game 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. When the Columbia Base Ball Club formed in May 1859, it announced that it would “serve to increase the stock of muscle in the possession of quiet, respectable citizens.” When the Excelsior and Atlantic baseball clubs scheduled a game in June of that same season, the Press and Tribune reported that 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.”

Enthusiasm for this “truly American” sport was persistently growing, and its connection to American nationalism was too. This early connection was also evidenced by the names of new Chicago clubs in 1860, such as Union, Wide Awake and Young America. Antebellum Americans were drawing direct correlations between baseball and American symbols and ideals, and baseball fields such as the Excelsior Club grounds in Chicago were, by extension, becoming sites for the public expression of community spirit and American nationalism. After early baseball games, the players stayed to give speeches, make jokes and sing. Their masculine, athletic identity as baseball players in the afternoon coalesced with their social and political identity as they extended the festivities into the evening. 

Today, people frequently employ the language of sport in a political context, and modern baseball has become synonymous with American ideals. But is it possible that those 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? Clearly, on the eve of the Civil War, Chicagoans understood that baseball was a natural expression of local, political and national identity. By the late 1850s, athletic and masculine perceptions about sports were becoming connected to politics. Baseball was emerging as a national pastime, something about the sport inspiring the connection that the political context of the late 1850s solidified.

Shortly after Lincoln’s election to the presidency, Currier and Ives published a political cartoon titled, “The National Game: Three ‘Outs’ and One ‘Run,’ Abraham Winning the Ball.” The cartoon depicted a victorious Abraham Lincoln and his defeated opponents John Bell, Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge. The drawing captured baseball terminology of the time, most of which remains with us today. All four men in the cartoon were wearing belts and holding bats that revealed their political identities and campaign positions — “Union Club” and “Fusion” for John Bell; “Little Giant” and “Non-intervention” for Douglas; and “Disunion Club” and “Slavery Extension” for Breckinridge. Abraham Lincoln’s belt read “Wide Awake Club,” and his bat, fashioned as a rail, read “Equal Rights and Free Territory.” In the cartoon, John Bell said: “It appears to me very singular that we three should strike ‘foul’ and be ‘put out’ while old Abe made such a ‘good lick.’” Douglas responded: “That’s because he had that confounded rail to strike with. I thought our fusion would be a ‘short stop’ to his career.” Breckinridge, holding his nose, exclaimed: “I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think that we are completely ‘skunked.’” And Lincoln, holding the ball and standing on “home base” as the “game winner,” concluded: “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have ‘a good bat’ and strike a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ & a ‘home run.’” 

This was the first political cartoon to use baseball imagery. The use of the sport in a popular drawing to summarize the results of a presidential election is strong evidence that baseball was established in the American culture by 1861. By using baseball to comment on the election, the artist recognized the sport’s status as a national pastime and drew a direct connection between the nation’s two favorite sports. Both politics and baseball illustrated the competitive spirit of the era and offered to players and spectators an outlet for the creative expression of their developing individual and American identities. By extension, baseball fields provided the locale at which those identities were both reinforced and expanded. 

The Excelsior Base Ball Club players in Chicago knew this. The spectators who watched their “political” game that summer day in 1860 understood this. And the newspapers who covered the game appreciated it, too. Clearly, the now familiar connections we make today between baseball and American identity are rooted at least in part in the exuberant political environment of the late 1850s in Lincoln’s Illinois and in the presidential election of 1860, which elevated one of the state’s favorite sons to the nation’s highest political office. 

Stacy Pratt McDermott is the assistant director/associate editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a project of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. She has written articles and books on Lincoln, race, legal history and 19th century America, including The Jury in Lincoln’s America (Ohio University Press, 2012). 

Illinois Issues, February 2012