Main Content

Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Baseball and the White House in the Nineteenth Century

“Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic!” said poet Walt Whitman in 1889, near the end of a century that saw baseball emerge as an enormously popular spectator sport. “More intriguing than a horse race,” noted historian Eliot Asinof, “more civilized than a boxing bout or a cock fight … a pleasant, even exciting afternoon in the sunlight[.]”1

Swampoodle Grounds, where the Washington Nationals played during 1886-1889.

Architect of the Capitol

In the nation’s capital, amateur and professional baseball games were often played on the grounds just south of the White House, now known as the Ellipse, and popularly known as the “White Lot” because it was enclosed by a whitewashed wooden fence. The White Lot was close to government buildings so federal employees who played baseball could go there directly on late afternoons following work. Local African American teams such as the Washington Mutuals and the Washington Alerts also played games there until use of the area by African American teams was prohibited in 1874.2

The Ellipse, photographed from the Washington Monument, 2010.

Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

President Abraham Lincoln would sometimes slip away from the White House to relieve the tensions and cares of office by watching a game on the White Lot. The president and son Tad watched a baseball game between the Quartermaster’s Department and the Commissary Department in the summer of 1862 “from a spot along the first base line, cheering with their fellow fans and also receiving an ovation from the crowd.”3

Silk ribbons printed with the names of two early baseball teams: “National” and “Athletic, Philadelphia.”

Baseball Ribbons, Edmund F. French Baseball Scrapbook and Memorabilia, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Teams would exchange ribbons following games and wear the ribbons of all teams they had played against during a season on their uniforms during games.

Baseball Ribbons, Edmund F. French Baseball Scrapbook and Memorabilia, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Following the Civil War, the Washington Nationals of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players arose as one of the sport’s influential teams and went on many successful tours of the country. When a competition was organized in 1865 between the Nationals, the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Philadelphia Athletics, President Andrew Johnson was delighted by the plan and set up straight-backed chairs along the first base line of the White Lot so government employees could take time off to watch the games.4

On August 30, 1865 the Nationals and the Atlantics became the first organized sports team to meet a president in the White House when they visited Johnson. When Brooklyn sportswriter Henry Chadwick asked Johnson if he would attend one of the games, the president declined, observing, “You whipped our fellows pretty badly.” The Atlantics had indeed beaten the Nationals the previous day, 33 to 19. 5

Michael J. “King” Kelly (1857-1894) photographed about 1887 when he joined the Boston Beaneaters of the National League.

Library of Congress

John Irwin (1861-1934), third baseman for the Washington Statesmen (later Senators) of the American Association, ca. 1889.

Library of Congress

Throughout the 19th century presidents received baseball teams at the White House. Grover Cleveland was a baseball fan but believed if he watched games people would suppose he was wasting time and not attending to public business. However, he gladly accepted an invitation from Congressman Frank Lawler (Democrat, Illinois) to meet the celebrated Chicago White Stockings in 1886. Chicago catcher Michael “King” Kelly, considered the “reigning sensation in the baseball world” recalled: “President Cleveland wore a Prince Albert coat, tightly buttoned … He was as affable and as courteous as it was possible for a man to be. … The President’s hand was fat and soft. I squeezed it so hard that the President winced. … He said laughingly, that he was so stout then that he didn’t think that there was a fat man’s nine in the country which would care to make him a member. The President didn’t shake hands again when we parted. He remembered the grip of a few minutes before.” 6

Although professional baseball in Washington moved on to other venues, in April 1904 the White House announced that the White Lot would be opened to the public for amateur baseball to be played there on three diamonds maintained by the Commission on Public Buildings and Grounds.7 Today, with the support and authorization of the National Park Service, the grounds of the Ellipse within President’s Park continue to serve as a location for amateur softball games and for other sports.