Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Indians Playing a Ball Game, by George Catlin

Indians Playing a Ball Game, by George Catlin

Like most young men, the members of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery were a sporting and competitive lot. This band of tough frontiersmen, almost all under the age of 35, liked to test their mettle against the people they met along the way. This included shooting, hunting, horsemanship, and footraces. It also includes games that have been all but forgotten.

In June 1806, the Corps was camped near the Chopunnish or Nez Perce Indians, waiting for the snows to melt enough to recross the Rocky Mountain, when a lively round of games took place. On June 8, 1806, Lewis wrote in his journal:

several foot rarces were run this evening between the indians and our men. the indians are very active; one of them proved as fleet as 〈our best runner〉 Drewer and R. Fields, our swiftest runners.    when the racing was over the men divided themselves into two parties and played prison base, by way of exercise which we wish the men to take previously to entering the mountain; in short those who are not hunters have had so little to do that they are geting reather lazy and slouthfull.—    after dark we had the violin played and danced for the amusement of ourselves and the indians.—

A Game of Prisoner's Base

A Game of Prisoner's Base, 19th century

Prison base (or prisoner’s base, as it is more commonly called) is an old game in which two teams are divided by a line drawn in the dirt between the two teams. About 20 or 30 feet in back of each team a large square (prison) is drawn on the ground. Each team picks one person to be the prisoner of the other team (usually the fastest runner). Then each team tries to free their prisoner by sending a team member to the prison through the opposing team to bring the prisoner back without getting captured by a member of the opposing team. If the person attempting to rescue their own prisoner makes it to the prison through the opposing team without being caught, he is safe while in the prison and can pick his own time to run with the prisoner back to their own side of the line. If the team member is caught by the opposing team, they also became a prisoner needing rescue. So each team is busy both trying to rescue their own prisoners and prevent the prisoners from the opposite side from getting rescued. At the end of the game, the team with the most prisoners wins.  Unfortunately, Lewis and Clark did not record whether the Corps of Discovery or the Nez Perce won the day.

The next day, June 9, Clark reported, “more our party exolted with the idea of once more proceeding on towards their friends and Country are elert in all their movements and amuse themselves by pitching quates, Prisoners bast running races &c—.”


Metal quoits

According to the U. S. Quoit Association, the game of pitching quoits (or “quates”) has existed in one form or another for so many centuries that a compilation of the complete history of the sport is not possible.  The quoit is a heavy, flat ring made of stone or metal, something like a horseshoe,  that was originally used as a weapon of war by the early Romans. A quoit was used in the early discus competitions in the ancient Olympic games, two centuries before Christ.   A few centuries A.D., the sport evolved to include a wooden stake or metal pin driven into the ground, which provided a target to throw at, changing the object of the competition from distance to accuracy.

As the Romans traveled throughout Europe on their conquests, the games spread to other cultures, and invading armies eventually brought the games to Britain around 1000 A.D.  It is here that Quoits developed into the form having two pins set into clay pits, which can still be found today in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.

In England, Quoits became so popular that in 1361, King Edward III became worried that his subjects were using too much of their time to throw quoits rather than to practice shooting or using a bow to keep their skills of war honed.  He issued a decree that outlawed quoits and other “useless and time-wasting” games, but quoits continued to be played discreetly and never died out.  By the following century, quoits had again become legal and quite popular, enough so that it became a well-organized sport in the Taverns and Pubs in Britain.  Horseshoes was also played, but was considered a child’s game, while quoits was for men.

Pitching Quoits by Winslow Homer (1865)

Pitching Quoits by Winslow Homer (1865)

The English brought both the games of quoits and horseshoes with them when they settled in America in the 1600’s.  Quoit pitching was mainly centered in the New York area, and spread north into New England and south as far as Washington D.C., while horseshoes was more commonly played in the Midwest. As the Corps’ only New Englander, one wonders if Sergeant Ordway was the ringleader of the quoits games played by the Corps of Discovery.

Quoits remained a popular pastime in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. The complete eclipsing of quoits by horseshoes in the U.S. can be traced to a single incident. In 1920, an Akron, Ohio, fireman named George May entered the World Tournament for Horseshoe Pitchers in St. Petersburg, Florida. May had, through endless practice, acquired the skill of ringing the stake with startling frequency. An absolute unknown at the competition, May put on an astonishing horseshoes exhibition , tossing 430 ringers during the competition and winning 24 straight games, as well as the championship. The allure and satisfaction of ringer-throwing, much easier with open horseshoes than with quoits, instantly elevated horseshoes to the preferred sport. May’s knack for ringing the stake proved to be the death knell of quoits as a popular competitive sport in America.


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Meriwether Lewis Clark Sr., about 1850 (age 40). A West Point graduate and prominent architect, Clark at this time was serving as the Federal surveyor general for Missouri and Illinois.

Everyone knows that the Kentucky Derby is “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” This year’s Derby is fast approaching on Saturday, May 1. So if you have any business to transact with people in Louisville, better do it now — I’ve never been there during Derby Week but I understand the whole city unofficially shuts down. What you might not know is that that the Kentucky Derby has a Lewis & Clark connection. Churchill Downs, the famous Louisville racetrack that hosts the Derby, was founded in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark. 

I am going to try to learn more about William Clark’s children. For one thing, several of them will be characters in my next book, and I would like to understand them better. William Clark had seven children in all: five children with his first wife, Julia Hancock and two with his second wife, Harriet Kennerly Radford. Three of the children died as youngsters. From reading between the lines of Clark biographies like William Clark and the Shaping of the American West and Dear Brother, I gather that his four surviving sons — Meriwether Lewis Clark, William Preston Clark, George Rogers Hancock Clark, and Jefferson Kennerly Clark — all struggled in various ways, though few details are given. 

Clark’s oldest son, who went by M. Lewis Clark, was born in 1809 not long before the death of his namesake, his father’s best friend and partner in discovery. M. Lewis was said to greatly resemble his father physically, but not in personality. Unfortunately, William Clark spoiled all his children, and M. Lewis grew up to be a high-tempered, shallow, and rather selfish man. He attended West Point, where he became good friends with a classmate by the name of Robert E. Lee. But unlike Lee, M. Lewis didn’t take to the military life (though he would later volunteer to serve in both the Mexican War and the Civil War). As soon as he could, he resigned his commission and returned to St. Louis, where he became a successful architect. 

M. Lewis married a Louisville heiress named Abigail Prather Churchill. Unfortunately, like his father, it was Lewis’s fate to be bereaved. Abby died at the age of 35 a few days after giving birth to her seventh child. The oldest child was only 13, and in his bereavement Lewis turned for help in raising them, sending the children to live with Abby’s relatives in Louisville. 

We turn our attention now to the third son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., known in the family as “Lutie.” Lutie was only six when his mother died, and he was raised by two bachelor uncles who raced thoroughbreds. Two family traditions about Lutie hold the key to his role in history and his eventual fate. One is that during his Kentucky boyhood and his extended trips to Europe as a young man, he came to share his uncles’ passion for horse racing. The other is that he was spoiled rotten. 

Early view of Churchill Downs. This first grandstand was on the east side of the track, and the afternoon sun shone in spectators' eyes. It was replaced in 1895 with a grandstand on the west side. (Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio, by George Yater)

By 1873, Lutie had grown into a great big bear of a man. At age 27, he was newly married and fired up to start making his own mark on the world. During a stay in Paris, he had seen pari-mutual betting machines in use on French racetracks. The machines eliminated bookmaking and other unsavory aspects of the horse racing trade. Lutie proposed to his uncles and other Churchill relatives that they back him in establishing a race track that would showcase their championship racing stock and use the innovative French system of betting. The family loved the idea, and Churchill Downs was built on family land and opened on May 17, 1875. A three-year-old race, known as the Kentucky Derby, was held that day, though it would not become the premier attraction at Churchill Downs until the early 20th century. 

Churchill Downs became Lutie’s life and obsession. As track manager, he pioneered racing rules and standards that are still in use today and was a leader in creating the stakes system, on which the Breeder’s Cup is based. Unfortunately, Lutie Clark’s talents were obscured by his personality. There seemed to be nothing of his brave and lovable grandfather in him. Instead, he was bad-tempered, verbally abusive to those he considered his inferiors (which was just about everyone), and arrogant. 

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. "Lutie" later became known as "Colonel Clark."

Lutie was even known to pull a gun to frighten people who did not show him the proper deference. In 1879, someone took him up on it and shot him instead. The story was that Lutie accused a prominent horse breeder of failing to pay his entry fees for the track. The breeder took it as a matter of honor and went to Lutie’s Galt House office to demand an apology or satisfaction (a duel). The two men got into a brawl and the breeder shot Lutie in the chest. Lutie recovered and no charges were ever filed. 

 Not long after, his wife moved out, taking their three children with her. (She would eventually move all the way to Paris — France, not Kentucky.) Lutie continued to manage the track in the 1880s, but in spite of his success, he managed to alienate his Churchill relatives one by one. In 1891, the family moved against him and fired Lutie from most of his duties at the track, though he did remain as presiding judge. Two years later, cruel fate caught up with Lutie in a big way, and he was wiped out financially in the stock market meltdown of 1893. 

He turned to the only thing he knew: racing. Lutie managed to find work as a presiding judge at racetracks across the country. But his troubles had not humbled him. He got into an argument with a bartender in Chicago who took umbrage when Lutie branded Chicagoans “thieves and liars.” Lutie drew a gun on the bartender and forced the man to apologize to him at gunpoint, an incident that made the papers in both Chicago and Louisville. 

Derby Pie

In 1899, Lutie would again pull out his pistol. This time, it was to die by his own hand, apparently unable to face fears of getting older and the isolation he had brought upon himself. He was 53 years old. 

On the lighter side, or maybe the heavier one, Lutie Clark wasn’t exactly a skinny man. Maybe he partook too liberally of one of the best aspects of a visit to Louisville, Derby Pie. The recipe for Derby Pie is a secret, but it’s really easy to make a similar pie at home. So when you settle in for this year’s Run  for the Roses, raise a mint julep or a pie fork to William Clark’s grandson Lutie Clark , a great figure in the history of sports, if not exactly a nice guy.

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The Game of Fives

18th century men playing fives

18th century men playing fives

In one of my favorite scenes in The Fairest Portion of the Globe, young ensign Meriwether Lewis plays a game of fives with the treacherous general James Wilkinson.

He dove after Wilkinson’s next serve and got a miraculous lucky bounce. Wilkinson raced forward but couldn’t get to it. As the dead ball rolled at his feet, Lewis picked it up and held it for a moment, turning the ball in his hands. He pushed his damp bangs out of his eyes and looked at Wilkinson. “That’s three all, sir.”

Wilkinson stepped forward and took the ball. “Give it here, Lewis. I don’t want you to mistake my meaning.” With visible fury, he turned and sent the ball slamming into the wall. Startled, Lewis lunged for the ball but collided with Wilkinson’s flying elbow instead. He tripped and crashed onto his hands and knees, face-first into the wall. His head rang and he tasted grit and blood.

“Lewis, let me tell you something for your own good,” Wilkinson jerked him around and stood over him, his hands digging into Lewis’s skin beneath his thin shirt. “Anthony Wayne has been a thorn in my side for twenty years, going back to the Revolution. Wayne has had his time here. Soon it will be a new era at Fort Washington. Jefferson’s time. My time.”

Lewis gaped up at him, warm blood trickling down his lip. “What? You and Jefferson? Sir, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about—”

Wilkinson gave a little chuckle of pity—or was it contempt?— then leaned down and tapped him on the forehead. “Use your head, Ensign Lewis. You’re a Shakespeare buff, I understand. Wasn’t it in Coriolanus, where the bard said, ‘Nature teaches beasts to know their friends?’”

Lewis swallowed, remembering the next line in the play. Without thinking, he whispered aloud: “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”

“Precisely, ensign.” Wilkinson let out a mirthful titter. “The lamb.”

Fives was a ball game that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Similar to handball, it was formally played on a stone or brick court, and informally against a stone wall in a churchyard. The purpose of the game is to hit a small, hard leather or rubber ball over a line on the back wall so that your opponents cannot return it before the second bounce. The game is fast-paced and requires sharp hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and agility.

General Thomas Sumter

General Thomas Sumter, the "Carolina Gamecock"

Fives was a favorite pastime of country gentlemen in the late 18th and early 19th century. American Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter of South Carolina, known as “The Carolina Gamecock,” was known for his abilities on the fives court. The most famous fives player who ever lived is said to be John Cavanagh, an Irish house-painter who played on the fives court in St Martin’s Street in London, remaining undefeated until his death in 1819.

David Herbert Donald, in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, records that while the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago was deciding who was to be the presidential nominee, Lincoln was quietly going about his business in Springfield. Up early on Friday, May 18th, the day when nominations were to be made, Lincoln passed some time playing fives with some other men in a vacant lot next to the Illinois State Journal Office. After he got the news of his nomination, he spoke “to the ball players who broke off their game to congratulate him.”

The popularity of fives waned in the United States in the 19th century, but the game became even more popular in Britain as it was institutionalized as a sport in Britain’s elite public schools. The most well-known variety of fives is Eton Fives, which originated at Eton College in England. The side of Eton’s chapel is supported by buttresses that form perfect three-sided fives courts in which the students can play. The bay at the foot of the chapel steps is different from the rest, because the steps’ handrail forms a hazard that complicates the game, and a landing between the two flights of steps extends the playing area. Another popular variety of fives, played on a four-sided court, originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire.

The original Eton Fives court

The original fives court at Eton Chapel, England

Though not the craze it once was, Eton Fives and Rugby Fives are still enjoyed by schoolboys and “old boys” in England. Modern Eton Fives is played on courts built to resemble the unique bay at the foot of the Eton chapel steps, recreating the handrail hazard that has long been the bane of many a young scholar-athlete. In the United States, the only known fives courts that are still in use are in Massachusetts: at Groton School, St.Mark’s School, the Union Boat Club, and the A.D. Final Club at Harvard University.

For everything you ever wanted to know about fives:

The Eton  Fives Association

The Rugby Fives Association

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