Casey At The Bat

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A mysterious phenomenon, to which professional critics are usually oblivious, reoccurs often in the literary history of the United States. A man or a woman with no special talent for poetry will put together some apparently run-of-the-mill stanzas and manage to get them printed in a newspaper or magazine. The poem is read and talked about. It is reprinted here and there. People cut it out to carry in a billfold, or pin on a bulletin board, or put under the glass top of a desk, or frame and hang on a wall. Thousands memorize it. Eventually it becomes so well known—inexplicably, and often to the author’s own amazement—that it is hard to find a literate person who has not read it. “Casey at the Bat” is such a poem, and its author, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, is a prize specimen of the one-poem poet. He wrote nothing else of merit. No one imagines that “Casey” is great in the sense that the poetry of Shakespeare or Dante is great; a comic ballad obviously must be judged by different standards. One doesn’t criticize a slice of superb apple pie because it fails to taste like crepes suzette. Thayer was only trying to write a comic ballad, with clanking rhymes and a vigorous beat, that could be read quickly, understood at once, and laughed at by any newspaper reader who knew baseball. Somehow, in harmony with the curious laws of humor and popular taste, he managed to produce the nation’s best-known piece of comic versea ballad that began a native legend as colorful and permanent as that of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan. Here, in time for the World Series, is Casey’s story.

One of the most humiliating defeats in the history of the New York Yankees took place on Sunday, October 6, 1963. Because a well-thrown ball bounced off the wrist of first baseman Joe Pepitone, the Yanks lost the fourth straight game and the World Series to their old enemies, the former Brooklyn (by then the Los Angeles) Dodgers. Across the top of next morning’s New York Herald Tribune ran the headline: “The Mighty Yankees Have Struck Out.” Lower on the same page another headline read: “But There’s Still Joy in Mudville” (the New York Stock Exchange was holding up well under the grim news).

Every reader of those headlines knew that they came straight out of that immortal baseball ballad, that masterpiece of humorous verse, “Casey at the Bat.” But not one in ten thousand could have named the man who wrote that poem.

His name was Ernest Lawrence Thayer, and he was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1863, one hundred years before the mighty Yankees made their celebrated strike-out. By the time he entered Harvard, the family had moved to Worcester, where Edward Davis Thayer, Ernest’s well-to-do father, ran one of his several woolen mills. At Harvard, young Thayer made a brilliant record as a major in philosophy. William James was both his teacher and friend. Thayer wrote the annual Hasty Pudding play, and was editor of the Harvard Lampoon, the college’s humor magazine. Samuel E. Winslow, captain of the senior baseball team (later he became a congressman from Massachusetts), was young Thayer’s best friend. During his last year at Harvard, Thayer never missed a ball game.

Another friend of Thayer’s college years was the Lampoon’s business manager, William Randolph Hearst. In 1885, when Thayer was graduated magna cum laude—he was Phi Beta Kappa and the Ivy orator of his class—Hearst was unceremoniously booted out of Harvard. (He had a habit of playing practical jokes that no one on the faculty thought funny, such as sending chamber pots to professors, their names inscribed thereon.) Hearst’s father had recently bought the ailing San Francisco Examiner to promote his candidacy as United States senator from California. Now that young Will was in want of something to occupy his time, the elder Hearst turned the paper over to him.

Thayer, in the meantime, had settled in Paris to brush up on his French. Would he consider, Hearst cabled him, returning to the United States to write a humor column for the Examiner’s Sunday supplement? To the great annoyance of his father, who expected him to take over the American Woolen Mills some day, Thayer accepted Hearst’s offer.

His contributions to the paper began in 1886. Most were unsigned, but starting in October, 1887, and continuing into December, he wrote a series of ballads that ran about every other week in the Sunday editions, under the by-line of “Phin.” (At Harvard his friends had called him “Phinney.”) Then ill health forced him to return to Worcester, but he continued for a while to send material to the Examiner, including one final ballad, “Casey at the Bat.” It appeared on Sunday, June 3, 1888, sandwiched inconspicuously between editorials and a weekly column by Ambrose Bierce. Thayer was paid his usual fee for it—five dollars.