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Casey At The Bat
The classic American baseball poem might have vanished if not for an actor's impromptu performance.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
No one, including its author, paid much attention to “Casey.” Baseball fans in San Francisco chuckled over it and a few eastern papers reprinted it, but it might have been quickly forgotten had it not been for a sequence of improbable events. In New York City a rising young comedian and singer, William DeWolf Hopper, was appearing in a comic opera called Prince Methusalem. One evening (the exact date is unknown; it was probably late in 1888 or early in 1889) the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings were invited to the show as guests of the management. What could he do on stage, Hopper wondered, for the special benefit of these men? A friend (and novelist), Archibald Clavering Gunter, said he had just the thing. He took from his pocket a ragged newspaper clipping that he had cut from the Examiner on a recent trip to San Francisco. It was “Casey.”
Why not memorize the poem and deliver it on stage? Gunter suggested. Hopper did exactly that, in the middle of the second act, with the Giants in boxes on one side of the theatre and the White Stockings in boxes on the other. This is how Hopper recalled the scene in his memoirs, Once a Clown, Always a Clown:
When I dropped my voice to B flat, below low C, at “the multitude was awed,” I remember seeing [the Giants’ catcher] Buck Ewing’s gallant mustachios give a single nervous twitch. And as the house, after a moment of startled silence, grasped the anticlimactic dénouement, it shouted its glee.
They had expected, as anyone does on hearing “Casey” for the first time, that the mighty batsman would slam the ball out of the lot, and a lesser bard would have had him do so, and thereby written merely a good sporting-page filler. The crowds do not flock into the American League parks when the Yankees play, solely in anticipation of seeing Babe Ruth whale the ball over the centerfield fence. That is a spectacle to be enjoyed even at the expense of the home team, but there always is a chance that the Babe will strike out, a sight even more healing to sore eyes, for the Sultan of Swat can miss the third strike just as furiously as he can meet it, and the contrast between the terrible threat of his swing and the futility of the result is a banquet for the malicious, which includes us all. There is no more completely satisfactory drama in literature than the fall of Humpty Dumpty.
Astonished and delighted with the way his audience responded to “Casey,” Hopper made the recitation a permanent part of his repertoire. It became his most famous bit. Wherever he went, whatever the show in which he was appearing, there were always curtain shouts for “Casey.” By his own count he recited it more than ten thousand times, experimenting with hundreds of slight variations in emphasis and gesture to keep his mind from wandering. It took him exactly five minutes and forty seconds to deliver the poem.
“When my name is called upon the resurrection morn,” he related in his memoirs, “I shall, very probably .. . arise, clear my throat and begin: ‘The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.’ ” The poem, declared Hopper, is the only truly great comic poem written by an American. “It is as perfect an epitome of our national game today as it was when every player drank his coffee from a mustache cup. There are one or more Caseys in every league, bush or big, and there is no day in the playing season that this same supreme tragedy, as stark as Aristophanes for the moment, does not befall on some field.”
By 1900 almost everyone in America had heard or read the poem, but almost no one knew who had written it. Hopper himself did not find out who the author was until about five years after he had begun reciting it. One evening, having delivered the poem in a Worcester theatre, he received a note inviting him to a local club to meet the author of “Casey.” “Over the details of wassail that followed,” Hopper wrote later, “I will draw a veil of charity.” He did disclose, however, that the club members had persuaded Thayer himself to stand up and recite “Casey.” Hopper declared it the worst delivery of the poem he had ever heard. “In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he [Thayer] implored Casey to murder the umpire, and gave this cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet.” From time to time various Caseys who actually played baseball in the late 1880s claimed to have been the inspiration for the ballad. But Thayer emphatically denied that he had had any specific ballplayer in mind for any of the men mentioned in “Casey.” When the Syracuse Post-Standard wrote to ask him about this, he replied with a letter that is reprinted in full in Lee Alien’s entertaining book on baseball, The Hot Stove League: