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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
The verses owe their existence to my enthusiasm for college baseball, not as a player, but as a fan. … The poem has no basis in fact. The only Casey actually involved, I am sure about him, was not a ballplayer. He was a big, dour Irish lad of my high school days. While in high school, I composed and printed myself a very tiny sheet, less than two inches by three. In one issue, I ventured to gag, as we say, this Casey boy. He didn’t like it and he told me so, and, as he discoursed, his big, clenched, red hands were white at the knuckles. This Casey’s name never again appeared in the Monohippic Gazette. But I suspect the incident, many years after, suggested the title for the poem. It was a taunt thrown to the winds. God grant he never catches me.
Thayer remained in Worcester for many years, doing his best to please his father by managing one of the family mills. He kept quietly to himself, studying philosophy in spare hours and reading classical literature. He was a slightly built, soft-spoken man, inclined to deafness in his middle years, always gracious, charming, and modest. Although he dashed off four or five more comic ballads in 1896 for Hearst’s New York Journal, he had a low opinion of his verse.
“During my brief connection with the Examiner,” Thayer once wrote, “I put out large quantities of nonsense, both prose and verse, sounding the whole newspaper gamut from advertisements to editorials. In general quality “Casey” (at least in my judgment) is neither better nor worse than much of the other stuff. Its persistent vogue is simply unaccountable, and it would be hard to say, all things considered, if it has given me more pleasure than annoyance. The constant wrangling about the authorship, from which I have tried to keep aloof, has certainly filled me with disgust.” Throughout his life Thayer refused to discuss payments for reprintings of “Casey.” “All I ask is never to be reminded of it again,” he told one publisher.
Thayer retired to Santa Barbara, California, in 1912 and remained there until his death in 1940. Friends said that toward the end of his life he softened a bit in his scornful attitude toward “Casey.” By then T.S. Eliot had written an admiring parody of the poem, and even professors of English, notably William Lyon Phelps of Yale, had hailed “Casey” as an authentic native masterpiece. “The psychology of the hero and the psychology of the crowd leave nothing to be desired,” Phelps wrote in What I Like in Poetry. “There is more knowledge of human nature displayed in this poem than in many of the works of the psychiatrist.”
Since its first inauspicious appearance in 1888, “Casey” has constantly reappeared in new guises: once, in 1920, as a popular song; twice as a silent movie (the remake had Wallace Beery in the leading role); and twice more in Walt Disney cartoons. At least three recitations of “Casey” have been put on records —the first by Hopper himself in 1906, and the most recent, a children’s record, by sportscaster Mel Allen. Several paperback editions of the poem have appeared, and finally in 1964 a handsome, illustrated hardcover version was published.
The most important elaboration of the Casey story is an opera, The Mighty Casey, which had its world premiere at Hartford, Connecticut, on May 4, 1953. William Schuman, a major American composer who is now the president of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, wrote the music. Schuman is a baseball buff who, in his teens, seriously considered becoming a professional ballplayer. “Had I been a better catcher,” he has written, “I might never have become a musician.” Jeremy Gury, a writer, editor, and advertising agency executive, wrote the libretto. It is sad that Thayer did not live to see the opera. The details of its plot mesh so smoothly with the poem that one feels at once, “Yes, of course, that must have been the way it happened.” The Mighty Casey has yet to have a full-scale production in New York City. (It is not easy to put on a short opera that calls for a forty-piece orchestra and a fifty-voice chorus!) After its Hartford premiere there was a television production of the opera in 1955, and it has been performed by small companies elsewhere.
How can one explain the undying popularity of Thayer’s poem? Possibly because it is almost impossible to read it several times without memorizing whole chunks; there are lines expressed so perfectly, given the poem’s intent, that one cannot imagine a word changed for the better. But perhaps the reason is because—with its careful build-up and its final fizzle—“Casey” is the incomparable, towering symbol of the great and glorious poop-out.
The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.