October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
The classic American baseball poem might have vanished if not for an actor's impromptu performance.
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 verse—a 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.
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:
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.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that --
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped--
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."
"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has struck out.