January 14th, 2012
Let’s play two! Having just posted Mikhail Horowitz’s Kessler at the Bat, I thought I’d set some thoughts down about the wellspring of its inspiration. In art we exalt the heroic, sometimes the ordinary, but never—well, hardly ever—do we find a ballad or portrait or bust that celebrates, well, a bust. The glorious exception is Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s Casey at the Bat.
Thayer was born into a well-to-do family in Lawrence, Massachusetts; his father owned a woolens mill. He studied philosophy at Harvard, graduated magna cum laude, and served as editor of the Lampoon, whose business manager for a time was William Randolph Hearst. After expulsion from Harvard, Hearst was given the editorship of the newspaper his father had just purchased, The San Francisco Examiner. Hearst invited Thayer to contribute a humor column, which he did, under the name “Phin,” for the better part of two years. On June 3, 1888, The Examinerpublished Phin’s final effort, the rollicking ballad soon to be known across the land.
Yet Casey at the Bat might have vanished without a trace, like Phin’s other five-dollar ditties, except that novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter clipped it from the paper and kept it with him on his next trip east. On the night of August 14, 1888, at Wallack’s Theatre in New York, he was backstage before a performance of Prince Methusalem, given as a “complimentary testimonial” to the New York Giants and visiting Chicago White Stockings. (The visitors had triumphed over the hometown heroes that afternoon by the score of 4–2, the same as that in the opening stanza of the poem.) One of the stars of the comic opera was DeWolf Hopper, a regular attendee at the Polo Grounds who wanted some diversion with a baseball theme to spice up the evening’s entertainment. Gunter gave Hopper the poem that afternoon, Hopper proved a quick study, and between acts of the comic opera he recited Casey at the Bat.
The audience loved it, particularly the ballplayers. “Casey” proved an instant sensation as Hopper commenced his recitation with:
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.
You know the rest, don’t you? In his autobiography, Once a Clown, Always a Clown, Hopper wrote of that evening’s debut:
I interpolated Casey in a scene in the second act. . . . It was, I presume, the first time the poem was recited in public. . . . On his debut Casey lifted this audience, composed largely of baseball players and fans, out of their seats. When I dropped my voice to B flat, below low C, at ‘the multitude was awed’ [the poem in fact reads: “the audience was awed”], I remember seeing Buck Ewing’s gallant mustachios give a single nervous twitch. And as the house, after a moment of startled silence, grasped the anticlimactic denouement, it shouted its glee. . . . They had expected, as any one does upon 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.
Hopper would continue to recite Casey, by his estimate, some 10,000 times over the next four decades. The mock-epic stentorian style of Hopper’s five-minute-and-forty-second recitation was a delicious match for the classical march of the story. A talking film of him in action survives and is quite a hoot: http://www.fandor.com/films/casey_at_the_bat_1922.
By 1889, King Kelly was taking to the boards to recite the poem (naturally renamed Kelly at the Bat), and many thought the poem had been written not only for him but also about him. No poet came forth to dismiss such notions. Thayer was so shy and retiring that he kept quiet while everyone but your Uncle Henry claimed to be the author of the poem or, like one-time Phillies pitcher Dan Casey, its inspiration.
Defenders of Thayer stepped up only as he neared death in 1940. Defenders of Casey’s honor, however, sprang up much earlier, with happy-ending sequels and further adventures ranging from Casey’s Revenge to Casey—Twenty Years After (also known as The Volunteer) and The Man Who Fanned Casey. None is as pleasing as the original.
There have been parodies (Ray Bradbury wrote “Ahab at the Helm”), recitations accompanied by music (the sonorous Lionel Barrymore, the enthusiastic Tug McGraw), a movie with Wallace Beery, a cartoon epic from Disney, a ballet, and, in 1953, an opera (William Schuman’s The Mighty Casey). Casey will continue to strike out and render Mudville joyless, but we live in a favored land indeed to take pride in so flawed a hero.
This previously unpublished riff on the immortal “Casey at the Bat” is by Mikhail Horowitz, bon vivant, raconteur, performance artist and, you should be so lucky, friend.
It looked, well, all farcockteh for the Putzville nine that day;
The score—don’t ask—was 4 to 2. You heppy now? Hokeh.
And so when Plotkin plotzed at first, and Schwartz popped up to third,
Already y’hay sh’may rab-boh was in the ballpark heard.
A couple shlumps got up to go, the others shrugged, and stayed
(For box seats on the field, hoo boy! their tuchuses they paid);
They thought, If only Kessler maybe gives the ball a zetz,
We’d shimmy through the shtetl and forget about the Mets!
But Stein preceded Kessler, as did his nephew, Moe,
And Stein a real shmegegee was, and Moe was just a shmo;
So maybe now for Kessler they should bother not to wait—
Moshiach had a better chance of schlepping to the plate.
But Stein, he blooped a bingle, and his mother cried, Mein Gott!
And Moshe clubbed a double, I should drop dead on the spot;
And when they finished running and bent wheezing at the waist,
There was Moe verklempt on second and Stein on third, vershtast?
So now from all those Putzville fans was such a big to-do,
They rose and davened in a wave, a hundred shofars blew;
A host of angels wept to hear a thousand chazzans sing,
For Kessler, Rebbe Kessler, he was coming up to swing.
There was schmaltz on Kessler’s tallis as he stepped into the box,
In his beard were crumbs of matzoh, small piece cheese, a bissel lox,
And when he shook his shtreimel, drenching half the fans with sweat,
No goyim in the crowd could doubt—’twas Kessler at the bet.
And now the mystic, Kabbalistic pitch comes floating in,
And Kessler’s brow is furrowed, and he slowly strokes his chin;
He comprehends that long before Creation had begun,
This pitch existed somewhere . . . but then he hears, “Strike vun!”
From the stands (donated by the Steins) the whole mishpocheh moaned,
A yenta started kvetching and a balabusta groaned;
“Hey, ump!” an angry moyel cried, “I’ll cut you like a fish!”
So, nu? They would have cut him, but Kessler muttered, “Pish!”
With a smile of pure rachmanis, great Kessler’s punim shone,
He stilled the boiling moyel, he bade the game go on;
He yubba-dubba-dubba’ed as the pious pitcher threw,
But he yubba-dubba’ed once too much—the umpire shrugged,
“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”
“Feh!” cried the maddened Hasids, and Elijah echoed, “Feh!”
But a puzzled look from Kessler made the audience go, “Heh?”
They saw his payus rise and fall, they saw his tzitzits twitch,
They knew that Rebbe Kessler vouldn’t miss another pitch.
The smile on Kessler’s punim now is more profound, and keener;
He glows with all the preternatural light of the Shekinah;
And now the pishka-pishka pitch so big and fat it gets;
And now the air is shattered by the force of Kessler’s zetz!
Oy. Somewhere in Jerusalem a grandson plants a tree;
A klezmer band is playing—so, the clarinet’s off-key;
And somewhere else a shmoyger with the rebbetzin has flirted;
But there is no joy in Putzville—mighty Kessler has converted.
(“The name is Kelly, if you don’t mind!”)