Casey Doubleheader, Game Two

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.

Chicago Inter Ocean, August 15, 1888

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.

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