When spring arrives, sports writers wax eloquent as the ballet that is baseball begins anew. There is prose and there is poetry – much poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto” appeals to the longtime San Francisco Giants fan while John Updike explains the “Tao in the Yankee Stadium Bleachers.”
But the granddaddy of baseball poems surely must be Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” recited often by school kids and thespians alike. It is imitated, adapted and caricatured in countless compositions and even cartoons. Casey begat “Kelly at the Bat,” “Casey: Twenty Years Later,” Ray Bradbury’s “Ahab at the Helm,” Mad magazine’s “Cool Casey at the Bat,” among others. Even Disney got into the act with a 1946 cartoon version narrated by comedian Jerry Colonna.
It all began at the San Francisco Examiner, and that story is no less interesting than the poem itself.
Thayer, born in 1863, was raised in a wealthy family and studied philosophy and humor at Harvard University, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and became friends with William Randolph Hearst, who as a student was business manager of the Lampoon.
According to Joslin Hall Rare Books, he also took up a friendship with the captain of the school’s baseball team. After Hearst left Harvard, his father, George Hearst, handed him the helm of The Examiner. Hearst asked his friend Ernest to write a column.
By 1887, under the pen name “Phin,” Thayer began writing humorous poetry for the paper’s Sunday editions, according to Joslin Hall. A year later he had returned to the family’s woolen mills, but he filed other pieces for The Examiner, including “Casey at the Bat,” which was published that June.
The poem wasn’t exactly a hit. Although the last eight stanzas were republished by the New York Sun, R.J. Brown of the Newspaper Collectors Society of America wrote, it otherwise “was just plain ignored by the public.”
That was all about to change.
Thayer’s poem came to the attention of novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter, who was a friend of William De Wolf Hopper, a comedic actor and baseball fan. Hopper and another actor, Digby Bell, asked their boss if they could enjoy a day at the ballpark, then invite the visiting Chicago White Stockings and the home New York Giants baseball teams for an evening of entertainment. But Hopper wasn’t sure what to perform.
“Casey at the Bat,” Gunter told Hopper, was just the ticket for the show. And it was. Hopper delivered a masterpiece on Aug. 14, 1888, to wild applause.
“Texas long-horns couldn’t have made more noise than those humans present in the theatre, and the howling continued throughout the entire recitation, breaking out into indescribable loudness at the end of each verse,” the New York Evening World reported the next day.
More than 125 years after the poem burst onto the scene, a mystery remains: Where did the Mudville Nine play on the fateful day that mighty Casey whiffed?
Much as the debate simmers over whether the martini was invented in San Francisco or the nearby city of Martinez, partisans argue whether Mudville was really Stockton or a town in Massachusetts.
The Stockton contingent points to evidence that Thayer attended baseball games there while at The Examiner and that some of the players on a Stockton squad matched those of characters in the poem. Moreover, Stockton once was known as Mudville.
But their counterparts in Holliston, Mass, assert that they hail from the original Mudville and that the Thayer family’s woolen mill was just down the road.
In some ways, says Leigh Johnsen, writing for the San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum, it doesn’t matter.
“Actually, I think it matters a lot, but not simply as a matter of local pride,” he says. “To me, the argument over Mudville represents part of an important yearly ritual, one that awakens Americans each spring from a dreary winter and leads them to diamonds throughout the land in search of friendly rivalry and treasured memories.”
It is fortunate that Thayer evidently was more at home in front of a sheet of paper than an audience. About five years after Hopper began performing the poem, he met Thayer at a gathering in Worcester, Mass. Members of the local club urged Thayer to give a reading of his masterwork.
It was the worst delivery Hopper had ever heard, Martin Gardner wrote in his book, the “Annotated Casey at the Bat.”
“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,” Hopper said, according to the book.
Thayer’s poem nonetheless endures.
“It may not be great poetry,” Joslin Hall Rare Books concludes, “but it is a great poem, and for over a hundred years it has held our imaginations and hearts. There have been many explanations given. Certainly the most important factor is that Casey is expected to succeed, he has all the tools to succeed, and instead he fails. Marvelously, majestically, and with great verve, he falls flat on his face. Contracts like this are the heart of comedy, and also the heart of baseball.”