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Happy 125th birthday “Casey at the Bat”

Jun 3, 2013, 8:44 AM EDT

Casey at the Bat

Last week I noted my favorite baseball poem — Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto” — but today marks the 125th anniversary of baseball’s most famous poem, “Casey at the Bat.” It was on June 3, 1888, in the San Francisco Examiner, when the words of Ernest Thayer were published for the first time:

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 …

Five hundred and twenty-eight words later the “air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow,” and that sickly silence, in all likelihood, turned to booing. For, as we all know, I hope, mighty Casey struck out.

It has been argued that “Casey at the Bat” was inspired by the guy who, at the time, was likely the most famous baseball player around: Mike “King” Kelly, who had recently made headlines for a west coast tour, which Thayer covered. He was also recently famous purchased by the Boston Beaneaters from the Chicago Whitestockings for a then-princely sum of $10,000. Alex Rodriguez was a well-loved and popular ballplayer until he cashed in for huge money. Then everyone decided they loved to see him fail.  The same thing, it seems, was happening 125 years ago. The only difference, it seems, is that today’s hate comes in Mike Lupica columns and frothing-at-the-mouth blog comments rather than verse.

But there was one thing in common with the frothing-at-the-mouth blog comments: it was originally published anonymously. Under the pen name “Phin.”   The reason the thing was under a pen name at first was because Thayer — a buddy of Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst — signed all of his humorous contributions that way. Probably so it didn’t look like Hearst was just giving columns to buddies. I have not seen a picture of Thayer, but I’m going to choose to picture him as Joseph Cotton in “Citizen Kane.”

For weeks little notice was taken of the poem, until a fellow named Archibald Gunter cut it out of the New York Sun — where it was once again published anonymously and gave it to a comedian named De Wolf Hopper, who would be performing at the Wallack Theatre with two baseball teams in attendance. Hopper recited “Casey at the Bat” and brought the house down. Probably because one of the baseball teams in the audience was Kelly’s former Chicago Whitestockings and, perhaps, they were getting a chuckle at the expense of their now-departed, highly-touted and highly-paid teammate.

Not that Kelly had any problem with it.  While Hopper became the most famous reciter of “Casey at the Bat,” Kelly himself would go on tours giving live performances of it as well.

The popularity of the poem has never really faded. It was recorded by Hopper and others as soon as recording technology was invented. It found its way into kids’ schoolbooks as the 20th century wore on. It has been recited countless times by figures as diverse as Elliot Gould, Jackie Gleason, James Earl Jones and Penn Jillette.  Jillette’s version was recited as his partner Teller tried to escape from a straight jacket. If he couldn’t do it before the end of the poem he’d be dropped on sharp blades. I bet that woulda brought the house down at the Wallack Theatre too.

A minor league team was named after the Mudville Nine, even if it was only for one year. “Casey at the Bat” was even was immortalized in Disney animation:

Beyond those on-the-nose inspirations, both Casey and Mudville have become metaphors of sorts, expanding even beyond baseball. Whenever there is pride before a fall, it’s handy for a writer to invoke the mighty slugger. Whenever there is a disappointed mob of fans of any stripe, the lack of “joy in Mudville” is appropriately trotted out.

It is in this way, I think, a funny little bit of verse about a ballplayer has transcended its origins, tapping into a major vein of human emotion. No, it doesn’t move one like T.S. Eliot or even make us think like Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto,” but it does invoke anxiety and schadenfreude and says a little something still pretty relevant about hero worship. Relevant even 125 years later.

  1. proudlycanadian - Jun 3, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    I have always loved the poem.

    In an other pieces of trivia related to 1888 and June 3, Irvin Berlin who wrote “God Bless America” was born in 1888 and Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge on June the third.

  2. sleepyirv - Jun 3, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    “There is no joy in Mudville- but they do have a Starbucks” remains one of the best New Yorker cartoons ever.

  3. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Jun 3, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    Was that Angel Hernandez umpiring that game? No WAY that should have been a strike. Even back then umpires thought they were the center attraction.

  4. anthonyverna - Jun 3, 2013 at 9:36 AM

    Let’s not forget this stirring version of the poem:

  5. The Dangerous Mabry - Jun 3, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    Is schadenfreude really what you’re supposed to feel? I always felt terrible for the people of Mudville. I mean, first of all, they live in a place called Mudville, which I have to figure is a joyless, awful place most of the time. And they seem to have a pretty mediocre baseball team overall. The one outlet for these miserable souls is Casey, a heroic mountain of a man who smashes baseballs hither and yon with extreme prejudice. I like to think of Giancarlo Stanton as a modern version of Casey. So when this team finally gets a chance, and their big man gets to the plate, a ray of hope breaks through the normally overcast skies of their lives, and maybe they’ll pull one out today and have something to feel good about. Then Casey whiffs, and they trudge home through the filthy streets of Mudville to their hovels and continue their dreary existence.

    I’ve never felt anything but pity for those poor souls.

    On another note, in the modern game, Casey would have never had the chance to strike out. I mean, first base was open. We all know how that goes now.

    • ptfu - Jun 3, 2013 at 10:37 AM

      Heh, my name comes from witnessing all too many similar situations. The big hitters’ pop ups at critical times always bothered me far more than their strikeouts. Sitting in the stands, my friends and I would exclaim with disgust “he Popped The F Up!” This happened so often that we shortened this to PTFU, and it effectively summarized the whole inning.

  6. fawnliebowitz - Jun 3, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    I have a CD titled “Baseball’s Greatest Hits” and it has “Casey at the Bat” on it, as recited by DeWolf Hopper. He has a very dramatic style of reading it but it’s fun to listen to.

    That CD has a lot of great stuff on it. Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, Tommy Lasorda’s post-game interview about Dave Kingman, the “Van Lingle Mungo” song, etc. I recommend it.

  7. sdelmonte - Jun 3, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    Love the Disney version.

    Anyone else remember the rather odd short story in SI by Frank Deford that told the “real story” of that at-bat? It must have run for the centennial. It was cute, but a good example of why sportswriters not named Roger Angell rarely have much to do with intentionally fictional works.

    • The Dangerous Mabry - Jun 3, 2013 at 11:26 AM

      From that disney video:

      “The ladies don’t understand baseball a bit. They don’t know a strike from a foul or a hit.”

      The times, they have-a-changed. In this case, for the better.

      • sdelmonte - Jun 3, 2013 at 11:46 AM

        Alas, the umpires has regressed. :)

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