Where the Mighty Casey Struck Out
The documentation is sketchy, but I can remember reading somewhere that Ernest Lawrence Thayer was watching a semi-pro baseball game in Stockton, CA in 1888 when the lines of "Casey at the Bat" began to form in his mind. Or was it a minor league game? Was it even in Stockton? My search for authentication has been somewhat in vain. Numerous public libraries have yielded a fair amount of information on Thayer and how his poem has secured its place in the folklore of baseball since it first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Sunday, June 3, 1888. But I found nothing on the role the Stockton ball park played, if any, in the writing of one of America's best loved poems.
A phone call to the Stockton Ports baseball team, a member of the Class A California League, finally gave me enough validation to justify an answer. Dan Chapman, GM for the Ports, assured me "Legend has it that this is where Thayer was inspired to write the poem."
"Can you give me anything more substantial than that?" I asked.
"Well, we've got the poem hanging on the wall here in the office," he said. "And our mascot is The Mighty Casey ."
I felt like a fielder who had been chasing a fly ball almost beyond his reach. A last desperate lunge had enabled me to get "an ice cream cone." Would the ball stay in my glove? Somehow "Legend has it..." wasn't quite good enough for the rigid standards of The Diamond Angle. But when Chapman told me about the poem on the wall and "Casey" working the Ports' fans into a frenzy, I felt the metaphoric ball settling into my glove.
I wanted to know if the Ports still played in the same stadium the "Mudville" team used in "Casey's" day.
"It's in the same location," he said, "but I don't think it is the same structure."
We are talking about 110 years ago. I kind of think Dan is right.
Ernest Lawrence Thayer was the son of a wealthy woolens manufacturer in Worcester, MA. At Harvard he had been more into books than baseball. The great philosopher, William James, considered him to be one of the best students he had ever had. But his interest in baseball was more than casual. Samuel Winslow, the captain of the team, was his best friend. Ernest didn't miss many games.
After earning Phi Beta Kappa distinction and graduating magna cum laude in 1885, Thayer embarked on an extended tour of Europe. Another college chum, William Randolph Hearst, sent him a cable while he was in Paris in 1887, offering him a job writing a weekly humor column for the newspaper Hearst's father had given him.
Thayer was not without literary credentials. He had been the editor of the Lampoon in his undergraduate days...(Famed poet-philosopher George Santayana was his associate editor.) He accepted Hearst's offer, and soon his weekly column began to appear under the pseudonym "Phin," an echo of his Harvard days, where his friends had called him "Phinny."
Santayana might have provided a clue as to why his old editor made Casey into a flawed hero.
"Ernest...seemed to be a man apart...who saw the broken edges of things that appear whole." Casey could have been the lead character in a Greek tragedy, for he was given an opportunity to fulfill a truly heroic destiny, but his hubris caused him to take two pitches, either of which a less haughty man would have jumped on in an effort to win the game. But Casey, in Ted Williams fashion, was "waiting for his pitch." If only he had had Williams' eyes, his trigger reflexes, his fluid swing. But if he had been thus blessed, he would not have been playing in Mudville/Stockton, he would have been across the Charles River from Harvard, playing for the Red Sox or the Braves. And Thayer, although he had consorted with the likes of James and Santayana, was no Euripides. We get no clue of Casey's impending doom. We are sure that despite all the Mudville misfortune that had preceded the mighty one's fateful at bat, he would come through as he always had.
Before lighted stadia there was a strong tie between show business and baseball. Ballplayers worked in the daytime and went out on the town at night. Actors worked at night and recreated in the afternoon. Thus, the two groups had a reciprocal, perhaps even a symbiotic, relationship.
Thus it was that the popular singer-actor-comedian De Wolf Hopper was used to seeing baseball heroes in the audience when he performed. Likewise, he often enjoyed catching a ball game before going to the theater.
Ten weeks after "Casey at the Bat" appeared in Phin's column (Hearst paid his old Harvard buddy $5 per column) Hopper, performing in the comic opera "Prince Nathusalem" on Broadway, was told that a number of the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings (today's Cubs, not to be confused with the White Sox, whose origin dates to the beginning of the AL in 1901 ) would be in the audience that night, Aug. 15. Wanting to throw in something special for his ballplayer fans, he consulted his friend, novelist Archibald Clavering Gunter. Thayer's poem had impressed the writer so much when he had read it in the Examiner that he had clipped and saved it. He showed it to Hopper, who felt that it would be just the thing. The players and everybody else in the house loved it. Hopper knew a good thing when he saw it; he estimates that he recited "Casey" 10,000 times during the remainder of his life. The final curtain did not come down for Hopper until 1935, and at five minutes and 40 seconds a crack that means that he spent about 750 hours telling people about how disaster came to Mudville.
If "Entertainment Weekly" uses trivia questions, TDA has a couple we can give them. Who was De Wolf Hopper's fifth wife? Answer: Hedda Hopper, the Hollywood gossip columnist who achieved a measure of fame, herself. (He hopped to yet another after Hedda.) And if "EW" can use one more, how about "What TV role gave De Wolf and Hedda's only son work for several years?" He played Paul Drake on the Perry Mason series.
Hopper was not the only performer to make "Casey" his signature bit. Chuck Connors gained more fame as TV's "Rifleman" than he ever did from his year with the Chicago Cubs (1951). But if he had gotten just one hit for every time he recited his version of "Casey," he would be in Cooperstown.
The poem became somewhat of a curse for Thayer. He was embarrassed when people hailed him as the author. When asked to recite it, he did so reluctantly and not well. He never accepted royalties for it and never submitted another for publication.
He became ill and returned to Massachusetts shortly after "Casey" ran in the Examiner, but he continued to mail his weekly columns in for a while.
When he regained his health, he managed one of his father's wool mills, but soon tired of this work and returned to the thing he seemed to like best, world travel. He finally settled in Santa Barbara, CA in 1912 and married a St. Louis widow, Rosalind Buel Hammet, the next year.
Santayana was right. Thayer was "a man apart." He lived in quiet retirement until his death 1940. His 15 minutes of fame echoed down through the decades in five minute and 40 second segments as Hopper, Connors and countless others regaled audiences from Little League picnics to Hall of Fame induction banquets with Phin's immortal muse.
Editor's Note - The Stockton Ports have since been renamed The Mudville Nine
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