WASHINGTON, June 21, 2013 —Two columns ago, we toasted the anniversary of baseball’s anthem, “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” But we almost neglected another significant birthday. Baseball’s premier poem, “Casey At the Bat,” recently turned 125 years old. Yet he doesn’t look a day over a hundred. Yes, Casey stepped up to the plate in June of 1888.
Since then, generations have enjoyed this paean to the National Pastime. School children through the years have committed to memory this dramatic story of the superlative slugger. Many people can easily recite the oft-quoted quatrain that ends the 52-line poem:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout
But there is no joy in Mudville; mighty Casey has struck out.
The poem made its inaugural appearance in a page-four column of the San Francisco Examiner on Sunday, June 3, 1888, under the puzzling and mysterious byline, “Phin.”
A reader clipped the poem from the newspaper and mailed it across country to his actor friend DeWolf Hopper who was performing in New York City. Mr. Hopper read the poem, found it amusing and filed it away. That may have been the end of it; the poem might have been forgotten and lost to posterity.
But a few months later, the actor learned that two Major League ball clubs (the New York Giants and the Chicago White Stockings) planned to attend an evening show at Wallack’s Theatre at 13th and Broadway. DeWolf Hopper suddenly remembered he had tucked away a baseball poem which might prove appropriate for the occasion. Fishing it from his file, he set about memorizing it.
On Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1888, Hopper performed the poem for the first time. Surprisingly, the often-rowdy ballplayers sat in rapt attention. Immediately following those iconic final words, there was a profound silence. Then the players sprang to their feet, shouting and whistling and applauding.
Was it just because they loved baseball, the actor had wondered. Anxiously, at the next day’s matinee, Hopper tested the poem on a non-baseball audience. His delivery sailed across the plate like a perfect strike.
“I had no idea of it at the time,” Hopper would say, “but I was launching a career.” And over his long career, Hopper would estimate, he performed the poem over 10,000 times across the country, in all types of venues to all kinds of audiences.
In 1919, je recorded a version for the Victor Talking Machine Co. and the 12-inch record, and it peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard chart.
From the time the poem had barnacled onto him, DeWolf Hopper longed to know the identity of its writer. Who in the world was this “Phin” fellow? Numerous impostors had come forward claiming authorship, hoping to divest Mr. Hopper of some money for belated royalties. But no one could provide detailed information or a credible explanation for that mysterious byline.
Then one night, after a show in Worchester, Mass., a friend introduced Hopper to a man as “the true author of ‘Casey At the Bat.’” That man was Ernest Lawrence Thayer.
When the three men sat down in private, Mr. Thayer explained that he was a columnist for The Examiner, beginning in 1886. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst had personally hired him to write a humor column. Hearst urged Thayer to keep the same nom de plume of their days together working on the Harvard Lampoon, when Thayer was writer-editor. That penname was “Phin,” a name little Ernie had gotten from a ruffian on a Lawrence, Mass., schoolyard fight along with his first “shiner.”
Thayer never asked Hopper for financial remuneration of any kind. He had, he explained, stepped forward simply because he tired of the charlatans claiming authorship. Not that he thought he had created a literary masterpiece. In fact, Thayer failed to understand the widespread appeal and popularity of the verse he had penned on deadline for his weekly column.
DeWolf Hopper, on the other hand, saw the poem’s appeal as being its surprise ending. The reader expects the sinewy Casey to blast the ball out of the park. Still, that would hardly explain why readers already familiar with the poem’s mournful ending find “Casey” repeatedly satisfying.
Perhaps the poem resonates with readers because they mourn the imperfection of the human condition — no one bats 1,000. Nobody hits a home run every time and heroes often have feet of clay.
Maybe the reader and listener empathize with the despair of the poor Mudville fans whose hopes and dreams are dashed to bits by a single swing of a bat. Perhaps the readers or listeners know in the various venues and vicissitudes of their own lives the haunting visceral ache and that slow, silent, heads-down walk toward home.
Thayer always insisted, despite some ballplayers’ claims to the contrary, that Casey was not based on any specific ballplayer, since he didn’t follow baseball that closely. As for why he chose the moniker “Casey,” he just liked the gritty sound of the name from the time he first heard it on the schoolyard playground in that skirmish with classmate Danny, Danny Casey.
“Casey At the Bat” is now 125 years old and still going. This birthday should not pass by unnoticed, unmentioned or unappreciated. And there should be what is called these days, “a shout out” to baseball’s poet laureate, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, and acclaimed actor, DeWolf Hopper.
“Happy birthday, Casey!”
Vance Garnett’s writings have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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